The 34th Royal Sikh Pioneers

 

The 34th Royal Sikh Pioneers (now 3rd Battalion the Sikh Light Infantry)

The Pioneer regiments of the Indian Army were specialised infantry rather than engineers.  Regarded as amongst the elite of the Indian Army, the Pioneers were trained first and foremost as infantry but they were additionally skilled in road and railway building and their abilities were prized in the theatre of the North West Frontier.  Indeed they were described as “a superior kind of infantry, as expert with the rifle as with pick and shovel” and rarely if ever did a Frontier expedition set out without a Pioneer regiment.

The first regiments which were to become the Sikh Pioneers were raised during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, when two new Pioneer regiments were formed.  The 15th (Pioneer) Regiment of Punjab Infantry, later to become the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, were raised at Lahore in 1857, together with the 24th (Pioneer) Regiment of Punjab Infantry at Madhopore.

The regiments were raised principally from the Mazhbi Sikh community of the Punjab, who had been recruited into Pioneer and Engineer units since 1850 and whose recruitment into the Indian Army had been encouraged by Robert Montgomery, Judicial Commissioner of the Punjab and Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Edwardes, Commissioner of Peshawar.

With the Indian Army reorganisation of 1861, the 15th Regiment became the 27th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, changing in 1864 to the 23rd.  In the same year the 24th Regiment became the 36th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, only to change a few months later to the 32nd.

It was not until 1887, in the wake of the Second Afghan War of 1878-80, that a further regiment of Sikh Pioneers was formed.  The 34th (Punjab) Regiment of Bengal Infantry (Pioneers) (the word “Native” was dropped from titles in 1885), raised as the Fatehgarh Levy in the Mutiny, had been disbanded in 1882.  So renowned had been the contribution of the 23rd and 32nd Regiments in the Second Afghan War that a call went out to raise another regiment from the same Sikh communities and in the Indian Army Circular of 28th March 1887 the raising of the new regiment was confirmed, to be made up principally of Mazhbi Sikhs, together with a small proportion of other Sikh communities including Ramdasias.  The regiment was raised at Lahore (Mian Mir) with Colonel A C W Crookshank as its first commandant.

The regiments were restyled the 23rd, 32nd and 34th Punjab Pioneers in 1901 and Sikh Pioneers in 1903.  In the intervening period since the Second Afghan War all three regiments had taken part in numerous operations, including Frontier operations against the Mahsuds and Wazirs, the Black Mountain campaigns (1888-91), Chitral (1895), the Tirah (1897-98), the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1900-01), the invasion of Tibet (1903-04) and the Abor campaign (1911-12).

1914 found the three Sikh Pioneer regiments in their respective cantonments in India.  Following the declaration of war by Britain on 4th August 1914, the orders for mobilization reached India on the 8th and the 3rd Lahore Division and 7th Meerut Division were immediately mobilized.  The 34th Sikh Pioneers found themselves serving as the designated Pioneer battalion of the 3rd Lahore Division, comprising initially the Ferozepore and Jullundur Brigades, with the Sirhind Brigade delayed in Egypt with the responsibility of guarding the Suez Canal.  Following the departure for France of the two Indian infantry divisions in August 1914, two cavalry divisions then left Bombay for Europe in October 1914.

The mobilization order found the 34th Sikh Pioneers at Ambala and nine days later on 17th August the regiment reached Bombay.  After the conversion of ships to accommodate the animals, the 34th embarked on the S.S. Nurani, arriving at Marseille after a break of six days at Alexandria on the 26th September alongside other units of the 3rd Lahore Division.  With an urgent need to prevent the advance of the German right wing to the English Channel, the Indian Corps with the Ferozepore and Jullundur Brigades of the 3rd Lahore Division in the lead, were rushed north to support the Allied lines of defence reaching their forward concentration area on 2nd October.  Arriving at Bailleul on the 22nd October expecting to be working on the construction of defences the 34th Sikh Pioneers were thrown into the line on the following day alongside the 59th Scinde Rifles.  With their British officers Captain Bailey and Lieut. Browne wounded, Subedars Sher Singh and Natha Singh took over temporary command until the arrival of Major Gib on the 26th.  Sher Singh was subsequently awarded the Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class) for his actions.

For the next four days the battalion found itself in the front line under continuous shelling and sniping.  By the end of October the 34th Sikh Pioneers had suffered a baptism of fire, losing 1 British officer killed, three British officers and two Indian officers wounded and fifteen other ranks killed and 189 wounded.

In mid-November 1914 the 34th found itself constructing gun emplacements and making general improvements to the Allied lines around Festubert and Neuve Chapelle.  On 22nd November the whole of the Lahore Division was moved back into the front line to replace the Meerut Division and the following day saw a German attack fall directly against the positions of the 34th Sikh Pioneers.  This was the beginning of the battle that came to be referred to as “Festubert 1914”.  During the battle the battalion’s machine gun (a Maxim) was eventually rescued by Havildar Nikka Singh, who was awarded an Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class).  As the Germans advanced into the Indian trenches the 34th were rallied by Captain MacKain, who was mortally wounded and carried out of the trench by Sepoy Ishar Singh.  An unsuccessful counter-attack was attempted by Captain Crookshank as the regiment’s aid post came under intense shell fire, with Sub-Assistant Harnam Singh and Pala Singh, the hospital Havildar, rescuing the wounded.  With their former trenches lost, the 34th then took part in the desperate attempts to recover the lost ground throughout the next night.  Despite heavy losses from all units, the trenches were retaken by the following morning.  The 34th suffered more than most, with their CO Lt Col Kelly killed along with Captain MacKain, three British officers wounded and another three missing.  Three Subedars, Natha Singh, Ram Singh and Subder Singh, were also killed with a further Subedar and two Jemadars wounded.  In all, the battalion lost 161 killed and missing and 105 wounded.

In December the battalion concentrated again in the Festubert area and on the 19th accompanied the Sirhind and Ferozepore Brigades in an attack.  On the 23rd it moved to join up with the Jullundur Brigade near Le Reveillon.  After a couple of quiet months, the Indian Corps was to take part, in March 1915, in the attack at Neuve Chapelle.  Of the Indian Corps, the Meerut Division was to take the lead with the Lahore Division in support.  After the customary artillery bombardment starting at 7.30am on 10th March, the Meerut Division moved forward and by noon was occupying the village of Neuve Chapelle.  The 34th had followed in the wake of the attacking units constructing roads through the captured German trenches under heavy fire.

A new attack was planned from the River Layes for the morning of 11th March at 7.00am, with the Meerut Division in the lead and the Jullundur Brigade in support.  With the British 8th Division struggling to make headway in their attacks, the Meerut Division was unable to move forward with any momentum.  Another attack was planned on the 12th by the Dehra Dun Brigade of the Meerut Division supported again by the Jullundur Brigade.  However further delays ensued and the Germans took advantage, making their own counter-attacks.  By the end of the 12th, both sides eventually called a halt having fought each other to a standstill.  The Allied casualties were almost 13,000, with 2,527 killed.  The casualties of the Indian Corps exceeded 4,000.  The 34th were eventually withdrawn to rest billets on 25th March.

Late April saw the Lahore Division moved to the Ypres salient.  Lt Col Herbert Cooke had taken command of the 34th on 2nd April.  The battle at Ypres had begun on the 22nd and the Lahore Division was rushed into the line to plug a gap left by the French Colonial Division, which had been devastated by gas attacks.  The 34th did not take a large role in the defence of Ypres but the Lahore Division as a whole suffered terribly with over 4,000 casualties.

May 1915 would be remembered for the second battle of Festubert.  The Allied aim was for the Indian Corps to capture the Auber Ridge in support of French attacks to the south around Lens.  After the inevitable delays, the start date was set for 9th May.  The first units forward were those of the Dehra Dun Brigade.  9th and 10th May saw numerous attacks making little headway and after some rest fresh attacks were planned for the 13th and 14th.   Bad weather led to further delays but the Meerut Division eventually moved forward supported by the Sirhind Brigade.  Attacks continued until the 21st but with little success.

During the battle the 34th Sikh Pioneers were busy in a supporting role, digging new communicating trenches as the old ones were rendered useless by heavy rains.

By the late summer, overall Iosses in the Indian Corps had been so heavy, with little chance of quick reinforcement, that a decision was taken to concentrate the remaining Indian units in the Meerut Division.  The Lahore Division effectively became a British Territorial division.

Sir James Willcocks relinquished command of the Indian Corps to be replaced by Sir Charles Anderson.  Some Indian battalions, including the 15th Sikhs, were withdrawn altogether due to heavy losses.  The next major Allied attack came in September at Loos, with the Indian Corps again advancing around Neuve Chapelle.  Four days of artillery bombardments commenced on 21st September.  The eventual attacks were hampered by gas blown back into the faces of the attacking troops.    Overall gains were limited to only a few thousand yards at best and losses, again, were heavy.  The 34th were again busy in a supporting role but usually under intense fire.

Finally in October the decision was taken to withdraw the infantry divisions of the Indian Corps from the Western Front.   On 4th November the Lahore and Meerut Divisions began the handover of their lines to the 11th Corps, re-mustering as an exclusively Indian formation and moving south to Marseille.  The divisions were reviewed by the Prince of Wales on 25th November with a party of 25 from the 34th present, made up of all ranks.  The 34th Sikh Pioneers eventually departed Marseille on 17th December 1915.

With the 6th Division of General Townshend besieged at Kut in Mesopotamia, the Lahore and Meerut Divisions were ordered to Basra.  The 34th Sikh Pioneers disembarked at Basra on 8th January 1916.  Some of the Pioneers were engaged in the reconstruction of the docks at Basra.  March 1916 saw the fiasco at Dujailah in an abortive attempt to break through to Kut and the 34th were tasked with the terrible job of removing the wounded, many of whom were from the Jullundur Brigade, whose strength had been reduced from 2,500 to just 1,127.  With the relief attempts having failed, General Townshend eventually was forced to surrender Kut on 27th April.  This fateful day found the 34th on the left bank of the Tigris, busy in building bunds and repairing roads.  The remainder of 1916 was spent in a period of consolidation, with the 34th building roads, redoubts and other defences.  1917 then saw a change of fortunes for the Allied forces with an advance to Baghdad, which, following the crossing of the Tigris behind Kut, fell in early April.  The summer of 1917 found the 34th at Samarra engaged in the building of defences.  Later they moved to Kut where they were tasked with the construction of a connecting railway.

The decision was made in 1917 to move the Meerut and Lahore Divisions to Palestine to reinforce General Allenby’s forces.  The Meerut Division was moved down the Tigris before Christmas, with the Lahore Division, including the 34th Sikh Pioneers, in March 1918.

1918 saw the raising in India of two additional wartime battalions of the 34th.  Henceforth the battalion with the Lahore Division became the 1/34th Sikh Pioneers.  The 2/34th were raised at Lahore and the 3/34th at Ambala. 

The 1/34th arrived at Suez in May 1918 and was railed to Surafend and Ludd, where the battalion worked initially with the 54th Division.  In August 1918 the 1/34th moved forward to Jerusalem where preparations were being made for the final advance.  With the war ending in November 1918 the 1/34th moved to Beirut with the 73rd Division.  Although at the time not serving as part of the 3rd Lahore Division, their former comrades in the Jullundur Brigade found themselves also in Palestine.  The 1/34th continued to serve in Syria and Palestine through to the end of 1919.

Back in India the Third Afghan War began with invasions across the frontier in early 1919.  With many units still overseas, the need was great for the war-raised units still on the subcontinent.  The 2/34th moved up to Jamrud then Landi Kotal in May 1919 and was employed principally in road building.  Following the end of the Third Afghan War the battalion was disbanded at Sialkot in 1921.

The 3/34th Sikh Pioneers were also mobilized and, after a period spent at Landi Kotal, they moved south to Waziristan where they joined the Derajat Column under Major General Skeen.  The column was concentrated at Jandola in December 1919 from where the leading brigade moved up to Palosina Kach on the 18th.  As the Mahsud tribesmen began to gather in force in the surrounding hills, attempts were made to establish piquets on Mandanna Hill, which were unsuccessful.  Subsequently the decision was made to establish a piquet on Black Hill a mile from the camp.  Black Hill was occupied without opposition on the 21st.  Work began on the construction of the piquet with a section of Sappers and two companies of the 3/34th Sikh Pioneers but sniping began around midday.  Support was provided by two battalions of infantry from the camp but without any cover other than the partly-built sangar, the young and inexperienced infantry fell back under attack from three sides.  The men of the 3/34th put down their tools and picked up their rifles, advancing to the crest of the hill only to find their way blocked by 1,000 Mahsud tribesmen.  Rallied by the commanding officer Major Catterson Smith the men of the 3/34th together with a handful of remaining infantry and sappers began a desperate defence of their position.  After four attacks at close quarters by the enemy and with their ammunition exhausted, Major Catterson Smith decided to make a withdrawal, ensuring that the dead and wounded were all brought back to the main camp.  This was achieved only for Major Catterson Smith to fall mortally wounded, dying of his wounds later at Rawalpindi.  Out of a working party of 274 men, 169 were casualties.

Mahsud casualties were over 550.  Major Catterson Smith was awarded a posthumous DSO among a number of other gallantry awards.  The post at Black Hill was renamed Pioneer Piquet in honour of the men of the 3/34th Sikh Pioneers and the Pioneer Piquet centrepiece, made from a stone brought down from Black Hill, remains a prized piece of regimental silver in the Officers Mess of the Sikh Light Infantry at Fatehgarh.  The 3/34th were ultimately disbanded at Ambala in 1921, whereafter the centrepiece was presented to their sister battalion, the 1/34th.

In the aftermath of the First World War the 34th Sikh Pioneers were granted the honour, among a number of Indian units similarly honoured, of becoming a “Royal” battalion after their distinguished service alongside the Jullundur Brigade in the 3rd Lahore Division.  Prior to the War no Indian Army regiment had held the title “Royal”.

In 1923 the Indian Army was reorganised.  The three Sikh Pioneer regiments were grouped together as the 3rd Sikh Pioneers, with the 34th becoming the 3rd Battalion of the new regiment.  In 1929 the new regiment was further reorganised becoming the Corps of Sikh Pioneers, with a reduction to two active battalions.  The unit stations of Lahore and Ambala were abandoned with the Corps centre concentrated at Sialkot.  After further service on the Frontier, the terrible news came in 1932 that the Pioneer regiments were to be disbanded.  The disbandment parade of the Sikh Pioneers took place at Sialkot on 8th December 1932.  Men retired or were dispersed to other regiments, many to the King George V’s Own Bengal Sappers and Miners and the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners.

Upon disbandment, the officers of the Sikh Pioneers presented a silver 34th Sikh Pioneer statuette to the officers of the Manchester Regiment, in honour of the service side by side in the 3rd Lahore Division of the men of the 34th Royal Sikh Pioneers and the 1st Battalion the Manchester Regiment.

However the Indian Army story of the Mazhbi and Ramdasia Sikhs was not quite over.  The Second World War saw the raising of a new Mazhbi and Ramdasia Sikh Regiment at Jullundur in 1941, later to be renamed the Sikh Light Infantry.  Some British and Indian officers from the Sikh Pioneers were among those who gladly joined the new regiment, whose 1st Battalion performed with distinction as part of the 17th Indian Division in the re-conquest of Burma.  The new regiment also took over the battle honours of the old Sikh Pioneers and continues to make a valued contribution as part of the Indian Army to this day.

 This article was prepared by Association Member Mr Iain Smith