Ganga Singh

Ganga Singh

The Maharaja of Bikaner, by Sir William Orpen in 1919. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Ganga Singh was the prince of Bikaner, Rajasthan. He saw the war as an opportunity for loyal service – and for personal gain.

“The opportunity of a lifetime” – Ganga Singh called his camel charge against the enemy in the Egyptian desert the fulfillment of his highest ambition. Ganga Singh was the prince of Bikaner, Rajasthan. He was 34 when the war broke out, married with a family. He saw the war as an opportunity for loyal service – and for personal gain.

Status: Combatant
Regiment: Bikaner Camel Corps
Hometown: Jodhpur, Bikaner (now part of Rajasthan), India
Active: 1914 – 1919
Campaigns: Western Front, Sinai

On the outbreak of war, Ganga Singh wrote this cable to King George V: “I implore Your Imperial Majesty most earnestly to give me an opportunity for that personal military service which is the highest ambition of a Rathore Rajput Chief… I am ready to go anywhere in any capacity for the privilege of serving my Emperor… This is the opportunity of a lifetime.” Ganga Singh’s devotion to the ‘King-Emperor’, George V, was the product of a lengthy European-style education at the ‘Eton of India’, where he had played cricket, practised good table manners and consistently won first prize for his English. Moreover, the Maharaja’s ancestors had a record of leading their own troops into battle, which he was keen to continue. His request to join the war was granted and by October 1914, he was in France. However, he soon found himself bored with life on the Western Front. It was not at all what he had imagined – he was safely behind the front line and not permitted to lead the charges against the enemy which he had imagined. Unlike other South Asian soldiers, who had enlisted for the duration of the war, Ganga Singh was free to come and go. In early 1915, he made plans to return to India.

 

Things got more exciting for the Maharaja in early 1915, when he stopped in Egypt to join his own Bikaner camel corps, which he had offered to the British when war broke out. Patrolling the Sinai desert, the Maharaja and his soldiers on camels were tasked with defending the strategically vital canals which provided troops across the desert with most of their drinkable water.
In February 1915, under attack by the Turkish Army, Ganga Singh himself charged the enemy at the head of his camel-mounted cavalry – surely just ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’ he had hoped for.
The control of the Suez and Sweet Water Canals which the Maharaja had defended was crucial to the activities of British and Indian troops in the area. The Suez Canal was the only sea route for supplies and people between Asia and Europe – including the men who travelled from India and Nepal to serve in France, Gallipoli and North Africa – while the Sweet Water Canal was one of the few sources of drinking water, in an area where temperatures could reach nearly 70 degrees C. Men were advised to drink 4.5 litres of water a day but often had to make do with much less.

The Maharaja’s Camel Corps was the only camel-mounted regiment in action in the first 18 months of WW1.

But camels were needed for much more than just combat. Soft sand made it nearly impossible to use motorised transport, so the Camel Transport Corps was used to get water to the troops, who worked up to 125 miles away from drinkable water sources.
After 18 months at war in the area, work began on a water pipeline and a railway across the Sinai desert which would minimise the need for camel transport. South Asian labourers came from India, travelling through the Suez Canal, to be part of the construction effort.

Camels were crucial for controlling the deserts in Egypt and Sinai.
Bikaner was a princely state. Princely states were semi-independent regions in India, ruled by Indian maharajas (princes) and allied to varying degrees with British Imperial rule. There were over 500 by 1914 when the First World War began. Bikaner, was the sixth largest Indian princedom at the time.
Soldiering had plenty of boring moments, whether you were the prince of Bikaner or a sepoy. South Asian men found ways to fill the time.
Soldiering had plenty of boring moments, whether you were the prince of Bikaner or a sepoy. South Asian men found ways to fill the time.
Soldiering had plenty of boring moments, whether you were the prince of Bikaner or a sepoy. South Asian men found ways to fill the time.

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