The son of a Sikh farmer from Harpoke, Sohan Singh died a martyr. Part of the 58th Vaughan’s Rifles, a regiment in Britain’s Indian Army, he served in the Western Front in World War I for over a year before being taken prisoner of war in the Wünsdorf Camp near Berlin. It was here perhaps that he encountered Hermann Struck, a German Jewish artist known for his etchings. The 22-year-old Indian was to become his subject. The artist had his portraits in his book Prisoners of War. A century later, a lone sketch of his is now on display at Brunei Gallery in London. It is part of an exhibition marking the contribution of Sikh soldiers fighting for the British army in World War I.
“Although accounting for less than one per cent of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up nearly 20 per cent of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities,” says Harbakhsh Grewal, vice-chair at the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), that has organised the exhibition.
He adds that, with the project titled Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One, the contribution of non-whites in the British army is being celebrated. “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… we want to remind the world of this wider undervalued contribution,” says UKPHA chair, Amandeep Madra.
At the core of the three-year-long project are archival photographs ranging from the 15th century to 1918. If, in a 1918 frame, a French lady pins a flower on a Sikh soldier, in a 1915 print, men of the 15th Sikh Regiment are seen with locals in Belgium. There are other images where the contribution of the community is acknowledged more directly — from a 1915 propaganda postcard praising the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Allied cause, to the cover of the The Great War magazine published in 1918, showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with British troops on the banks of the Tigris River. British artist Richard Caton Woodville, Jr, has engraved Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle.
Artifacts, including uniforms and gallantry medals, are on display and playing on loop is a rare archive film footage that projects the first Sikh fighter pilot Hardit Singh Malik. Folk songs of wives left home by the soldiers are also printed on a panel.
This is just the first phase of the project though. In the coming months, the organisation plans to invite people to share stories of their ancestors who fought in the war. “We’ll link this data to the Imperial War Museum and it’ll live forever,” says Grewal.
‘In was my good fortune to be engaged in war’
A few powerful lines from the docudrama Indians in the Trenches capture the sentiments of an Indian Sikh soldier in the British Indian Army during World War I. “It was my good fortune to be engaged in this war. We shall never get such a chance to exalt the name of race, ancestors, parents, religion and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the government. Do not be distressed, such hardship comes upon great men. To die
in battle is a noble feat,” he says. In the film, these lines are delivered by Azadbir Singh Atwal, who plays Signaller Karta Singh.
Written and directed by London-based Jay Singh Sohal, the 13-minute film was shot in a studio in Birmingham. It consists of monologues by nine actors, who read out excerpts from a collection of letters that were sent back to loved ones in India by Sikh soldiers fighting on the Western Front between 1914 to 1918. “The frankness and innocence of the letters is what caught my attention. They were written by soldiers with little education, who did not understand why the war had started and the various alliances that existed. They had a strong belief and faith in what they were doing,” says Sohal. The letters are extracts from Indian Voices of the Great War by military historian David Omissi, that will be published this month.
A third generation British-Indian, Sohal launched a website Sikhs@War four years ago to raise awareness about the contribution of the Sikh community in both World Wars. Indians in the Trenches is the latest in a series of short films, which are part of the initiative.
Through the passionate monologues, the film gives an insight into the minds of the soldiers in the Sikh regiments — the confusion they felt at being in a foreign country, their descriptions of the fighting, their hardships and their belief in martyrdom as a righteous deed.
Mostly written in Gurmukhi, Urdu and Hindi, many of the letters went through censors before being sent to their families. Sohal’s research for the film was extensive. He studied the soldiers, the places they fought in such as Jerusalem, East Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) apart from Europe — and how many gallantry awards they won. “Twenty-nine per cent of the Indian Order of Merit medals awarded to Indians were given to the Sikhs. Twenty two Sikh soldiers received the Military Cross,” says the 31-year-old former journalist.
He hopes that the film inspires young British-Indians to reflect on their history. To this end, he is working towards launching a campaign to build a lasting memorial for Sikh soldiers in Britain.
By Shikha Kumar