July 2 2016
Sharing family histories about the British Indian Army war effort so they are not lost in the popular imagination…
AS THE United Kingdom marks the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, a community history group has urged people to contact them and share family histories of Asian soldiers who fought in the First World War.
The UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) has just launched a revamped website, “Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One”. (See link below).
While it already carries some testimonies, Harbakhsh Grewal, vice-chair UKPHA, told www.asianculturevulture.com: “This the culmination of one part of a three-year project and is really just the beginning.
“We are looking to create a unique people’s history and looking to get the community involved and build up our knowledge.”
He told us that the UKPHA was interested in hearing from people with stories about any family involved in the British Indian Army and not just Sikhs, though UKPHA’s main focus is the Sikh contribution to British life.
“Our focus just happens to be Sikhs,” he clarified. “When someone contacts us, we then check the official records (with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and see whether the individual can be traced.”
Where this has already been done, those browsing the site can view a Google map of Punjab and click on dots representing men who fought in the Great War and where they were born and where they died and on which memorial their names are indicated (see picture).
“You can zoom in and there are little pop ups and info about these men – and it shows the pattern of recruitment,” exaplained Grewal.
The Sikh involvement was considerable with the British Indian Army made up of almost 20 per cent of Sikhs alone at the outbreak of the war (despite being only 1 per cent of the population) and Indian troops represented one in six of those who were in active service between 1914-1918.
Nearly half of all recruits to the British Indian Army came from the state of (undivided) Punjab.
Some 8,000 records of Sikhs killed in action and collected through research from the CWGC have been entered into the database.
“When you call it a database, it sounds boring and cold, but these are real histories, and real families,” explained Grewal.
Initially, many Indian troops found themselves in Northern France at the beginning of the war, and it is now widely accepted that these troops halted the advance of the Germans and prevented what might have been an unavoidable capitulation.
By the time of The Battle of the Somme in 2016, many Indian troops had been sent to the Middle East.
“There were however some who were in the cavalry who were involved,” said Grewal.
Grewal urged families to come forward with stories of the relatives and said moves are being made to promote the initiative in India too.
“Whether it’s a picture or an artefact or a letter, we can help,” he pointed out.
While many of the original records in modern India had been destroyed, the UKPHA has been told that some remain in Lahore, now in modern day Pakistan.
“We are looking to get access to these,” he added.
Information will continue to be collected and added to the website.
“We want to build a community resource and allow people to use it and develop their own knowledge,” Grewal explained. “There are packs for primary and secondary school and for the lay person who just wants to know more.”
The group will produce a documentary and commemorative publication.
It has already organised one exhibition about the British Sikh war effort and hopes to introduce the wider public to other aspects of Sikh history and culture.
In 2014, the UKPHA hosted an exhibition, “Empire, Faith, War” at the Brunei Gallery at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and the website continues to promote their research and findings.
The group first hosted an exhibition on The Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines.
Funded in the main by a grant of almost half a million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the website, it is hoped (with more stories) will exist in perpetuity, while much of the group’s work will be available in published form and these projects will draw to a close in 2018.
An example of a testimony
A touching letter: Trumpeter and cavalryman, Sham Singh of the 32nd Lancers, was killed during the Battle of Istabulat in Mesopotamia on 22 April 1917. His widow, Inder Kaur, received a touching letter written in Urdu notifying her of Sham Singh’s death. Signed by Frances, Lady Chelmsford, wife of the then Viceroy of India, it offered condolences from Queen Mary, and quoted her as saying ‘all of her sorrow and sadness goes to her sisters in India’.
All war images courtesy of UKPHA