Units in Disorder; Troops From India Join the Fight.

Special to The Great War Project

(24-25 October) On the Western Front the savage fight for the Ypres Salient is a battle for a small parcel of land no more than eight miles wide, jutting out to the east from the Belgian city of Ypres itself.

Indian troops, ethnic Baluchis, in defense of Ypres, Belgium, October 1914

Indian troops, ethnic Baluchis, in defense of Ypres, Belgium, October 1914

To the south of the city, the British throw Indian troops into the fight for the first time. On the night of October 25th a century ago, they drive off a German attack, according to an account from historian Martin Gilbert.

“The Official History of the Indian Corps in France,” Gilbert writes, “records how one of them, Sepoy Usman Khan, having been shot twice by rifle fire, refused to leave his position. Only when ‘a large piece of flesh was blown away from both legs by a shell splinter’ was he carried back.”

Gilbert reports that “for his ‘grand example’ he was rewarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.”

Indian troops in defense of Belgian towns, November 1914

Indian troops in defense of Belgian towns, November 1914

On these days the German artillery barrage at Ypres is relentless and continues unabated for more than two days and nights.

There are many reports of units in disorder.

One British officer writes to his family about his experiences on the night of October 24th. After the fighting dies down, “out of the darkness a great moan came. People with their arms and legs off trying to crawl away; others who could not move gasping out their last moments with the cold night wind biting into their broken bodies.”

War historian Anthony Farrar-Hockley describes the condition of British forces this way: “Men began to fall back; wounded men walking painfully to the rear; men recovering from the dreadful experience of being buried alive – the lucky ones traced and dug out by their comrades; men broken by exhaustion and the continual shock of seeing friends killed and wounded and…

…the rising conviction that they themselves were about to die”

On the Eastern Front, the circumstances are much the same.

On these days a century past, a reporter for a British newspaper, The Times, reports from the battlefield in Galicia, where Austrian and Russian troops are clashing fiercely.

“In every direction from each shell hole,” reports Stanley Washburn, “is strewn the fragments of blue cloth of the Austrian uniform, torn into shreds and ribbons by the force of the explosive; and…

...all about the field are still bits of arms, a leg in a boot, or some other ghastly token of soldiers,

…true to discipline, hanging on to a position that was alive with bursting shells and flying shrapnel.”

It all adds up to a complete overhaul of how wars are fought in the 20th century. “Throughout history,” recounts historian Max Hastings, “armies had been accustomed to fight battles that most often lasted a single day, occasionally two or three, but thereafter petered out. Now, however, the allies and Germans explored a terrible new universe of continuous engagement. They accustomed themselves to killing and being killed for weeks on end, with no more than a few hours’ interruption.”

As a result, after barely three months of war, some two-thousand soldiers are dying each day.