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From Gujarat to Battle Fields of Middle East: Adventures of a Young Indian WWI Soldier

In 1922, Nariman Karkaria's book on his war experiences, written in Gujarati, was published. It is the only known such first-person account by an Indian.

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Nariman Karkaria, a young Parsi from Navsari in Gujarat, volunteered as a Private with the 24th Middlesex Regiment on the commencement of the World War I. Incredibly, Karkaria saw action on three major fronts in the next three years. In 1916, he was in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. After convalescing from an injury, he was sent off to the Middle Eastern Front in 1917 where he saw action in the hills of Palestine. He was then transferred to the Balkan Front in 1918, where he served in Salonika.

After being discharged, he returned to India and wrote a book in Gujarati about his years of travel and adventure, which was published in 1922. It is the only known first-person account by an Indian serving in the World War I. 

This extract picks up the action from the Middle Eastern Front just before the conquest of Jerusalem in December 1917. 

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Joint Attack of the Queen’s and Middlesex Regiments on White Ridge

The sun had set and it was already dark. On that terrifying night, we suddenly received orders that the A Company and D Company had to get ready for fighting orders. 

‘The First World War Adventures Of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir,’ Nariman Karkaria, translated by Murali Ranganathan, HarperCollins, 2022.

A fighting order meant that we had to don our complete equipment, that is, our cummerbund with its two straps crossed over the shoulders. On the right-hand strap, a full bottle of water was attached. On our backs, we had to tie our haversacks that contained food rations for twenty-four hours. The chest pocket was full of cartridges. Besides, we had to carry two bandoliers that contained an additional one hundred and twenty cartridges each. We also had to pack in a few Mills bombs that might be handy during close combat. Our bayonet had to be hung from the left strap; hanging alongside it would be a wooden ‘trenches tool handle’ or a small shovel or spade as they can be extremely useful to have at hand during combat. If we had to camp somewhere which was not clean, this tool was very useful for uprooting shrubs and thorny plants from the area. During times of intense hand-to-hand combat, this tool also proved very handy to smash the enemy’s forehead, if the situation demanded it! 

As per the fighting order we had received, the soldiers had to be ready to march at three o’clock in the morning. We were also instructed to have our morning tea and food, as there was no telling when we would get to eat our next meal. The attack was to commence at five o’clock. As the place from where we were to launch our attack was far from our campsite, we had to march quite a distance to get there. 

The actual attack was to be led by the Queen’s Regiment, while we were the reserve force. We were to help them if required. We marched slowly towards the position held by the Queen’s, contemplating the possibilities that the day held for us. The Queen’s were preparing to move forward when we reached them. 

We were immediately ordered to load our guns and be in readiness. Just as the orders were being issued to unload the Lewis guns from the backs of the mules and get them battle-ready, our artillery started firing from the lines behind us. Each shell would explode so loudly that we felt our eardrums would be shattered. Soon enough, the enemy returned artillery fire. All of us froze where we stood. But this was only for a very short while, as we heard that orders had been issued to the Queen’s to advance and attack. This provoked a great volley of machine-gun fire from the enemy. 

The sky resounded with the sound of ‘Bang! Bang!’ and bullets began to whizz past us. In a short while, many injured soldiers from the Queen’s Regiment began to hobble back into our lines. The enemy had held on to its position and mounted a resolute defence and wreaked havoc among the soldiers of the Queen’s. As many more of them fell to enemy bullets, the Middlesex D Company was ordered to advance to their aid. They moved forward under the cover of heavy bombardment, but the enemy was very strong and held on to its position. 

General Allenby enters Jerusalem on December 11, 1917. Photo: By arrangement

Even though there was a tremendous loss of life in the enemy lines, we had also lost a lot of men. There was panic in our lines. Just then we saw our commanding officer walking towards us, twirling his baton, and all our fright vanished and a strange enthusiasm seemed to fill us. When a very senior officer joins the ranks in times of severe distress, it is hardly surprising their confidence receives a great boost. When he saw the straits we were in, he resolved to take the attack right up to the enemy lines. 

After a consultation between the colonels of the Middlesex and Queen’s regiments, the A Company of which I was a part was also ordered to advance. We clicked our bayonets into position and moved forward, only to walk into a very fierce battle on the stony hills. As news filtered through to the soldiers that the commanding officer was present on the front line, it was as if they were recharged to launch the assault with renewed vigour. 

In this final assault, we were fortunate to be able to dislodge the enemy from its position, but with a great loss of men. However, as we have already seen, the enemy was able to reorganize itself and launch a counter-attack. The enemy mounted eight attacks on us until evening. We were in danger every minute of the day. It seemed like the enemy would dislodge us from our hard-won positions as there were few soldiers from both the regiments who were still able to fight. We were desperately waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Finally, at eight in the night our reliefs arrived and took over our positions. 

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Bitter Experience in the Fighting Patrol 

It was not as if we could rest in peace after this terrifying battle. We finally limped into our camp at about eleven in the night. Another company was getting ready for an assault and were standing in fighting order. These men were going to reconnoitre enemy positions and movements, but this was no ordinary patrol. 

It was a fighting patrol; in case they were challenged by the enemy, they had to be in a position to fight back and were, therefore, fully equipped. This group of about twenty-five to thirty men under the command of an officer would venture out of our lines and spread out along the line of control and patrol the area. 

In like manner, the enemy also sent its fighting patrol, and on occasion, these two patrols would encounter each other. They might end up engaging each other and a gruesome hand-to-hand battle would take place. But if the enemy numbers were more than ours, we would have to hide behind some large stones and let them pass unchallenged. We could feel our hearts beating heavily as they passed us by. In some lines, the patrolling would have to be done all through the night. As one party returned, the next group would set off. When these patrols set out, our sentries had to be informed that a patrol from such and such company will set out at a particular hour and return at a designated hour. When a patrol returned, the sentries were immediately informed of their arrival. This was to avoid situations where our own men were fired at by sentries when they sensed any movement beyond our lines. 

Besides these fighting patrols, in some lines search patrols had to be sent. The soldiers in the search patrols were particularly brave and courageous. About two to four soldiers would form a search patrol. I remember one particular occasion when three of us stepped out under the command of an officer to obtain information on enemy positions. Their positions were on the hills, about a mile away from our line. Early in the morning, we could see them patrolling the hills. We had, however, received secret information that they did not actually hold any positions on those hills. The objective of our patrol was to confirm this news. 

Once the orders were issued, our friends subjected us to a lot of questions. Some of them were proud of us while others called us mad to have volunteered for such a task. At any rate, when we were getting ready to leave, everybody made it a point to be very solicitous as there was a high probability that we might not return the next morning. Before stepping out, a bottle of rum was served to us to help us remain alert. 

Soldiers taking a bath in the sea at Al Arish. Photo: By arrangement

At two o’clock in the dead of the night, we slowly started on our assignment. It was pitch dark that night and a light breeze swayed the shrubs on the hills; it felt like they were enemy soldiers ready to give us the final charge. None of us were afraid of death, but we would rather not be captured by the enemy. It was highly likely that the enemy was hiding behind any of the numerous boulders strewn around the place. How were we to know where they were? 

Each step had to be taken very carefully and silently as we could be surrounded by the enemy at any time during the patrol. As our fortunes were on the ascendancy, we were able to reach the peak where we had suspected the enemy was based. At that point, it started raining lightly. This was to our benefit as our steps would be muffled by the rain. It was also just possible that the sentries on duty at the enemy posts might have taken shelter from the rain and were not keeping guard. Even though we were soaked to the skin, we marched on ahead, hoping to capitalize on any advantage the rain might offer us. 

We now moved forward in a diamond formation – one soldier would lead the way, while the other three would be about ten yards behind him, one directly behind while the other two were a few steps away to the right and the left. In this way, we could monitor all four directions. If the leading soldier stopped in his tracks, the others would also stop where they were. Each step was taken very calculatedly only after we had monitored all four directions. Every so often, our fingers would play on the trigger. 

Ah! Now what? The first soldier was lying flat on his stomach; we froze where we stood and then lay down on the ground, which was covered with rainwater, and advanced forward to reach our companion. As we joined him, it felt as if our blood had frozen in our veins; we could hear voices just a little ahead of us! 

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Hmm! If we had taken a few more steps, we would have walked straight into the enemy’s line of fire. Because of the rain, they had taken shelter under a tree. If they had had any inkling of our presence, I certainly would not have been around to write this book. Since we were caught in a very delicate situation, we withdrew as quietly as we could and slid down the hillside. 

We were so shaken by this experience that we could hardly find our footing on the way back. Slipping over stones and rocks, we could not afford to make any noise as we scrambled back. On the one hand, we were worried about tripping and having a bad fall, and on the other, we were worried about the volley of bullets that could hit our backs at any moment. If, God forbid, one of us should break a leg, what was to be done? Who would have been able to carry him back? Only after we got down the hillside and crossed the dark valley did we get our voices back and realized we were soaking wet from the rain and bleeding from injuries sustained during our scramble. Until then, we had lost all sense of what was happening to us. 

Translated by Murali Ranganathan.

Published with the permission of Murali Ranganathan.