At the start of the Great War in 1914, the two Garhwali units bearing the regimental title, 39 Garhwal Rifles, were part of the Garhwal Brigade under the Meerut Division. It was one of the first Indian formations, along with the Lahore division, which sailed to France to stem the impending German attack in the fall of 1914. Almost immediately they were in action in the First Battle of Ypres . Here, the Garhwal Brigade participated in the first trench raid of the war on November 9-10, 1914. On the night of November 23, 1914, four months after the start of World War I, Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles, twice wounded in the head and once in the arm, pushed to retake the trenches lost to the Germans at Festubert, France. He received the VC. His quote read:
For great bravery on the night of November 23-24, near Festubert, France, when the regiment was busy retaking and clearing the enemy from our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also in the arm, being one of the first to bypass each successive crossing, facing heavy fire from bombs and guns within range.
On December 5, 1914, Naik Darwan Singh was driven from the battlefield to receive the British Empire’s highest military honor for bravery, from King George V, becoming the first Indian soldier to receive the VC from the hands of the king emperor in the field itself. The particular significance of the Battle of Festubert was that it was a defensive operation in which the recapture of the lost trenches was seen as a factor contributing to the projection of the resilience and reputation of the Indian Expeditionary Force. Naik Darwan Sigh’s heroic action in which he was also injured was therefore a great display of the Indians’ fighting prowess, which helped cement their reputation.
The saga of bravery of the Garhwal brigades continued until 1915. In a second case of extreme bravery, the rifleman Gabar Singh of the 2nd Rifle Battalion of Garhwal fought on the night of March 10, 1915 a series of battles in the bayonet in the stretched trenches of Neuve. Chapel. He was posthumously awarded the VC. An excerpt from his quote read:
During an attack on the German position, Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi was part of a bayonet group with bombs that entered their main trench and was the first man to bypass each crossing, pushing the enemy back until that he was finally forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.
Laventie, the small town eight kilometers north of Neuve-Chapelle, is where the remains of the two brave hearts were recently found. However, not much can be said whether these were specifically men of the 1st Battalion or the 2nd Battalion. The Indian Army Headquarters for its part sent a team composed of a commander and a major subedar as well as two pipers from the Pipes and Drums Band, all from the GRRC.
The presence of Colonel Nitin Negi, currently serving officer of the Garhwal Rifles, added novelty to the solemn occasion of the burial ceremony at Laventie military cemetery. He is the son of Colonel Balbir Negi (retired) also of the Garhwal Rifles. Colonel Balbir Negi is the third son of Naik (later Subedar) Darwan Singh Negi, VC, the iconic hero of the Battle of Festubert. Colonel Nitin Negi surprised many in India when they saw his photo during the ceremony adorning his grandfather’s medals on the right of his chest. This is a long forgotten but permitted practice for beneficiaries of the ‘Passing it On’ tradition of people in uniform displaying their parenting campaign medals on the right while displaying theirs on the left of the chest (see Photo). The Purple Ribbon VC is one of the rarest medals displayed on a chest.