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Empire, faith, war – remembering the Sikh and Indian sacrifice 1914-1918

Empire, faith, war – remembering the Sikh and Indian sacrifice 1914-1918

September 24 2014

As a major exhibition draws to a close, organisers stress it is the first step in a three-year project…

IT’S HARD to comprehend that so quite many men from the sub-continent left to fight – and died – for King and country in the First World War (1914-1918).

If you haven’t seen the exhibition, “Empire, Faith and War – The Sikhs and World War One” do and hurry…it will be gone on September 28 and you’ll regret it.

Hosted at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the exhibition digs deep into the lives of the nearly 1.5 million men – with almost 20 per cent of them, at the beginning of the war, Sikh – who fought on behalf of the British Indian Army.

This force was as large as the one assembled from all the other nations in the Empire at the time (including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and white South Africa).

By the end of the war, a total of 57,000 Indian Army soldiers had been reported dead or missing, 64,000 were wounded. It is estimated that around 8,000 Sikhs were killed in action. Perhaps even more startling is the number from the Punjab who participated when compared to the rest of India. One in fourteen men of fighting age from the Punjab served in the force – ten times higher than for the rest of India.

It’s an amazing slice of history and the exhibition covers a unique part of the First World War – which is being commemorated all this year in what is the 100th year anniversary.

Had these men not signed up and entered the Western front early on, it is quite possible that the Britain and her allies, would have been defeated by the Germans, but as it was the valour and commitment of British Indian army troops that helped to hold the line.

The exhibition covers almost every aspect of these men’s lives and gives a real insight into what the British Empire meant at the time.

Harbakhsh Grewal, one of the curators of the exhibition and from the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), told “It’s been really encouraging to see so many visitors from the Sikh community and others engaging with this history.

“The first two months alone saw over double the amount of visitors to the gallery from the same period last year and the feedback has been excellent too.”

As well pictures and artefacts from the First World War, there are recordings of actual soldiers speaking – captured prisoners of war (POWs) were annotated and recorded by the German authorities.

What is striking is not just the immense contribution of Sikhs to the First World War, but the combined effort of all those who left the shores of subcontinent for the theatres of war in Europe and elsewhere.

Injured soldiers during the First World War, courtesy of UKPHA Archive

Parmjit Singh, UKPHA project historian, puts the contribution in context for

“By definition at the beginning, it is an army of volunteers but it is much more complex than that, especially as the war goes on,” Singh explained. “There is a lot of coercion and arm twisting and many are escaping poverty.”

There are many Muslims, and Gurkhas from Nepal and the predominance of these groups and Sikhs illustrate the rather unsavoury racial theories of the time.

These thinkers believed that not only were the white race superior to others in terms of intelligence and general ability, but that race could also explain fighting acumen and courage.

Singh said: “They had a martial race theory – the British wanted to recruit from the north and North West Frontier – they believed Pathans (from modern-day Pakistan/Afghanistan) Sikhs and Gurkhas were better fighters.

He further elucidated: “They did not recruit as much from eastern India – it was a throwback to some 60 years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (1857, now known as the First War of Indian Independence) when the disorder started in Meerut, but they had to do away with all those theories because of the constant need for recruits.”

Many fought in the Middle East or Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), even though the popular image is that of the Empire troops fighting on the Western Front.

Singh explained: “It was hushed up. There was a catastrophic surrender near Baghdad, some 13,000 soldiers, British and Indian, were taken prisoner of war.

“About six times as many Indian troops fought in the Middle East than on the Western Front.”

Though the exhibition faithfully recreates how and why Sikhs joined the British Indian Army, it is only half the story.

Many also returned to Punjab and how the war affected them and their families has not yet been chronicled by scholars.

“It’s a complex picture,” confided Singh. “That work hasn’t been done. All the things we associate with war, they experienced – shrapnel injuries, shell shock, bronchitis, effects of gassing – we don’t know whether they talked about this or how it affected their families when they returned.”

“We know some women encouraged involvement – one widowed Sikh mother is documented as saying ‘take my boy’ to British recruiters – it was perhaps part of a military tradition where their husbands, fathers and brothers had been part of the colonial army before the advent of World War One.

“”In stark contrast we have folk songs that were documented at the time of Partition in which the wives of soldiers heading off to the front appeal to the British: ‘Where is it written that married men win wars? Take the bachelors to war!’ They clearly didn’t want to be separated from their husbands, who were at much greater risk of losing their lives in that new age of warfare.”

British propaganda, courtesy of UKPHA Archive

The exhibition also goes further back in history to paint the origins of the Sikhism and its golden age when Sikh rulers governed an area roughly like a square, spanning from the edge of Tibet in east, to the Khyber Pass (in modern Afghanistan) in the west, across Kashmir in the north and Sindh (modern day Pakistan, a little beyond Multan) and south of Delhi, in the south. It lasted some 50 years from 1799, before the British defeated the Sikhs in the Anglo-Sikhs War and took over much of that territory.

There is more to come – the exhibition is the start of a three year project and there is also the hope that material from India and Pakistan will help throw further light on the men who sacrificed so much for King and country.

Grewal told “The exhibition is the launch of a three-year project to collect and share the stories of Sikh combatants and those that they left behind.

“Already people have been coming to us with stories, photos and medals of family members who went to war.

“These recollections will become new history and we’d encourage everyone to join us as ‘citizen historians’ in uncovering the lives of Sikhs during the war. In doing so we’ll create new history and enable future generations to learn and remember about their sacrifice and struggles. With your help We Will Remember Them.”

Main picture: French woman pins flower to Sikh soldiers as they arrived in Marseille, courtesy of Toor Collection

*’Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One‘ until Sunday, September 28 (11.30am-5pm) Admission Free, Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London, Thornaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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