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 assault in the fall of 1914. Almost immediately they were in action at the First Battle of Ypres . Here the Garhwal Brigade was involved in the first trench raid of the war on November 9-10, 1914. On the night of November 23, 1914, four months after the outbreak of World War I, Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles, wounded twice in the head and once in the arm, pushes to retake the trenches lost by 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 engaged in recapturing and disengaging the enemy from our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also at arm, being one of the first to round each successive crossing, facing heavy fire from bombs and guns at the nearest range.
On December 5, 1914, Naik Darwan Singh was driven from the battlefield to receive the British Empire’s highest military honor for gallantry, at the hands of King George V, becoming the first Indian soldier to be awarded the VC at the hands of of the emperor king in the field itself. The particular significance of the Battle of Festubert was that it was a defensive operation in which the recapture of lost trenches was given great importance as a contributing factor in projecting 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 Indian fighting prowess, which helped cement their reputation.
The bravery saga of the Garhwal Brigades continued until 1915. In a second instance of extreme bravery, Rifleman Gabar Singh of the 2nd Battalion, Garhwal Rifles, on the night of March 10, 1915 fought a series of battles with the bayonet in the stretched trenches at Neuve-Chapelle. 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 circle each crossing, repelling the enemy until he was finally forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.
Laventie, the small commune eight kilometers north of Neuve-Chapelle, is where the mortal remains of the two brave hearts were recently found. However, not much can be said if these were specifically men of the 1st Battalion or the 2nd Battalion. The Indian Army headquarters sent a team consisting 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 a serving officer of the Garhwal Rifles, added novelty to the solemn occasion of the burial ceremony at Laventia 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 photograph at the ceremony adorning his grandfather’s medals on the right of his chest. This is a long-forgotten but permitted practice for recipients of the ‘Passing it On’ tradition whereby uniforms display their parental 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 rare medals displayed on any chest.