Tag Archives: memorials

Citizen historians – Sikhs in the First World War

Matt Shinn looks at a collaboration between a community group and academic that is uncovering an important but neglected aspect of First World War history.

 The First World War wasn’t just about white soldiers fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium. To begin with, every sixth British soldier serving during the war was from the Indian subcontinent. In total, nearly one and a half million volunteers from pre-partition India served in the British ranks: the British Indian Army was as large as the forces from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa combined.

 “every sixth British soldier serving during the war was from the Indian subcontinent”

Indian soldiers also served on many of the more distant fronts in the conflict, from North Africa to Mesopotamia – not just in Europe. But the role of Indian troops in the Great War has largely been overlooked.

Front cover of The Great War magazine showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with the British troops on the banks of the Tigris River marching with their scared scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in Mesopatamia, 1918.  Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works
Front cover of The Great War magazine showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with the British troops on the banks of the Tigris River marching with their scared scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in Mesopatamia, 1918.
Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works

The one percent

Among the community groups which are seeking to change this is the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), a charity which is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Sikhs and the Punjab, and which aims to commemorate the remarkable but forgotten contribution of Sikh soldiers in the First World War, as well as recording the experiences of the families that they left behind.

Although they accounted for less than one percent of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up nearly twenty percent of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities. With Sikh military traditions being integral to the faith, the British Army looked especially to the Punjab for recruitment. Yet few now are aware of the important role of Sikh soldiers in the Great War, especially in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, when they were instrumental in halting the German advance.

As the first part of a three-year project, an exhibition, Empire, Faith and War: the Sikhs and World War One, is being held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition tells the story of how a small community played a disproportionately important role in the Great War.

As UKPHA Chair Amandeep Madra says: ‘the non-white Empire’s efforts have largely been forgotten, and their heroism and sacrifices omitted from mainstream narratives, or left as somewhat forlorn footnotes of history. By telling the Sikh story we want to change that, and remind the world of this wider, undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire. This is British history, and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain.’

For the glory of the Raj: Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, March 1915. Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works
For the glory of the Raj: Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, March 1915.
Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works

But why was the role of Sikh troops, and Indian troops more generally, forgotten in the first place? As UKPHA team member Harbakhsh Grewal makes clear, it was recognised immediately after the war. There were war memorials (including the Indian Memorial at Neuve-Chappelle in France, and the Chattri Memorial in Brighton, on the site where many Indian soldiers were cremated), and much positive press and PR. But then ‘the Indian independence movement wiped away other memories. Some soldiers had gone to war with the expectation that proving themselves in war would help lead to greater independence. But very soon their actions were being omitted from Indian histories. And in many cases, veterans were not given the pensions they were due.’

In the case of the Sikhs, in particular, relations with the British changed very soon after the end of the war, with the Amritsar massacre of peaceful demonstrators in 1919 – an act which took place not just in Amritsar, the spiritual centre of the Sikh faith, but also during Baisakhi, the main Sikh festival. But even in India, according to Harbakhsh Grewal, enough time has now passed since the struggle for independence for the role of Indian soldiers in World War One to begin to be acknowledged.

As the Empire, Faith and War project continues, it will involve building up a database of soldiers’ and families’ stories, with members of the Sikh community being encouraged to become ‘citizen historians’, discovering more about their own ancestors who fought. ‘That is one reason why the exhibition is taking place at the beginning of the project,’ says Harbakhsh Grewal. ‘This is partly about engaging people with their own history.’

Stalwarts from the East - a French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France. Paris, 1916 (Toor Collection).
Stalwarts from the East – a French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France. Paris, 1916 (Toor Collection).

Founding myths

And as the project develops, UKPHA is exploring, with the World War One Engagement Centre at Nottingham University, ways in which academic expertise can help it become more effective. The Centre for Hidden Histories: Community, Commemoration and the First World War works with many different community groups, to find more inclusive ways of commemorating the First World War, and to broaden understanding of the war as a global conflict.

  “One visitor pointed to one of the soldiers in the background, and said ‘that’s my dad’”

Among the expertise that the Nottingham Centre is offering UKPHA is that of its computer scientists, who specialise in developing and using new technologies to capture oral histories. The researchers at the Centre have experience in developing guides, to ensure that the stories that are collected are of a high quality, so that the online database becomes a useful research resource for the future. Academics within Nottingham University’s School of Education are also able to help UKPHA make the educational material that is being produced, as part of the project, more engaging and useable for schools.

A Sikh soldier in a prisoner of war camp, c 1915. (Toor Collection)
A Sikh soldier in a prisoner of war camp, c 1915. (Toor Collection)

Mike Noble is Community Liaison Officer at the Centre for Hidden Histories. For him, ‘this is an opportunity to learn about how the war has been repurposed by different groups. In some countries, such as Canada and Australia, the First World War has become a founding myth of nationhood, a bit like Agincourt for the English. It has become a national epic: a story of adversity through which a sovereign nation was born. For other groups, though, the story of the Great War is a contested history: something that has been brushed under the carpet. Through the projects that we work on, we can help to get it out in the open.’

And already the UKPHA project has had some unexpected results, according to Harbakhsh Grewal. ‘One visitor to our exhibition looked at the photo that we use on the main exhibition poster – of Sikh soldiers marching through the streets of Paris in 1916, and being given flowers. He pointed to one of the soldiers in the background, and said “that’s my dad”.’

Staffed by a consortium of academics from the universities of Nottingham, Derby and Nottingham Trent, the Centre for Hidden Histories has a particular interest in the themes of migration and displacement, the experience of ‘others’ from countries and regions within Europe, Asia and the Commonwealth, the impact and subsequent legacies of the war on diverse communities within Britain, remembrance and commemoration, and identity and faith.

If you would like to read more about the range of projects funded by the AHRC on World War One, including projects exploring the contribution of Indian and other non-European countries to the war effort, please go to our commemorative publication ‘Beyond the Trenches’ (PDF 17MB), or write to communciations@ahrc.ac.uk to request a print copy.

The Silent Cities, 10s 6d

In this guest blog Professor Mark Connelly (University of Kent) discusses The Silent Cities, a 1929 publication by Sidney C. Hurst on the cemeteries and memorials of the Great War. This post was originally posted on the Gateways to the First World War blog.

When I first visited the battlefields in 1986 I found that my military history interest was very quickly matched, if not surpassed, by a new obsession with the memorials and cemeteries of the Western Front. The first Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I visited was Dud Corner at Loos, and despite seeing many photographs of those neat and tidy corners of a foreign field forever England, I was totally amazed by actually stepping into one. Just like everyone else I found the cliché was absolutely true: the peace, quiet and dignity of the place were truly remarkable. On returning home I quickly managed to find a copy of Philip Longworth’s official history of the Commission, The Unending Vigil, published to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1967.  I read it avidly and was particularly interested in the references to a book called The Silent Cities by Sidney C. Hurst published by Methuen on behalf of the Commission in 1927. Deeply curious as to its contents, I searched my local libraries with no luck and then put in an inter-library search request. In those days everything was done by filling in paper forms and acknowledgement came in the form of a prepaid postcard. After a good few weeks that postcard duly arrived and told me the book was ready for collection. Having no idea of the nature of the book other than the fact that it was obviously about the work of the IWGC, I had no insight as to what I was picking up.

Opening the book for the first time I was stunned. First, it was printed on beautiful, glossy art paper. Used to the yellowing and foxed pages of inter-war books I had purchased in my local second hand bookshop or read in the library, nothing had prepared me for opening a volume that seemed brand new. Then there was another huge shock. Rather than pages of text, which I had expected, there were photographs of cemeteries; not just a few photographs to break up and illustrate the text, but page after page of photographs. The book was a gazetteer of each and every cemetery and memorial. Under each cemetery was a short description with details about the graves they contained and map references to aid location. Suddenly I was teleported back to the world of the original visitors to the Western Front or those who longed to go, but with perhaps neither the means nor time who, instead, purchased the book as some kind of permanent souvenir of their lost loved one thus providing a fitting domestic reminder. The book was also a world of liminal spaces for many photographs showed the cemeteries incomplete or in transition. The original Graves Registration Unit crosses could be seen in some rows with others seemingly sprouting up their new crop of pristine white IWGC Portland Stone headstones. Close examination of the landscape around the cemeteries also revealed a world permanently caught in a moment of drastic transition. Look beyond the cemetery and it could have been a shot of the prairie with far, far horizons: the war had destroyed everything and so there was nothing to punctuate the background or immediate hinterland. Most of all, it was a world of saplings carefully planted by the IWGC in the cemeteries or some farmer to help define his field boundaries beyond. Mature trees seemed so rare that their total number could easily be accounted across the entire 407 pages of the book. It was impossible not to play the ‘then and now’ game as I thought about the cemeteries I had seen on my trip and compared my photographs to those contained in the book. Houses, roads, and above all, trees, had appeared in the intervening years.

The next great discovery was turning to the back of the book and seeing the index of cemeteries. Having been on the trip I had some inkling of the wondrous range of names used, starting with the severely utilitarian, through the humorous and ironic and on to the elegiac and iconic. But here was a whole new thesaurus of memory and commemoration. Cemetery names tumbled out and rapidly fused in my head a connection with Blunden’s poem, Trench Nomenclature, which I have never since escaped, particularly in that most wondrous of concoctions, ‘Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Zillebeke’. Pouring over the photographs and delighting (that may seem an odd word to use in this context, but I genuinely can’t think of another one which better describes my sensations) in the cemetery names, I saw veterans in tweed jackets, smoking pipes and doffing their caps as they visited the graves of old chums and cloche-hatted women with young children searching for solace in at least seeing daddy’s grave so nobly marked and beautifully maintained. As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my other pieces, that vision is one I have never since managed to shake off and has become an important component of my professional career.

Of course, the time came for me to return the book. I dreaded that moment, for I realised then that The Silent Cities was a book that I wanted to own. At that stage I knew absolutely nothing about the workings of the second hand book trade other than the fact that there was a good, rambling second hand bookshop in the London suburb in which I grew up. I did know that I had a rarity on my hands and I was highly unlikely to find a copy in my usual haunt. Aching with the misery that only a teenager can muster, and a teenager at the height of ‘The Smiths’ fame at that, I wondered what I could do. Looking at the library stamps in the book, I saw that no one had taken out since the late 1950s! From this fact I deduced that the library from which it originated might not be that interested in retaining it. Using what I thought to be politely cunning (or cunningly polite) skills I wrote to the library (I have a vague feeling that it was in East Sussex somewhere) and asked whether I might be allowed to buy the book from them, especially as it was clearly not the hottest volume on their shelves. Needless to say that offer was declined with equal decorum and politeness (and perhaps cunning, as well). Skip forward a few years and I was now on the mailing lists of a few second hand book dealers who sent me their quarterly catalogues. Then, one magical day, I saw the book listed in one of the catalogues. I phoned immediately terrified that it might have been snapped up by someone else, but no, I was fortunate and managed to purchase it for let us say a not inconsiderable sum for the early 1990s. Receiving the book felt like having a scoop of soil from every cemetery in Belgian and France; it felt like some holy relic was now in my possession. Something far more than a simple catalogue was now on my shelves.

You might therefore imagine the amazing frisson that overcame me, when, about a year later, I purchased a copy of a collection of R.H. Mottram’s essays titled Through the Menin Gate. Among the short stories, autobiographical sketches and snatches of journalism was a review of The Silent Cities. I made straight for the essay and felt an odd sensation as I realised that Mottram had expressed many of my own thoughts some sixty years earlier. ’The real end of the War came, so far as I am concerned,’ he wrote, ‘on the day that a volume entitled The Silent Cities, an illustrated guide to the War Cemeteries in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, was put into my hands for review. That was the end, there is no longer anything to be done.’ For me though, Silent Cities was not the end but the end of the beginning.

Gateways to the First World War is an AHRC funded centre for public engagement with the First World War centenary. It is managed by the University of Kent in partnership with the Universities of Brighton, Greenwich, Portsmouth, Leeds and Queen Mary, London, and supported by a range of other institutions. The aim of the Gateways team is to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support.

The Fight for the Rank and File: Birmingham’s Hall of Memory

In this guest post, Emma Login, a University of Birmingham PhD student who is part of the Voices of War and Peace research network, reveals the ideological wrangling behind one of Birmingham’s war memorials. This post first appeared on the Voices of War and Peace blog.

The Hall of Memory has been an integral part of the Birmingham landscape for nearly 90 years. Originally surrounded by extensive memorial gardens and accompanied by an impressive colonnade, the Hall has clearly undergone multiple revisions since its construction. Yet, these changes are small scale compared to those undertaken throughout the memorial’s planning stages, as citizens debated exactly who and what should be remembered.

Discussions regarding the most appropriate way to commemorate Birmingham’s contribution to the First World War began whilst it was still being fought. Based on commemorative responses to earlier conflicts, few believed that the remembrance of the Great War would have any form of longevity. Sir Whitworth Wallis, Director of the Municipal Art Gallery writing for the Birmingham Gazette in 1917 pessimistically predicted:

We no doubt imagine that the shining events of this war will never be forgotten and that the names of those who have fallen will never pass into oblivion- judging by the past these are vain hopes- a few of the important battles will doubtless be remembered, […] a few distinguished generals, famous deeds of a few winners of the Victoria Cross will be recalled from time to time, but the millions of the rank and file will cease to be remembered. (Birmingham Gazette 17/11/1917)

As a result of these cynical projections, initial proposals were for practical memorials and focused on the battles that were fought and the weapons used to fight them. Original suggestions included a large memorial museum to be constructed “if possible in one of the parks, preferably Cannon Hill Park, which contains the Boer War memorial” and which should be “dignified, spacious, top-lighted, […] and on one floor level so as to permit easy extension” (Report of the Honorary Director January 1919). But, these plans were not well received by the people of Birmingham. The prioritisation of the memory of the conflict above that of the dead attracted widespread criticism within the local press, and as a result the scheme was swiftly dropped (Chamberlain and Francis 1919).

Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
Birmingham Hall of Memory, 1931 [Library of Birmingham: WK/B11/169]
Despite this, Birmingham’s War Memorial Committee remained ardent that any memorial should be of practical benefit to the people of Birmingham. Subsequent suggestions included an imposing town hall, “with seating for 3,600 people, 50% more than the existing hall.” But, this time provisions were made to include the memory of the common solider through the addition of a Hall of Memory “intended to perpetuate the memory of the heroic dead” (Brooks et al, Birmingham War Memorial Committee). Yet, continued criticisms within local newspapers of a memorial not wholly based on commemoration and the failure to raise the £300,000 necessary for both structures resulted in one final revision to the scheme.

All practical elements were dropped and it was decided that just the symbolic Hall of Memory would go ahead. Thus eventually, after months of discussions, it was the memory of the ‘millions of rank and file’ that triumphed and which continues to provide the focus of Birmingham’s wartime commemorations today.

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vwp-t-r1‘Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy’ is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the AHRC and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative across the Midlands with Birmingham City University, Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester, and further afield with the University of Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University.The Engagement Centre will support a wide range of community engagement activities, connecting academic and public histories of the First World War.