A remarkable monument to one of the most famous formations of the old Indian Army stands almost forgotten just a few hundred yards from the cacophony of the King’s Road in Chelsea. St. Luke’s Church is home to the memorial chapel of the Punjab Frontier Force (PFF), a repository of the memories and traditions of a force that carved out an epic reputation on the North West Frontier.
The chapel was serene and resplendent on a recent morning. It is located on one side of St. Luke’s, an enormous and soaring structure that is sometimes referred to as ‘Chelsea’s Cathedral.’ Each of the regiments that made up the PFF, or Piffers, is commemorated in the chapel. Regimental badges are carved on a glass screen, the wooden walls and on the chapel chairs. A good range of other items illustrate the story of the force, among them a plaque outlining its history and the origins of the chapel. Several flags hang in the chapel, including the colours of the 2nd Punjab Infantry, a forebear of the PFF, and the union flag that flew over the PFF Brigade Headquarters in Kohat and was lowered for the last time on the 15 August 1947. There is also the garter banner of Lord Ismay. Other commemorative items include a two volume Book of Remembrance listing the names of former PFF officers as well as a number of monuments and plaques to individual officers. It is not hard to pause for a moment and imagine you are standing in a regimental chapel in another time and place.
The PFF traced its history back to the British annexation of the Punjab in 1846 after the Second Sikh War. A military force known as the Frontier Brigade was raised to help garrison the new territory and guard the North West Frontier. A mixed force of cavalry and infantry was formed between 1846 and 1847 as the Corps of Guides. Four regiments of Sikh local infantry were formed a few months later. Rapid expansion saw the addition of five Punjabi infantry regiments, six cavalry regiments and four mountain batteries by 1849. Yet another addition came in 1853 when the Scinde Camel Corps, which had been raised in 1843, was added to the Punjab force as the 6th Regiment of Punjab Infantry. The Frontier Brigade became the Punjab Irregular Force in 1851, and the 5th Goorkha Regiment (The Hazara Goorkha Battalion) was attached from 1861.
The Punjab Frontier Force, as it was known from 1865, ceased to exist as a distinct entity after the 1903 Kitchener reforms, although its former constituents continued to carry a common sense of identity and tradition, with their individual titles suffixed by the distinction ‘Frontier Force’. Under the 1922 restructuring of the Indian Army, the four former Sikh regiments of the PFF and the Guides Infantry were merged as the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, while the five Punjab Infantry regiments were united as the 13th Frontier Force Rifles. The Frontier Force regiments were mostly transferred to the Pakistani Army at partition in 1947, with the Sikh and Dogra companies moving to the Indian Army.
With the coming of independence, British veterans of the PFF were concerned about what might happen to the garrison churches associated with the formation and the many memorials and other mementoes they contained. A group of former officers, led by Colonel Charles Morris, arranged with the Pakistani government to have the memorials shipped to England. A pamphlet on the monuments says the Pakistani army and government were most helpful in this process. Finding a new home for the memorials inBritain turned out to be more difficult. Approaches to several London churches, including St. Mary Axe near to the site of the old East India Company offices, were not successful. St. Luke’s was approached and agreed to house a chapel and the monuments, putting aside a large and very suitable space within the church. A plan for the chapel was drawn up by Michael Tapper and the work carried out by a company headed by an ex-Piffer, Lieutenant-Colonel A.R.E. Pollard. The chapel was opened on 3rd June 1951 by Field Marshal Lord Slim, General Lord Ismay, the Bishop of London and others. It was dedicated to the PFF officers who were killed in action or died between 1846 and 1947. A wide range of tablets and other items transported from Pakistan were erected in the church, including memorials to its constituent formations, campaigns and individuals; the inscriptions recorded everything from the long list of the many PFF officers killed in the First World War to individuals who perished in prosaic hunting accidents. A memorial tablet to Brig. John Nicholson, that most formidable of Victorians, reads:
“In Affectionate Memory of Brigadier John NICHOLSON, C.B., once a deputy commissioner of this district who at the great siege of DELHI led the storm [and] fell mortally wounded in the hour of victory and died 23 September 1857 aged only 34. Gifted in mind and body, he was as brilliant in government as in arms. The snows of GHUZNEE attest his youthful fortitude, the songs of the PUNJAB his many deeds, the pace of this frontier his strong rule. The enemies of his country know how terrible he was in battle and we his friends love to recall how gentle, generous and true he was.”
As affecting was the monument to two brothers who both died in action:
“In loving memory of Quinton and Wigram, sons of the late George Wynyard BATTYE, Bengal Civil Service who fell fighting for their country. Quinton when 2nd in command of the Corps of Guides was mortally wounded before Delhi on the 9th June 1857 and died the following day in his 26th year. Wigram who was killed while leading the Guides Cavalry at Fattehabad in Afghanistan on 2nd April 1879 in his 37th year. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
St. Luke’s has one other surprise. In the vaults behind a locked door is a sanctum to the 3rd Gurkha Rifles. On its white walls stand a number of memorial tablets retrieved from the regiment’s former cantonment churches, most of them dedicated to officers killed in various campaigns. The entrance is framed by a wrought iron memorial gate. The small, vaulted room with its austere white-washed walls possesses a moving and reflective atmosphere.
The chapel was a frequent visiting spot for veterans of the PFF and their relatives and friends over the years, and there were regular memorial services and other events to guard the memory and tradition of the force. Time inevitably told, and by the 1990s the number of survivors had dwindled. It was decided by the PFF Association to disband, and the memorials and other relics were donated to theNational Army Museum in 1998. The 3rd Gurkha Rifles sanctum remains intact. Visitors who wish to see the PFF memorials, including those cited above, should apply to the NAM.
The church is proud of its association with the PFF and the chapel is maintained in superb condition. Histories of the chapel and the PFF feature in the church guidebook, which extols the formation, with its many constituent races, as a model of political and religious tolerance. Sadly very few people come specifically to visit the chapel these days. John Deal, an elderly verger who helps care for the chapel and knows the story of the PFF, said there are one or two people who visit from time to time, and a wreath is laid to the memory of the PFF on Armistice Sunday. ‘There are no Piffers left,’ he commented. Even fewer people come to see the 3rd GurkhaRifles memorial. A caretaker said that in the two years he has been working at the church there had only been one visitor to the Gurkhamemorial, which is kept locked and has to be opened by a church official.
St. Luke’s is a glorious building and the PFF and Gurkha memorials are fascinating for anyone with an interest in Indian military history. It is hard to think of anywhere else in London where such a touching and informative monument to the old Indian Army can be found. Many of us visit the National Army Museum when we’re in the capital, and St. Luke’s is on the way. It would be a fitting tribute if more members of the Society could visit. The church is open all day, and church officials could not be more helpful; they are clearly interested in having people visit the chapel. It may be best to call in advance if you want to see the Gurkha vault to make sure that somebody has the key.
This article is taken from the recent edition of The Durbar, the magazine of the Indian Military Historical Society (see details on our Linkage Section), written by Barry Renfrew and published here by kind permission of the Editor of The Durbar