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The 24th Punjabis at Ismid, Turkey, 15 June 1920

Introduction

During the Great War the 24th Punjabis was first deployed to Egypt and fought in defence of the Suez Canal.  In April 1915 the battalion landed at Basra in Mesopotamia and campaigned up the River Tigris to Ctesiphon before withdrawing and becoming besieged in Kut with the 6th Poona Division.  General Charles Townsend surrendered Kut on 29 April 1916 and the entire battalion went into captivity in Turkey, where 159 of the sepoys died. 

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In September 1916 the 24th Punjabis was re-formed at the war-time depot at Hyderabad Sind in India.  In April 1917 the new battalion arrived in Mesopotamia.  After operations against Arab raiders the unit joined the 50th Brigade of the 15th Division and on 26 March 1918 fought the Turks on the Euphrates River at Khan Baghdadi.  Here the battalion lost Captain A. P. Algar killed in action, and had 39 men wounded.  

The 24th Punjabis was then selected to serve in another theatre and was shipped to Salonika, Greece, landing there on 24 October 1918.  The battalion did not see action in Greece as the Bulgarian enemy accepted an Armistice, as did the other Central Powers.  In January 1919 the 24th Punjabis joined the Allied Army of The Black Sea.

The Black Sea


The Army of The Black Sea was tasked with ensuring that Turkey complied with the terms of the Armistice.  Important terms were the Turkish evacuation of territories outside Anatolia such as the Caucasus region, and the demobilisation and disarming of the Turkish Forces.  

The 24th Punjabis was immediately deployed around Batum, an important port on the east coast of the Black Sea and a main access point to the Caucasus. Detachments occupied posts in villages and on the main routes to Kars and to Tiflis in Georgia.  The most distant post was about 80 miles (128 kilometres) away from Batum.  Due to an outbreak of mumps and the prevalence of malaria many sepoys were ill and the fit men in the battalion were almost constantly on duty.  In September 1919 the 24th Punjabis was re-deployed to Bostanjik in Anatolia, on the coast of the Sea of Marmora south of Constantinople.  There, on 19 December 1919, Brevet Colonel H.A.V. Cummings DSO returned to command the battalion after returning from leave granted after his release from captivity (he had been in command when the original 24th Punjabis surrendered at Kut).



Above: A 1910 watercolour depicting the 24th Punjabis


Anatolia

In Anatolia a Turkish National Movement was developing under the strong and effective leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the successful Turkish front-line commander at Gallipoli.  The Nationalists were extremely resentful of the Armistice of Mudros, signed on 30th October 1918, that had brought an end to the hostilities between Turkey and the Allies.  It not only heralded the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, but granted the Allies the right to occupy forts controlling the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, and any other Turkish territory in the event of an outbreak of disorder that threatened the integrity of the armistice.  Nationalist supporters armed themselves and prepared to fight a war of independence.  Attacks on Allied units began.  

The Punjabis arrived at Bostanjik to find that the most distant post occupied by British troops was at Ismid, 60 miles (96 kilometres) away.  Nationalist pressure had led to the withdrawal of two more distant British posts.  The battalion moved to Derinje on 19 May 1920 to relieve the 25th Punjabis.  Derinje housed administrative details for the 242nd Brigade that was based eight miles (13 kilometres) to the east at Ismid.  Brigadier General Montague Bates CG, CMG, DSO commanded the brigade. 

The 24th Punjabis was now employed on posts securing the rail link to Bostanjik.  However on 11 June “C” Company under Captain G.P. Troughton Dean was deployed two miles (three kilometers) north of Ismid to relieve a company of the 10th Jats that held a detached post known as Point 325.  


The fight at Ismid

On Point 325 “C” Company was accompanied by Lieutenant C.D. Mattox of the Royal Field Artillery who was an Intelligence Officer, a Greek interpreter and a Sub-Assistant Surgeon of the Indian Medical Service.  “C” Company contained a number of new soldiers recently arrived on drafts from India.  Initially Subedar Suba Ram was the only Indian Officer present but on 13 June Subadar Kehr Singh joined the Company with a convoy from Derinje.  

At this time the Turkish Nationalist Army was advancing towards Ismid to confront its rival, the Constantinople or Anti-Nationalist Army.  This latter force skirmished with the Nationalists near Point 325 and then lost heart and withdrew to Ismid from where the British speedily evacuated it to Constantinople, although the Punjabis observed that many anti-Nationalists deserted and stayed behind to join the Nationalists.  

On 14 June at 1300 hours the Nationalist force advanced on Point 325 in regular extended lines and a mounted officer, whilst proclaiming friendship towards the British, requested that his men be allowed to pass through the Point 325 defences.  He was advised that the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) would not permit this but that the Nationalist troops could pass at a distance of 600 yards (550 metres) from the perimeter.  This information was received with surprise and annoyance by the Turkish officer, but he consented to the arrangement.  

For a couple of hours the Turks moved in small parties on either side of Point 325 towards Ismid.  However by 1600 hours the British telephone line had been cut and a strong Turkish picquet established 200 yards (183 metres) from the British perimeter in a dominating position above the road to Ismid.  The Turkish troops became openly hostile and abusive towards the Sepoys.  Lieutenant Mattox went out to ascertain the Turkish intentions but he was threatened and temporarily detained.  Again a Turkish officer approached the post and demanded a British evacuation to avoid bloodshed, stating that his men were fanatical and could not be controlled.  He advised that a message be sent to the British GOC stating that the post would be attacked during the night if it was not evacuated.  When this advice was rejected the officer departed stating that no one would now be allowed to leave the post.

Above: The Officers of the 14th Punjabis in 1914

The British orders for Point 325 were that fire was not to be opened unless the Turks actually fired into or advanced upon the post.  Neither of those actions happened during the night and the Sepoys improved their trenches whilst Lance-Naik Devi Singh established satisfactory lamp communications with Ismid.  At 0400 heavy gunfire was heard from Ismid where the Nationalists were unsuccessfully fighting with the British garrison, and Nationalist casualty evacuation parties passed by the perimeter.  At dawn on 15 June two Turkish heavy guns were observed on a hill about half a mile (800 metres) from the post and the GOC was informed.  A British aeroplane dropped a message into the post at 1345 hours ordering that Point 325 was to be evacuated at 1700 hours that day, and that “C” Company was to retire on Ismid.  

Tents were struck and dumped in a hollow along with kits, stores, rations and bombs and kerosene oil was poured on.  At 1645 hours the perimeter was evacuated and the dump fired to prevent looting.  “C” Company moved off in three parties.  The advance guard was a Sikh platoon commanded by Havildar Harnam Singh.  Company Headquarters followed.  Then came the main body of two Dogra platoons and the transport, commanded by Subedar Suba Ram.  The remaining Sikh platoon under Subadar Kehr Singh initially stayed on Point 325 with its Lewis Guns ready to provide covering fire.

Right: Turkish Nationalist Militia 1919

As the advance guard arrived below the Turkish picquet the Turks ordered the Sikhs back to the post.  Havildar Harman Singh responded by doubling his men forward down the road to Ismid.  A Turkish whistle was now blown as a signal and the Nationalists opened fire at close range, supported by several machine guns deployed in various locations along the road.  The transport mules stampeded back to the post.  The enemy then swarmed down onto the road and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the main body.  Subadar Kehr Singh’s Lewis gunners could not give effective support because of the confusion between friend and foe.  Lieutenant Mattox and Company Havildar-Major Kesar Singh were both shot down at point-blank range, as was the Greek interpreter, the Sub-Assistant Surgeon and several Sepoys.  Further casualties were only avoided by Subedar Suba Ram deploying his men into a deep watercourse.  

Captain Dean ordered the withdrawal to continue.  Further up the road the advance guard had become scattered and of eight men who had taken up position on the road with a Lewis gun, four had been hit and the gun had jammed after firing two short bursts.  Annihilation of the British detachment was avoided by both the poor shooting of the Turks and the surrounding broken ground, which allowed “C” Company to disperse into cover and to move to Ismid in small parties.  Meanwhile another British unit that had been ordered to support “C” Company’s withdrawal arrived late and did not participate in the battle.

When the company concentrated again at Ismid the casualty figures were found to be:

·         Killed in Action: Lieutenant Maddox, Royal Engineers, the Greek interpreter, the Sub-Assistant Surgeon and 18 Sepoys.
·         Wounded in Action: 16 Sepoys.

The Turks had not spared any of the wounded that they over-ran.  The British casualty total represented 25% of the strength of the detachment at Point 325.  The Turkish casualty figures were not known.


Re-deployment to the coast and then to India


On 29 June 1920 the British evacuated Derinje and the 24th Punjabis moved to Beikos on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus.  Here on 5 June a battalion working party was sniped at, due to Italian armed police who defended the town allowing Nationalist troops to enter.  Jemadar Zafar Hussein, a direct commissioned officer recently arrived from India, and one Sepoy were killed whilst five other Sepoys were wounded.  Two days later another Sepoy was wounded.   

Turk Nationalists were murdering local Christian villagers at Arnaut Keui and the battalion operated with the Greek Archipelago Regiment in an attempt to surprise and capture Nationalists.  Then the Punjabis moved to Shileh on the Black Sea coast.  From there patrols reconnoitered villages in the interior.  At the end of September orders were received for the 24th Punjabis to return to India and the battalion disembarked at Karachi on 21 October 1920.  After being transported to the old Depot at Montgomery all Indian ranks were granted two months’ leave.    

Gallantry awards made for the Ismid action and Meritorious Service awards made for service with the Army of the Black Sea:

Military Cross

Captain Geoffrey Percival Troughton-Dean, 24th Punjabis, Indian Army
For gallantry and skilful leadership near Ismid, on the 15th June, 1920. It was entirely due to his boldness and coolness under heavy fire at short range that his company succeeded in reaching Ismid.

Indian Order of Merit – 2nd Class

1289 Naik Bhag Singh
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on 15th June 1920.  Although severely wounded, he continued to lead his section and direct his Lewis guns under heavy machine gun fire.  He set a splendid example to his men.

699 Lance Naik Kehr Singh
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on 15th June 1920.  Although severely wounded he continued to fire his Lewis gun under heavy machine gun fire from three directions.  He was afterwards carried back, but retained his Lewis gun which he brought into action in another position.


Indian Distinguished Service Medal

Subadar Suba Ram

Indian Meritorious Service Medal

792 Company Quartermaster-Havildar Udham
1034 Havildar Bostan Khan
345 Havildar Janta Singh

Commemorations

Lieutenant Charles Douglas Mattox, Royal Field Artillery, is interred in Haidar Pasha Cemetery, Turkey.

Jemadar Zafar Husain, Havildar-Major Kesar Singh and nineteen sepoys, all of the 24th Punjabis, are commemorated on the Tehran Memorial, Iran.

The identities of the Indian Army Sub-Assistant Surgeon and the Greek interpreter have yet to be established.


Sources:
o        War Records of the 24th Punjabis (4th Battalion 14th Punjab Regiment) 1914 – 1920.
o        Despatch from General Sir G.F. Milne, GCMG, KCB, DSO, Commanding in Chief the Army of The Black Sea; dated 11 August 1920; published in the London Gazette Supplement dated 7 January 1921.
o        Honours and Awards Indian Army 1914 – 1921 produced by J.B. Hayward & Son.
o        Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918 by Peter Duckers.
o        The Indian Distinguished Service Medal by Rana Chhina.
o        India’s Army by Major Donovan Jackson.

(An edited version of this article appeared in a recent issue of Durbar, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society.)      

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