‘More recognition needed’
A University of Huddersfield student is just one member of a research team who has been tasked with uncovering the true contribution made to Britain’s Great War efforts by India’s Sikhs.
Between 1914 and 1918, tens of thousands of Sikhs from the South Asian country went to war and served on all fronts of the conflict, often with reckless courage.
Yet much of their contribution is often overlooked and that is why a major project by the UK Punjabi Heritage Association has been launched, to commemorate their efforts.
Amerdeep Singh Panesar, brought up in Halifax and member of a Sikh family, is in the second year of his history and politics degree at the West Yorkshire university.
After learning about the programme he jumped at 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.
“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,” he explained.
“I really want to get the word out, so that people and schools know all about this story.”
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, with the findings being shown via an exhibition, a documentary film, a book and an online database.
Amerdeep added his belief that the Sikh soldiers deserved their rightful place in history with the WW1 Military service embedded in Sikh culture.
He added: “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.
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 explained how he 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.