The recent furore involving actor Laurence Fox, the film 1917 and the role of Sikh soldiers during the First World War reminded me of a plaque in the Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street in London’s Mayfair.
It is dedicated to 29-year-old Captain James Mackain, of the 34th Sikh Pioneers, who was killed in action at Festubert on 23 November 1914.
Despite its name, the 34th were an infantry unit that also had engineering skills. They had been mobilised in August 1914 and had arrived in France the following month. No sooner had they been deployed to the Western Front than they were in action, fighting off a determined German assault on 22 October near Bailleul.
By the end of October the 34th Sikh Pioneers had lost one British officer and 15 other ranks killed and more than 190 wounded.
Battle of Festubert
On 22 November the unit was back in the front line when the Germans launched another fierce assault. Captain Mackain was integral to the defence, continuing to direct his men despite being wounded he was then shot in the head and his body was carried back to the first aid post by Sepoy Ishar Singh amid a general retreat.
The trenches were retaken during the course of that night, but the 34th had been badly mauled, with the battalion losing 161 killed and missing (including the commanding officer) and 105 wounded.
Captain James Mackain was the son of the Reverend William James Mackain, who was the vicar of Little Waldingfield and Posingford in Suffolk. He had studied at Clifton College and had joined the Indian Army in 1904, serving for a time with the Gordon Highlanders at Sialkot and Peshawar before he was posted to the 34th Sikh Pioneers in 1905.
He was promoted Lieutenant on 9 April 1906 and Captain on 9 January 1913.
“A fine Christian soldier”
Writing to Captain Mackain’s parents, a fellow officer of his battalion described the events of their son’s final hours: “He was commanding his company (No. 4) at the time, and was shot through the head in a very gallant attempt to stem an attack in great force by the enemy through breaches blown in our trenches. The enemy were armed with hand-grenades, which they threw into the trenches.
“Your son, while shooting down the grenadiers with his revolver over the top of the trench, was unhappily himself shot dead through the head. His loss to us personally, and to us as a regiment, I cannot yet realise. He was such a fine stamp of Christian soldier, and we looked on him as one likely to go a very long way.”
There is another commemorative plaque to Captain Mackain in Lahore Cathedral.