Is Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ Inspired By This True Indian Story Of Bravery & Valour?

This article has been contributed by Lt Gen Aditya Singh (Retd) – a Fourth Generation Army Officer, who retired as Head of Southern Command in 2007.  Earlier, he was Commander in Chief Andaman and Nicobar  Command in the aftermath of the Tsunami. 

‘1917’ directed by Sam Mendes premiered in London on 4th December 2019 and has drawn in rave reviews ever since. Winning a host of awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Picture and best director nod for Mendes, the “cinematic groundbreaker” as it’s being described has scored ten Oscar nominations and should not go empty handed from the Academy Awards.

The plot is drawn from stories narrated to Sam Mendes by his Grandfather who had served as an infantry soldier in World War I.  The film portrays the journey of two soldiers, Lance Corporals Will Schlofield and Tom Blake, who are give the task to deliver an urgent order from General Erinmore to a Regiment which is cut off. As they leave the trenches to cross No Man’s Land to stop Col Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the 2nd Devons  from launching an attack which could cost the lives of 1600 men, amongst them Lance Corporal Blake’s own brother.

The film is currently showing in India and is a brilliant piece of direction and cinematography. Having seen it, I was reminded of a true ‘1917’ Indian story,  that of Lance Daffadar(L/Dfr) Govind Singh who was awarded the Victoria Cross for a not too dissimilar act. Coincidentally, that too was in 1917! Could this actual act have been adapted as the background for the film 1917?

Hence, there is a need to narrate what happened on 30th November and 1st December 1917.  It was during the Battle of Cambrai in France, an Indian Cavalry Regiment, the 2nd Lancers (Gardners Horse) were surrounded by an enemy brigade. Communications were cut off and the situation was grave. The Brigade Headquarters was about two miles from the village of Épehy where the 2nd Lancers was besieged.

L/Dfr Govind Singh during World War 1. Photo from the collection of 2nd Lancers

Volunteers were called  to carry forth a message, giving the position of 2nd Lancers to the Brigade Headquarters which was on the outskirts of Pozieres.  Out of the volunteers, L/Dfr Govind Singh and Sowar Jot Ram were selected and given duplicate messages and sent on two different routes.

As they galloped towards their destination, Sowar Jot Ram was killed as he tried to make his way through the valley. L/Dfr. Govind Singh was given the open, more difficult route which was under constant enemy fire. He had travelled about half a mile of the lower slopes when his horse was killed by a machine gun fire. For some time Singh lay  close to his horse and remained in doggo. Then judging he was no longer being watched, he got up and took flight little realising he would be in the line of fire as machine guns were directed at him  He  pretended as if he had been shot and fell down, waited to see if the coast was clear and ran again . By repeating this process and crawling along the ground, Govind reached the Brigade Headquarters.

A return message now had to be sent from the Brigade Headquarters to 2nd Lancers.  L/Dfr. Govind Singh volunteered for this too.  He was given another horse and started back taking the high ground south of the valley until he reached the German post.  Using the ground along a sunken road he had covered two-thirds the distance when his horse was shot.  He thus had to make the rest of his way on foot amidst a hail of machine gun fire.

An hour later, another message had to be sent from 2nd Lancers. Although exhausted and wounded, L/Dfr Govind Singh came forward once again. He was told that he had already done his share of duty.  This intrepid warrior however, in keeping with cavalry tradition insisted that it was a privilege and that he knew the ground better than anybody else. On the strength of this assertion, the Adjutant of 2nd Lancers allowed him to go.  For this ride he started from the lower end of the road, turned right and passed ‘Catelet Copse’ and into an artillery barrage in Village Épehy.  By this time the Germans had  started heavy shelling and soon his comrades saw a shell land right behind Govind’s horse, cutting it into half. L/Dfr Govind Singh disappeared in a cloud of smoke and was presumed dead.  Miraculously,  the shell had only killed the horse and had thrown Govind off. Covered in blood and dust he soon got up and ran on finally making his way out of  sight of the enemy to the Brigade Headquarters in Poizères. Thoroughly exhausted and badly wounded,  he arrived there at 11.55 AM on 1st December 1917.

He volunteered to make the journey a fourth time, but was not allowed to do so because that would have meant certain death. For his conspicuous bravery and unwavering devotion to duty in saving his Regiment and fellow men,  L/Dfr Govind Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross the highest gallantry award in the Commonwealth.  L/Dfr Govind Singh survived the war, rose to become a Junior Commissioned Officer and died in December 1942.

For deeds such as this and other actions,  2nd Lancers was conferred the title ‘Royal’ in 1921. One of the only two Indian Cavalry Regiments to be so honoured.  This Regiment after Independence, has produced two Chiefs of the Indian Army.

Govind Singh hailed from Village Damoi in Nagaur District of Rajasthan.  His Son Ganga Singh joined the same Regiment,  ie, 2nd  Lancers and rose to the rank of Brigadier.  Brig Ganga Singh’s Son,  Rajendra too joined 2nd Lancers and is a serving Colonel.  The family has gifted the Victoria Cross to the Regiment where it is a treasured possession.  The legend of Govind Singh thus lives on and inspires future generations.

Having seen 1917 and the increased advent of Bollywood into films like Uri and The Forgotten Army,  is it not time that the saga of L/Dfr Govind Singh finds suitable portrayal!

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