It must never be forgotten that when Britain went to war in 1914 it was not as an isolated island but a global power, and so it looked to its territories across the Commonwealth to provide the much-needed manpower for a global fight.
Amongst those from undivided India that answered the call were the Sikhs, who despite being just 1% of the population of the subcontinent at the time made up 20% of the British Indian Army in action.
In total 124,245 Sikhs fought in the Indian Army, making up the regiments of the various Indian Expeditionary Forces sent not just to the Western Front, but to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), East Africa, Egypt and Palestine. They defended India’s borders on the Northwest Frontier and put down rebellions in East Libya and Somaliland.
And for their bravery Sikhs won 29% of all Indian Order of Merit medals awarded, and 24% of Indian Distinguished Service Medals.
Their heroism is an inspiration for us all – to serve others and when it is needed, to stand up against injustice and tyranny. That is why in 2014 I led my communities calls for a national WW1 Sikh Memorial, which we created at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield.
And so this year, once more, we gathered at the memorial in remembrance of Sikh service and sacrifice and to ensure their story lives on and is told to new audiences. This year, as well as members of the community, we were joined by Boys Scouts from Leicester.
We may very well ask what motivated the Sikhs to travel far from home to fight? Signaller Kartar Singh of the 6th Cavalry, who served on the Western Front in 1916 sums it up in his letter home, stating:
“We shall never get such another chance to exalt the name of race, country, ancestors, parents, village and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the Government. I hope we shall renew our Sikh chronicles.”
By remembering our forebears, we have an opportunity to renew our chronicles.
contributed by Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal VR