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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.