Sikh student takes part in a major project by the UK Punjabi Heritage Association to document the role of Sikh soldiers in World War One
Their long tradition as warriors meant that in 1914 India’s Sikhs went to war by the tens of thousands. They served – often with reckless courage – on all fronts of the conflict. But their contribution to Britain’s Great War effort is often overlooked, hence a major project by the UK Punjabi Heritage Association (UKPHA) to commemorate it. A University of Huddersfield history student is taking part.
Amerdeep Singh Panesar, brought up in Halifax and member of a Sikh family, is in the second year of his history and politics degree. But he has also taken the opportunity to join the nationwide team of researchers who are combing regimental historians, official dispatches, correspondence and war grave records for information on the Sikh soldiers of WWI.
Backed by a £450,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project is named Empire, Faith and War and is planned to last three years. Among the outcomes will be an exhibition, a documentary film, a book and an online database.
“What drew me to the project is that soldiers of World War One who were Sikhs, and from other backgrounds in India, do not get the recognition they deserve,” said Amerdeep.
Military service was embedded in Sikh culture, he explained. “In 1914, Sikhs accounted for less than two per cent of the population of India, but 22 per cent of the Indian army were Sikhs – a huge commitment from such a small group. Initially, there were 35,000 of them in the army, but by the end of war, some 100,000 Sikhs had volunteered.”
Shipped overseas and led by British officers, the Sikhs served on the Western Front, including the Somme, but also in theatres such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Turkey. Some were captured, meaning that German POW records are among the sources being used by the UKPHA project.
Mixed feelings in India
Back in the Punjab, says Amerdeep, there were mixed feelings about the Sikh soldiers serving abroad. “After all, they were not fighting for India, but for the British Empire”.
Their bravery was not in doubt, and Amerdeep has encountered the story of a British war hero, Lieutenant John Smyth, who had no difficulty securing Sikh volunteers for a virtual suicide mission, carrying bombs to a position just yards away from the enemy. All ten Sikhs who took part in the raid – described as “one of the most gallant episodes of the whole war” – were killed, and were posthumously awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. Smyth survived and got the VC, although he reckoned his men were not given the recognition they deserved.
For Amerdeep, who describes himself as a cultural rather than religious Sikh, taking part in Empire, Faith and War has meant regular trips to London, collaborating with fellow researchers, delving into records at locations such as the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives, as they gather the data that will feed into projects such as the exhibition.
“I really want to get the word out, so that people and schools know all about this story,” says Amerdeep.