The 100-year friendship

Today keeping in touch with friends and family near and far couldn’t be easier, thanks to instant messenger, Skype and email. This was obviously not the case 100 years ago when maintaining a friendship would have been much harder, especially a long distance one. The story of the 100-year friendship between the Henderson and the Singh families is extremely inspiring and heart-warming as bonds forged in war can echo down the generations; but rarely are they as enduring as those between these two families.

The beginning of the friendship

Manta Singh, son of a landowner in Jalandhar, Punjab, joined the Indian Army from school in 1907. Promoted to Subedar, the equivalent of captain, he served in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs alongside a young English officer, Lt George Henderson. In August 1914 Singh said farewell to his wife and five-year-old son Assa and left for France, and his friend George went with him.

Manta Singh and George Henderson were World War One comrades. Credit: ITV News

The war at Neuve-Chapelle

On 10 March 1915, they joined the first major British offensive of the war at Neuve-Chapelle.

The night before they spoke briefly, Henderson telling Singh that they would come through together. A force of 20,000 Indians and 20,000 British captured the village but were beaten back after running out of ammunition. In three days’ fighting there were more than 11,000 casualties, including 4,200 Indians.

Causalities of the battle

One was Manta Singh, but when Henderson was also hit by a bullet, Singh found a wheelbarrow in no man’s land, hauled him into it and trundled him to safety. The pair then lay together until they were rescued.

Three days later Singh was in Kitchener General in Brighton, one of several hospitals for Indian troops in the south coast town. The wound in his left leg was gangrenous and doctors had to amputate. Singh protested: “What use would a cripple be to his family?” Sadly Henderson was recovering at a different hospital when he was told Manta had died. Singh’s body was cremated on the South Downs and his ashes scattered in the sea.

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Friendship across the generations

Assa and Robert fought together in the Second World War. Credit: ITV News

George Henderson never forgot Manta Singh. After the war, promoted to captain, he returned to India to make sure his friend’s son Assa was being cared for, encouraging him to join the 15th Sikhs like his father.

Assa, who rose to Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army, became friends with Henderson’s son Robert and they served together with the 8th Army, fighting Nazis in North Africa. After the war Robert helped Assa move to Britain.

Singh’s grandson Jaimal and Henderson’s grandson Ian at the Chattri Monument. Credit: ITV News

Inspiringly, now the third generation of their families are friends. Singh’s grandson Jaimal and Henderson’s grandson Ian visit Brighton each year to lay a wreath at the Chattri Monument (chattri means umbrella in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu). The domed marble memorial to Indian soldiers is 500ft up on Patcham Down, at the spot where Singh and 52 other Indians were cremated.

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