Christopher Trevelyan © 2003-2014 |

The Indian Army on campaign 1900-1939

3/23 Sikh Infantry

By Christopher Trevelyan


         The 3/23rd Sikh Infantry was raised at Jullunder on 20th January 1918, and was composed of four companies of Mazbi and Ramdasia Sikhs. It was disbanded on 30th April, 1922. During its short existence, the regiment saw active service in Iraq, where it helped to quell the tribal uprising that erupted there in June 1920. 108 Havildar Bikran Singh was one of the senior NCO's who served with the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry in Iraq, and for his service, he was awarded the 1918 General Service Medal with the 'Iraq' clasp, which is pictured above.

         The 3/23rd Sikh Infantry arrived in Iraq on 18th August with 699 officers and men under the command of Lt.Col. P.G.Carey, and was thereafter sent to Nasiriyah in the Euphrates Valley. By the 30th September, the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry was organized as part of a mixed force under the command of Brigadier-General Coningham. Its objective was the relief of  the largest besieged garrison in Iraq; Samawah, which was located further up the Euphrates. The other assembled units at Nasiriyah were the 10th D.C.O. Lancers (Hodson's Horse) less 2 squadrons, 10th (Howitzer) Battery R.F.A., 13th Battery R.F.A., 69th Company of the 2nd (Q.V.O.) Sappers and Miners, two and a half sections of the 8th Battalion M.G.C., 1st Battalion K.O.Y.L.I., and the 3/5th, 3/8th, 1/11Gurkha Rifles. The force was also accompanied by an armoured train equipped with a 13 pdr. gun, a machine-gun, and a searchlight, two supply trains each with 30,000 gallons of water, and a 'blockhouse' train, which carried enough supplies to construct 10 blockhouses.

         On 1st October, the mixed force left Nasiriyah and marched to Ur. There it was joined by Major-General Atkinson, his staff, and then later on one and a half companies of the 114th Mahrattas. On 4th October, the force arrived at Darraji, where it heard from a friendly sheikh that the British crew of the HMS Greenfly, which had run aground close to Samawah on 10th August, had surrendered due to lack of food ,and then been murdered, while the surviving Indian crew were made hostage. Two days later, on 6th October, the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry and the 3/5th Gurkhas drove off a large number of Arab insurgents, killing forty-seven for the loss of two killed and seven wounded. Khidhr was reached the same day.

         For the next few days, punitive measures were taken against a number of hostile villages on both sides of the Euphrates. On 8th October, the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry was sent to inspect the remains of the Greenfly. When it arrived, they found the ship stripped of everything that could possibly be removed. In addition, its two guns were rendered useless, and the entire ship was riddled with bullet holes. Only one body was found, that of a European crewman who had suffered several wounds. There were no signs of what happened to the rest of the crew.

         By the 12th October, the relief column was less than five miles away from Samawah. As the Arab force investing the town showed no signs of retreating, it was decided to attack them the following day. The assault, which benefited from the support of four airplanes early in the morning, went well, and by early afternoon most of the rebels had fled. In the engagement, as many as eighty Arabs were killed, including twenty who drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates. On the 14th October, the relief column entered Samawah, and found the garrison to have weathered the two month siege quite well. Overall, with the exception of the Greenfly disaster, the relief of Samawah went better than expected. Casualties of the Samawah relief force, including the dead and missing crew of the Greenfly, amounted to only 11 killed, 32 wounded, and 29 missing.

          As there were no signs that the tribes in the lower Euphrates were willing to submit, it was deemed necessary to carry out further punitive measures. On 15th October, the 3/8th Gurkhas destroyed a number of villages south of Samawah, and in doing so found a 13 pdr. gun that had been captured from a British armoured train earlier in September. Two days later, a column under the command of Lt.Col. Huddlestone, CMG, DSO, which consisted of two squadrons of Hodson's Horse, two sections of field artillery, the 3/5th and 3/8th Gurkha Rifles and the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry, sent out for the day to destroy additional villages south of Samawah.

         In late October, operations were suspended for a few days to allow civilians to return to Samawah, which had by then become practically deserted. By November however, small punitive operations were again in full swing. Meanwhile, at Samawah, a large column was again assembled under the command of Brigadier-General Coningham. Its objective was to advance northward, secure the damaged Imam Abdullah bridge, and establish a perimeter ahead of it that would allow for its repair unhindered. The column was composed of the 37th Lancers (Baluch Horse) less two squadrons, the 17th Brigade R.F.A. less the 13th Battery, the 63rd and 69th Companies of the 2nd (Q.V.O.) Sapper and Miners, the 26th Railway Company Sapper and Miners, the 1st Battalion K.O.Y.L.I., the 3/5th and 1/11th Gurkha Rifles, the 3/153rd Punjabis and the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry. The advanced guard was made up of the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry, and supported by the 1/11 Gurkha Rifles less one company, all under the command of Lt.Col. Carey of the 3/23rd.

          At 0550 on 11th November, the advanced guard set out. Its left was protected by the Shatt-al-Suwair river, while its right was exposed. The Arab insurgents were caught off guard by this advance, and by 0930, the main body of the column had reached the Imam Abdullah bridge. At 1100, an Arab counter-attack came from the north-west, but retreated when a company of the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry under the command of Major R.N.B. Campbell, charged them, after running short of ammunition. Later in the evening, another Arab counter-attack, this time from the north-east, was soundly defeated by the 1/11 Gurkha Rifles.

          Punitive operations continued around Samawah until the 18th November, when as a sign of submission, seventeen Indian crewmen of the HMS Greenfly were returned by the tribes in the area. By the 6th December, all of the tribes had come to terms, and most of the looted items from the Greenfly and several thousand railroad sleepers had been returned. The uprising in the lower Euphrates was over.


Photo of the H.M.S.Greenfly courtesy of David Litchfield.