“We’ll come through this together.” Three generations. Two wars. One incredible friendship.
It’s October 1914. Gunfire rattles as two men from opposite sides of the world stumble through a hellish landscape. It’s riddled with barbed wire and their fallen comrades. This is No Man’s Land. One of the men screams and falls to the ground. In that moment, all hope seems lost. An unexpected object looms out of the yellow smog… and a 100-year friendship is born.
Bonds forged in battle can be stronger than blood.
They are bonds of unspoken, unmoveable loyalty. Bonds that can last a lifetime – or three as in the case of Manta Singh and George Henderson. It began more than 100 years ago in August 1914 when Captain Manta Singh of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs and Lt George Henderson joined forces to fight on the Western Front.
The terror of industrialised warfare was a huge shock for the soldiers.
One Punjabi soldier wrote home. “For God’s sake, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Canons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan.” Still the Indian soldiers, who made up a third of troops under British command, showed consummate bravery. They were feared, fiercely, by German soldiers, one of whom wrote: “The devil knows what the English put into these fellows… truly these enemies are not to be despised.”
On March 10th 1915, in Neuve Chapelle, France, the night before Manta and George were due to fight alongside one another in the first major British offensive of the War, the two men spoke. Their conversation was brief, but their words ran deep. They were words that would go on to save both of their lives in the coming days.
George said: “We’ll come through this together.”
He was right. The offensive started well. With butt ends, bayonets, swords, bombs and rifles, 20,000 Indians and 20,000 British fought their way into the village. Shot by shot, blast by blast, they gathered force until they took hold.
They had captured the village.
Then their ammunition ran dry.
One by one, George and Manta’s comrades started to fall as they were beaten back out of the village. Soon bodies were all around them –11,000 casualties in total. Sadly, George and Manta were to join their injured brothers. Manta saw George drop – hit by a bullet. He ran through a hail of fire to reach his injured friend. As the thick smog that surrounded them cleared, Manta saw the hope that he needed: a wheelbarrow. He quickly hauled George in and stumbled across the debris, over helmets and guns, wheeling George to safety.
Then a shot rang out.
Manta was hit by a bullet in his left leg, but his quick thinking had got both men out of harm’s way. The men lay together waiting to be rescued. Three days later Manta woke up in Kitchener General Hospital, Brighton, one of several hospitals for Indian Troops. He argued: “What use would a cripple be to his family?” His wound had turned gangrenous and the doctors had to amputate.
Soon after, Manta sadly passed away.
He was cremated on the South Downs, and his ashes scattered peacefully into the sea. Meanwhile, George had been repatriated to the Regimental Centre in Punjab where he would never forget Manta, his comrade, his friend, the man who saved his life. As soon as the War ended, George visited Manta’s sons to make sure they were being cared for. George encouraged Assa and More and watched them grow up over the years. Later, following in their father’s footsteps, they joined the Indian Army where they made a friend for life.
That friend was George’s son, Robert. The second generation of brotherhood was born.
Robert, Assa and More served side-by-side in the 8th Army, fighting Nazis in North Africa. Just like their fathers before them they served in the War together and, when it was over, Robert helped Assa move to Britain.
Robert and More then fought together in Italy during World War Two, where they were both blown out of the Jeep they were travelling in by a German shell. Robert’s hearing never recovered and More was badly injured.
Now the third generation of the two families are firm friends.
Every year Jaimal and Ian, Manta and George’s grandsons, visit the Chattri Memorial to commemorate their unique bond. This spectacular domed marble memorial is perched 500ft up on the South Downs where Manta and 52 other Indian Soldiers were cremated. They remember their grandfathers — whose friendship saved George’s life — in what has become known as one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. Jaimal and Ian celebrate their three generations of Anglo-Indian friendship and everything their families achieved for Britain.
It’s a bond like no other.
In 2014, the Henderson and Singh children and grandchildren attended the Chattri memorial, meaning that all five generations of both families were present. George and Manta would have been so proud.