The saga of Ganga Risala

The story of Ganga Risala also busts the myth that only the British Generals had foresight and a long term vision when it came to fighting wars and organizing armies

Avatar Written by January 2, 2019 18:36

Amidst the tall sand dunes of Rajasthan, Maharaja Ganga Singh’s legacy as a military strategist stands even taller as he displayed exemplary foresight and excellence in military affairs. The result was “Ganga Risala” (Risala is an Urdu word which means mounted cavalry) that played a stellar role in the two world wars. After independence it was merged with 13 Grenadiers Regiment in 1951 and was given the name Ganga-Jaisalmer Risala. Later on, it was made a unit of Border Security Force.

The story of Ganga Rissala also busts the myth that only the British Generals had foresight and a long term vision when it came to fighting wars and organizing armies.

According to ‘Ganga Risala’ the Bikaner Camel Corps (published by Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner), its origin dates back to 1885 when during the viceroy cum governorship of Lord Dufferin, it was a unit of the Imperial Service troops. It was also known as Bikaner Camel Corps. The recruitment for the same was done from the local provinces/states while the training and periodical inspections were looked after by the British Officers. In case of an emergency, their services were availed by the then government at the top most level. This unit used to fight alongside British-Indian army.

Ganga Risala was founded by Maharaj Ganga Singh(1887-1943) in the year 1889. The Maharaja presented a proposal to the British government to contribute a military unit comprising 500 personnel to the Imperial army. It was accepted by the British authorities. Consequently, ‘Bikaner Camel Corps’ which is also known as “Ganga Risala” was founded.

Ganga Risala participated extensively in many wars and war-time exercises. It fought in China’s Boxer Rebellion (1900), Africa’s Somaliland rebellion (1902-1904), the first World War (1914-1919) and the second World War (1939-1945).

Boxer rebellion was the first occasion when Maharaja Ganga Singh and his regiment provided active service after a temporary approval by Lord Curzon. Maharaja Ganga Singh was the first Indian king who fought under British flag in a foreign country. He was not only acknowledged for his preparedness and enthusiasm but also given the title of ‘Knight Commander of the Indian Empire’ on behalf of Queen Victoria. He was also felicitated with the China War Medal. During the Somaliland rebellion, he was not given permission to go there in person. But in January 1903 he sent 250 camels and 216 soldiers and in October 1903 he dispatched 50 soldiers and 150 camels to this African country. His troops fought alongside the British army.

For the outstanding contribution, British-Indian government gave Victoria Cross to General W.G Walker who went with Ganga Risala. Subedar Kishan Singh was awarded the ‘Indian Order of Merit’ .

At the onset of the first World War Maharaja Ganga Singh showed willingness to fight along with his own unit for the Empire. The British authorities were too happy to accept this proposal as it provided them with much needed well-trained troops.

In August 1914, the British-Indian army left for Egypt . The sanctioned strength of Ganga Risala was 450 people (16 officers and 434 rank and file) 81 followers and 548 camels. Though at the time of departure the numbers were quite high—477 rank and file , 96 followers , 2 office chargers and 600 camels.

As the war progressed, additional cavalry was also sent as part of Ganga Risala.

In February 1915, three officers, 148 rank and file, 27 followers and 188 camels were sent. In August 1915, 20 additional personnel, in January 1916, around 200 camels and in March 1918 , around 140 personnel were sent.

Apart from these, on special request of the Indian government, three companies comprising seven officers, 242 rank and file, 43 followers and 272 camels were sent to Egypt in November, 1916.

Thus, the aggregate strength of Ganga Risala turned out to be 31 officers, 1036 rank and file, 166 followers and 1254 camels. It was much more than the sanctioned strength of 15 officers, 602 rank and file, 85 followers and 706 camels.

In addition to the above mentioned, another 350 personnel were kept in reserve to provide back up in case of any reverses in the battle. In October 1914, Ganga Risala played an important role in the war on the banks of Suez.

Initially it took care of both patrolling and surveillance. There was not a single post of defence on the Suez Canal in which a unit of Ganga Risala was not posted. Maharaja Ganga Singh lead Ganga Risala in the first World War, while Bikaner Camel Corps was posted at the ferry post of Somalia. It was Maharaja Ganga Singh’s exceptional chivalry in the first World War which put Turkish army on the back foot.

For its exemplary service in the first world war the Ganga Risala was given outstanding recognition by Lord Hardinge and Lord Chelmsford, Secretary of State for India , British commander in-chief and British Emperor. The latter said, “I desire to convey your highness my warm thanks for the whole hearted and effective support you and your state and your gallant troops have so ungrudgingly given .”

For its services during the First world war, many of Ganga Risala’s commanders and soldiers were given distinguished honours by the British. In August 1940 at the time of the second world war -Ganga Risala was given the charge of Karachi and Aden. It was the only contingent out of all princely states’ armies which was assigned active service abroad in the middle-east. Led by Lt. Col. Khem Singh, the unit was 588 strong. In December 1942 when it came back to India, it was drafted to Sindh, where it stayed till June 1944.

On January 30, 1945 the Camel Corps came back to India. The then Viceroy and Governor General of India Archibald Campbell Wavell commended ,

“Ganga Risala has done excellent work and has worthily maintained the high traditions of Bikaner.

On return of your Bikaner Ganga Risala to India from active service overseas ,I would like to convey to you, and to the commanding officer and all ranks of the unit ,my high appreciation of the services they have rendered to our king emperor and the Allied cause.

In the tasks, they have been called upon to perform they have fully maintained the great reputation they so deservedly earned in the last great war and have shown again those high soldierly qualities of courage, loyalty, devotion to duty and steadfastness in conditions of hardship which were to be expected from a unit with such high traditions.”

Maharaja Ganga Singh was the first among the Indian kings to be conferred the rank of ‘General’ by British Emperor. In the year 1951 Ganga Risala was merged into Jaisalmer’s camel Cavalry and was given the name Ganga Jaisalmer Risala. In 1965 war with Pakistan this regiment played a significant role at Bikaner and Jaisalmer border. In 1975 all Camel units were dissolved. But to this day, Ganga Risala is still a unit of Border security force as ‘Bikaner Camel Corp’.

(The writer is a PhD in Sociology and an amateur historian)

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