The little known Parsi Battalion in World War I

Received this as a Whatsapp Forward from a friend – source unknown.

Can any of our community members  throw some more light on this and share pics, if any?


Parsis, many hailing from Bombay, served as soldiers in Europe during World War I. A stone cenotaph at Hughes Road at Kharegat Parsi Colony commemorates the 46 known Parsi soldiers killed in action in that war in Europe.

During WW I, the Parsi Battalion was accorded distinct honor and privileges over any of the other regiments hailing from India. All Battalions from India had a sanctioned strength of 1,021 Officers and men, while only a few Indian regiments which had the status of Pioneer Battalions, had a sanctioned strength of 1,034 Officers and men.

Since The Parsi Battalion was the only fighting force in British India that was granted the same status as the British Army units, it had a sanctioned strength of 1,051 Officers & men. For all other Indian Battalions, the Commanding Officer was of the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (Lt.Col) but the Parsi Battalion, was headed by a Commanding Officer with the full rank of Colonel. Parsis comprised the entire range of Commanding Officer, other officer ranks and general infantry ranks, with no British officers holding commanding oversight over the Battalion.

The Parsi Battalion also had a reserve force of 551 Officers & men that did not go overseas, but were trained and stationed at strategic locations at Bombay for guard duty lest the War reach indian shores. 11 Privates acted as drivers for the horse-drawn transport. Battle experience also led to orders to ensure that battalions would always leave behind a number of men when going into action, to form a nucleus for rebuilding, in the event of heavy casualties being suffered. A total of 108 all ranks, consisting of a mix of instructors, trained signalers and other specialists, were to be left out. The number of men acting as stretcher-bearers was increased from 16 to 32, when battle action was at its peak.

The first two Indians ever to be awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) were Parsis in World War I (1914 – 1918). Capt. (later Maj. Gen.) Cursetjee and Capt. (later Col.) Bharucha, both of the medical services unit of the Battalion.

The reason why not much is written or remembered about The Parsi Battalion formed in India, like the history of the other regiments from India that also took part in WW I. is due to the fact that the Parsi Battalion was the only fighting force in British India, that was granted the same status as The British Army, and were always counted as a British Force rather than a british Indian army unit, and all the records therefore were kept in England.

Unfortunately too, about 60% of the Battalion’s soldiers’ Service Records were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombings in London in 1940 during the Second World War. The exact number of serving Parsi Battallion soldiers is not known because of the loss of these records.

The Parsi Battalion was fortunate enough to be equipped with high power weapons, machine guns, extra ammo, & rations & supplies including woolen blankets, woolen uniforms, which was far superior in both quality & quantity. The heavy fire power they carried made a difference on the battle field. The Parsi Battalion was the only fighting force from India that was given more motorized units, were served English Whisky, and they were also given additional pay as they were considered a British Force.

Battalion transport consisted of 13 riding and 43 draught and pack horses. They provided the power for drawing the six ammunition carts, two water carts, three General Service Wagons (for tools and machine guns) and the Medical Officer’s Cart. The signals men had 9 bicycles.

Most men in the Parsi Battalion carried a Lee-Enfield rifle. Staff-Sergeants were also armed with the sword-bayonet. Machine guns though were in short supply at the time, but the Parsi Battalion never felt the shortage and was well-equipped.

Other battalion equipment, over and above that carried by the men, included 120 shovels, 73 pickaxes, 20 felling axes, 8 hand axes, 46 billhooks, 20 reaping hooks, a hand saw, 32 folding saws and 8 crowbars. There was also a plethora of minor stores and spares.

The battalion also carried a certain fixed amount of ammunition, which was replenished with re-supply, if needed. The supply per rifle came to 550 rounds per man. The battalion transport carried 32 boxes of 1,000 rounds, and each man could carry up to 120 rounds at a time. The machine guns were each supplied with a total of 41,500 rounds of which 3,500 were carried with the gun, and 8,000 in Battalion reserve. Food, water and rations had to be used very sparingly, until the supply was replenished.

The Parsi Battalion was the first among British forces to get THE LITTLE WILLIE, which was a “Mobile Fortress”, an early version of a battle tank.

The first tank was named “Little Willie” and it had a top speed of 3 MPH. Tanks received their name because the British tried to conceal their identity by calling them water storage tanks, hence the name tank. They originally were called “landships.”

Among the many inventions was the metal helmet. It was introduced by the French in 1915. All sides soon wore a metal helmet, and once again The Parsi Battalion was the first to be given the metal helmet by The British.

The Western Front, which ran from the English Channel to Switzerland, had over 25,000 miles of trenches, of which many battle front forward trenches were occupied and held by the Parsi Battalion.

To join The Parsi Battalion one had to be 18 years old, but some Parsi boys lied about their true ages and some were known to be as young as 16 years old when they joined the force.

Wonder why our military history never mentioned this aspect.


Read some more of this in the enclosed document with pics

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

Download [4.56 MB]


  • Feroze Minoo Patel

    Very pleased that this part of our history has been documented. Should be compiled in a book that we can keep for our children to read.


    Hormasji sorabji writer was my grand father who’s name is written on the kharegat Colony’s pillar ( no 18 )

  • Adi N Bilimoria

    Parsis and Sports – a book (pub. 1934 ?) has an entry on this far as I remember. This monument was on the middle of the road and shifted a little just inside the colony gate, opp the RTI.

  • The Parsi Pioneer Battalion was probably a post-World War Territorial force, not one which was constituted before 1920. There were volunteer artillery and infantry units for local security in India which drew upon Europeans and Anglo-Indians.Perhaps some Parsis were admitted as well Nariman Karkaria’s writings seem to refer to Parsis serving in the Hongkong and Shanghai volunteer 1914.. But after the war ,by an act passed in 1920, these volunteer units were reconstituted as an Auxiliary Force , meant to assist in ‘home defence’ , Only European British Subjects were supposed to be admitted to the Auxiliary Force.
    In 1920 an act was also passed for an Indian Territorial Force for those who were British subjects but not Europeans. There were two Parsi Battalions in this Indian territorial force. An official publication, The Army in India and its Evolution, Calcutta, 1924. describes the Indian Territorial Force and states, “The system of training has been modified for certain special reasons in its application to the two Parsi Battalions of the Force’. ( p. 155) . I Perhaps the standard of food uniforms etc for Parsi volunteers of the Parsi Battalion resembled that for the European Auxiliary Force.
    This is the reason perhaps that there is no archival material on the war service of the Parsi Battalion..But if anyone has evidence to the contrary it would be very interesting to carry the conversation further
    Radhika Singha

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.