The United Kingdom and the British Empire declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Orders to mobilize were given in India on 8th August to the 3rd Lahore and 7th Meerut Divisions, key elements of the Northern Army in India.
A brief explanation of the structure of the Army in India in 1914. The Army in India was made up of two constituent parts: the Indian Army and the British Army garrison. At any one time almost half the British Army was stationed in India.
Prior to 1914, the Army in India was divided into two: the Northern Army and the Southern Army. The former made up of the 1st Peshawar Division, the 2nd Rawalpindi Division, the 3rd Lahore Division, the 7th Meerut Division and the 8th Lucknow Division, along with a number of separate brigades such as the Kohat and Bannu Brigades. The Southern Army comprised the 4th Quetta Division, the 5th Mhow Division, the 6th Poona Division, the 9th Secunderabad Division and the Burma Division along with the Aden Brigade.
The infantry brigades in each division would generally comprise one British battalion and two or three Indian battalions.
From 1886 infantry regiments had been linked together in groups of two or three and were given permanent regimental centres where one of the regiments would always be based. The centre for the three Sikh Pioneer regiments (the 23rd, 32nd and 34th) was Ambala.
In the period before 1914 it was customary for the divisional pioneer regiment of the 3rd Lahore Division to be one of the three Sikh Pioneer regiments.
Having formed part of the Delhi garrison at the Durbar of December 1911, the 34th Sikh Pioneers replaced their sister regiment, the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, as divisional pioneer regiment to the 3rd Lahore Division in 1913.
The 3rd Lahore Division was made up of three infantry brigades and the Ambala Cavalry Brigade. The three infantry brigades were the Jullundur, the Ferozepore and the Sirhind (the latter headquartered at Ambala).
The 34th Sikh Pioneers entrained at Ambala on 14th August 1914, bound for Bombay, which was reached on the 17th. The transport SS Nurani was converted to carry the regiment’s animals and a further five days were spent loading coal. The ship departed on 24th August and arrived at Suez on 9th September. The men disembarked on 10th September and spent a week at Camp Heliopolis near Cairo. They then entrained for Alexandria, where they embarked again on the SS Nurani, which departed the following day, the 19th September. They arrived off Marseille on 26th September, one of the first Indian Army ships to do so.
The 34th marched to Camp Borely where they stayed, with other elements of the Indian Corps, until 29th September, when they entrained for Orleans and Camp Cercottes. They spent the next three weeks at Cercottes before entraining for Flanders on 17th October. On 21st October the 34th marched to Lynde with other elements of the Lahore Division and then on to Bailleul on the 22nd. 23rd October saw the Regiment march north towards Estaires where they were alongside the 8th Jullundur Brigade. Along the Rue de Bois near Neuve Chapelle they were in trenches with the 59th Scinde Rifles and 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. The three battalions came under sustained German attacks on the 24th and 25th October. Heavier German attacks then took place on the 26th and 27th. The 34th Sikh Pioneers in those four days lost 17 men killed and 61 wounded. Captain Vaughan Sawyer was killed on the 27th rallying a company of the 59th Rifles, the first British officer of the Regiment to be lost.
A further 119 men were wounded by enemy action in the period to 1st November, though no more were killed. By that time the Manchesters and 47th Sikhs were also in the line alongside the 34th plus units of the Royal Fusiliers. The Regiment’s trench line ran for almost 600 yards. After a spell working on the British trench positions the 34th went into billets on 5th November. They returned to the front line trenches near Festubert on 22nd November. The 34th were now positioned alongside units of the 7th Ferozepore Brigade (the 1st Connaught Rangers and the 9th Bhopals) plus the 6th Jat Light Infantry of the Dehra Dun Brigade of the 7th Meerut Division.
It was here, in front of Festubert, on 23rd November 1914, that the 34th Sikh Pioneers suffered their worst day of the entire war. German units sapped to within 5 yards of the Regiment’s positions under cover of darkness and at first light attacked with grenades. The 34th had no grenades of their own and despite valiant efforts; the Regiment was forced out of their trenches, falling back to the positions of the Connaughts and Bhopals. The 34th took part in the first unsuccessful counter-attack later that day to recover the position. By then they had already lost 8 of their remaining 11 British officers killed, wounded or missing. The remaining men reinforced the 39th Garhwal Rifles the following day as they made a second counter-attack, which succeeded in recovering the lost trenches. During this attack, Naik Darwan Sing Negi won the Victoria Cross, only the second won by an Indian soldier.
The 34th Sikh Pioneers suffered a total of 279 casualties in the battle of Festubert on 23rd and 24th November 1914. Of their 11 British officers, three were killed (including the CO Lt Col Kelly), one was taken prisoner and another four were wounded. Although the Regiment continued to serve with the 3rd Lahore Division alongside the 8th Jullundur Brigade on the Western Front, in Mesopotamia and Palestine, it never again took part in a direct infantry engagement of similar ferocity.
The 34th Sikh Pioneers eventually returned to their home station at Ambala in early 1920, from where they had set out in August 1914, having spent much of 1919 after the armistice in Syria and Lebanon. In total, during the Great War, the battalion suffered casualties of 198 killed and 696 wounded. After the war the men made from the copper driving bands of German shells a memorial screen to honour their losses and commemorate their newly won battle honours. Presented to King George V in 1933 on the disbandment of the Corps of Sikh Pioneers, the screen was returned to the successor regiment, the Sikh Light Infantry, by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975 thanks to the efforts of Lt Gen Reginald Savory (a former Colonel of the Sikh LI) and former British officers of the Sikh Pioneers and Sikh LI. It now holds pride of place in the Sikh LI regimental museum at Fatehgarh.
A final note relates to the Regiment’s title, the Royal Sikh Pioneers. Along with a number of Indian Army regiments, Indian Army Order 821 dated 26th July 1921 conferred the title “Royal” on the 34th Sikh Pioneers in recognition of the distinguished services and gallantry during the Great War. Other regiments so honoured included the 59th Scinde Rifles of the 8th Jullundur Brigade and the 6th Jat Light Infantry and 39th Garhwal Rifles who fought so valiantly alongside the 34th at Festubert in November 1914. In the same order, King George V nominated his uncle, Field Marshal HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn as Colonel-in-Chief of the 47th Sikhs, also of the 8th Jullundur Brigade.
The Sikh Pioneer and Sikh Light Infantry Association