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Bhartpur Imperial Service Infantry fight in the Umba Valley - 2 August 1915

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

The waterfront at Vanga, south of Mombasa and near the German border

The British-sponsored Indian Army supplied most of the sepoys (soldiers) who fought in East Africa during the First World War. But units also came from the independent Indian Princely States under an agreement named the Imperial Service Scheme. Each Princely State wishing to participate in the scheme had before the war nominated certain units that would be at the disposal of of the British Indian Government in times of war.

The Ruler of the State paid the salaries of the officers and sepoys that he provided but Britain armed, clothed, fed, trained and administered the unit once it had been mobilised, and of course employed it on the battlefield. Britain provided at least one Special Service Officer to accompany each unit to advise the Commanding Officer, who had been appointed by his Ruler.

One of the best of the Princely State units in East Africa was the Bharatpur Imperial Service Infantry. The majority of the sepoys were Jats but there were also Muslims and Gujars. Initially just half a battalion of the Bharatpurs came to East Africa.

On 2nd August 1915 a patrol of one British officer, one British Intelligence Agent, one Indian Officer (Subadar Balbir Singh) and 20 sepoys went out on patrol in the Umba Valley, near Vanga and the German border, to reconnoitre a bridge that was defended by German troops. That evening the patrol took up an ambush position near the enemy-held bridge and waited.

An enemy patrol of one officer and around 14 Askari came up the road towards the Bharatpurs, but at a range of about 120 yards the enemy spotted movement in the Bharatpur position and opened fire. The ambushers fired back and saw three of the enemy drop, including the officer.

The officer commanding the Bharatpur patrol then ordered his men to run back over a kilometre of open ground, as the patrol was very vulnerable to attack by German reinforcements. The patrol got back to its base without loss believing that it had hit at least six of the enemy.

The patrol commander reported:

Subadar (Captain) Balbir Singh and Havildar (Sergeant) Harmukh Sing both showed extreme calmness and efficiency in handling their men and the success of the operation was due to their invaluable assistance throughout.
The men of the patrol showed great keenness and spirit throughout and every one of them was to be entirely relied on. From the time they left camp to the time they returned they marched 70 miles in 40 hours, the last day, August 2nd, they marched 45 miles in 16 hours and were ended up in the very best of spirits.

Subadir Balbir Singh was awarded the Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class, and Havildar Harmukh Singh was awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.

This was a fine little operation by a fine unit.

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