Friday, 21 November 2014

1st Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, in India

This week we have a guest post by Steve Shannon on the 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry’s actions in India during the period of the First World War.

The 1st Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (1 DLI), left the UK in October 1899 for the war in South Africa; moved to India in 1902; and did not return to the UK until early 1920.

In August 1914, there were 52 Regular British Army battalions in India, including the 1 DLI (about 1000 strong) stationed at Nowshera on the North West Frontier of India (now Pakistan).

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, standing by a rifle rack at a camp, taken at Chakdara, India, 1916 (D/DLI 2/1/277(69))
D/DLI 2/1/277(69) Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, DLI, a rifle rack at a camp, Chakdara, India, 1916
These Regular battalions were recalled to the UK once the war began for service on the Western Front and were replaced with Territorial and Garrison battalions from the UK, until only 8 Regular battalions remained in India.  These were the 2nd  King’s (Liverpool Regiment), 2nd Somerset Light Infantry, 1st Yorkshire Regiment, 1st Duke of Wellington (West Riding Regiment), 1st Royal Sussex Regiment, 1st South Lancashire Regiment, 2nd North Staffordshire Regiment and the 1st Durham Light Infantry. These remaining regular battalions were based in garrisons in support of Indian Army units on the North West Frontier.

In August 1914, 1 DLI comprised trained professional soldiers under the command of experienced officers. The battalion did not, however, remain as a stable unit during the war, as there was a steady drain of officers to other DLI battalions fighting on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. Soldiers with specialist skills, eg signalling, were also sent to the campaigns in Mesopotamia and East Africa, whilst some senior NCOs received commissions and left the battalion.

From April 1915, 1 DLI saw active service on the North West Frontier in a series of operations against the Mohmands (Pashtuns living on both sides of the border with Afghanistan), suffering some casualties.

A soldier of the 1st Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, standing outside a tent at an army camp, captioned ‘Band Chief’, taken in India, 1916 (D/DLI 2/1/277(15))
D/DLI 2/1/277(15) Soldier of the 1st Battalion, DLI, standing in an army camp, India, captioned ‘Band Chief’, 1916
As 1 DLI had been on active service in India from 1915, all eligible soldiers were awarded the same three WW1 campaign medals awarded to those soldiers, who had fought on the Western Front  (1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal).

In 1919, against a background of growing civil disorder in India, 1 DLI’s soldiers gained a fourth campaign medal, when the battalion served in the Third Afghan War. This war began in May 1919, when an Afghan army crossed the border in to India. 1 DLI (reduced to only 20 officers and 432 men) was sent forward in motor vehicles from Peshawar as part of the 4th Rawalpindi Brigade, but before a planned advance of Jalalabad could begin the Emir of Afghanistan asked for an armistice. Peace was finally signed on 11 August 1919.

With the end of the Third Afghan War, many of 1 DLI’s soldiers were sent back to the UK to be demobilised. Finally in December 1919, the battalion, comprising just 4 officers and 87 soldiers, sailed from Bombay, arriving in Liverpool in February 1920.  It had been almost 21 years since the battalion had left Britain for the Boer War.

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