Commonwealth Stories

Manta Singh 

Manta Singh was born in 1870 near Jalandhar, Punjab, Northern India. As soon as he left school he joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army. At the start of the First World War, the regiment became part of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, sent to reinforce the BEF fighting in France. 

After long months of trench warfare, in March 1915, Manta Singh's regiment prepared to engage in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, of which half of the Commonwealth fighting force, 20,000 men, were Indian Army soldiers.

On 10th March four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, gathered on a sector of the front which was only three kilometres wide. The infantry attack was preceded by heavy but concentrated shelling from 342 guns, guided by reconnaissance planes of the Royal Flying Corps.

During an attempt by British soldiers to take Aubers River, Manta Singh witnessed an English comrade, Captain Henderson, suffering serious injury. Manta pushed him to safety in a wheelbarrow he found in No Man's Land but he himself was severely injured while carrying out this selfless rescue. 

Manta and his wounded comrades were shipped to England where hospitals had been set up to meet their needs. Here, sadly, his wounds became infected with gangrene. He was told his legs would have to be amputated to save his life, a thought which filled him with despair. He died from blood poisoning a few weeks later.

Colour Sergeant George Williams 

Colour Sergeant George Williams, 1/3rd Regiment Kings African Rifles, was a Sudanese soldier with an English name. He was awarded the KAR Distinguished Conduct Medal for reconnaissance work at Tsavo, East Africa in September 1914.

The next year in January 1915 at Jassin in the Umba Valley, Colour Sergeant Williams under a heavy enemy fire extricated the remainder of his platoon after one officer (Lieutenant GM Dean 1/3rd KAR) had been killed and the other seriously wounded. Colour Sergeant Williams also managed to personally carry away the platoon machine gun after the crew and supporting carriers had all been killed or wounded too.

For this deed, the Divisional Commander Major MJ General Tighe, recommended him the Victoria Cross (VC). If this award had been approved, George Williams would have been the first soldier in the KAR to be so honoured. He did not receive the VC, but he was eventually awarded a bar to his DCM before he was killed later in July 1918. The main reason that the VC was not confirmed would seem to be inter-departmental politics. The War Office was not going to have the Colonial Office handing out their highest military decoration.

Marcus Bailey 

Bailey served as a Merchant Seaman in the Royal Navy from 1903. He was born in Barbados and married his wife Lilian in 1913, when war broke the following year he went to serve at sea until the war ended.

Bailey served as a cook on board HMS Chester. The ship had a crew of 450 men, and was in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea. At one point, Bailey and his shipmates were surrounded by four German light cruisers. They were hit by seventeen 150mm shells and suffered heavy losses, with 29 killed and 49 wounded. During fighting, cooks were assigned to ammunition supply, damage control, or casualty clearance. All of these roles involved considerable danger but Bailey survived the battle unwounded.

Bailey and his wife Lilian had three children. Their sons James and Frank both became sailors and their daughter Lilian became a leading Aircraftwoman in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Bailey continued to serve in the merchant navy until 1927, when he did aged 43. His grandson Geoffrey, although they never met, also followed in his footsteps to serve on HMS Osprey.

Francis Pegahmagabow 

Francis Pegahmagabow was born on the Parry Island Reserve in Ontario and enlisted with the 23rd Regiment (Northern Pioneers) in August 1914. He became one of the original members of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion which landed in France in February 1915. 

Francis gained the nickname ‘Peggy’ and developed a reputation as an outstanding sniper and superior scout during the Second Battle of Ypres. He captured a large number of German prisoners at the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916 for which he was awarded the Military medal

At the Battle of Passchendaele, Francis was a runner whose job was to deliver messages from the front of the battle informing the command at the rear about the location of the Canadian soldiers so artillery bombardments were successfully aimed at the German forces and not at the friendly.  He was awarded a bar to his Military Medal in November 1917 for his bravery and excellent work during the Battle of Passchendaele. Francis was awarded a second bar for actions during the Battle of Amiens in august 1918. 

Francis was one of the few Canadian soldiers who enlisted in 1914 and fought to the end of the war, he was also one of Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal soldiers in the First World War.