By: Shikha Kumar
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.
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