For Harbans Singh, a frail 89-year-old, the First World War does not signify conflict, but friendship, a bond born of war, but one that lived long after the last troops returned home. It began on June 4, 1915, the first day of the Third Battle of Krithia, fought on the Gallipoli peninsula (present-day northern Turkey) between the Allied (British and French) forces and the Turkish/Ottoman military. The Turks had overpowered the British, and Reginald Arthur Savory, a British officer in the 14th Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army, was on the frontline in the trenches. Singh’s father Ude Singh was a sepoy in the regiment. “When Savory did not return from the war front for long, my father went in search of him, though his colleagues dissuaded him. He finally found Savory wounded in the head and carried the officer back to the safety of the unit. My father carried him to the doctor and took care of him,” says Singh, a retired Panjab University employee.
Gallipoli was a bloody battleground, with only 134 of the 574 men of the 14th Sikh Regiment and only two of the 15 British officers of the unit surviving. “My father’s was the only life-saving act in the campaign. And Savory was one of the two officers who survived it, thanks to my father’s help,” Singh says .
It is a story of heroism that Ude Singh, a wrestler before he joined the army, would often narrate to his family. And one that even Savory, who would later go on to become a lieutenant-general in the British Indian army, would narrate in a letter to his parents in England. Now a property of the National Army Museum, London, the letter reads: “During the first few minutes, I was knocked out, lying on the parapet with two Turks using my body as a rest over which to shoot at our second line coming forward. When I fully recovered consciousness, the Turks had gone. I looked around and saw my little bugler lying dead, brutally mutilated. I could see no one else, stumbled back as best I could, my head was bleeding and I was dazed and then, Udai (sic) Singh, a great burly Sikh with a fair beard who was one of our battalion wrestlers, came out of the reserve trenches, picked me up, slung me over his shoulder, and brought me to safety. All the time we were being shot at.”
Savory would honour Ude Singh later too. “My father retired in 1917 and the two lost touch. In 1934, when Savory was posted in Dehradun as a lieutenant colonel, my father went to meet him. Savory offered him his own chair,” Singh says.
Singh feels there was a “divine connection” between his father and Savory. “After Independence, Savory left the country on December 9, 1947, for England. The same day, my father passed away,” he says. In 1968, when Savory visited India, Singh wrote a letter to him asking if he could come to Delhi to meet him. “But he came to Chandigarh to meet us. The Punjab government wanted to host him but he stayed at our place. He would reply to all the letters I wrote to him till 1980, when he passed away,” Singh says.
A corner in Singh’s small flat in Chandigarh is dedicated to the story of his father and Savory: it has a photograph of his father along with Savory besides other war insignia such as letters and articles his father used in the Gallipoli campaign. Every morning and evening, he and his wife light a lamp next to it. “I wrote many letters to Indian and British authorities requesting them to recognise my father’s work of saving the life of an army officer. But the Indian government says it was an act done under British India, and the British government says it is too old an incident,” he says.
Singh will put off the centenary celebrations until June 4 next year. “That would mark 100 years of Ude Singh’s heroism. I will call a few good people and remember that there existed a good man who saved a precious life in WWI where everybody else killed. I only want to live till that day,” he says.