The author shares his journey of generating interest about Sikh soldiers’ sacrifice after taking part in the launch of an exhibition of Indian soldiers, which was on display at the Manekshaw Centre in the Delhi Cantonment early November, commemorating a hundred years of World War I and II and his journey of chronicling the Sikh contribution in the two wars.
It was a privilege to participate as a special invitee at the ‘India and Belgium on the Centenary of Great War’ Exhibition at Manekshaw Center inaugurated by Their Majesties King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium on a special visit to India in early November to commemorate the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in defence of Belgium and other British allies in First World War.
Conceived and crafted by the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and United Services Institution, this unique exhibition, on the pattern of the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, inspired more interest in the subject as it had many rare photos and montages depicting Sikh soldiers in various parts of Europe during the War. The coffee table book ‘India in Flanders Fields’ authored by military historians Rana Tej Partap Singh Chhina and Dominiek Dendooven, released on the occasion, is a pictorial journey in nostalgia.
It was a momentous occasion to listen to the Belgian socialist and present Minister-president of the French speaking community Rudy W. G. Demotte showering praise on the Sikh turban and Sikh culture. An expert in this own right, the first secretary of the Belgian embassy in India -Arnaud Gaspart gladly accepted two books on Sikh contribution in World Wars I and II and promised to do more for generating awareness about the sacrifice of thousands of Sikh soldiers.
“It is a good feeling that there is renewed interest in the contribution of Sikh soldiers during the two World Wars, than it was when I embarked on this search 18 years ago, in 1999, dedicated to the Tri-centennial celebrations of the Birth of the Khalsa.”
Sikh military history is no longer an unexplored area, though still much work needs to be done. As the centennial commemorations for World War I and II are afoot worldwide, especially in Commonwealth countries, it is a good feeling that there is renewed interest in the contribution of Sikh soldiers during the two World Wars, than it was when I embarked on this search 18 years ago in 1999, dedicated to the Tri-centennial celebrations of the Birth of the Khalsa.
On display at the exhibition were photos of first World War ace pilot Hardit Singh Malik and erstwhile king -Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Patiala but the centre of attraction was the Sikh soldiers dressed in war attire with their graceful and martial personalities.
Travelling world-wide and plunging into the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I have painstakingly chronicled thousands of names of Sikh soldiers who sacrificed the lives as soldiers of the British army, fighting for the defence of Great Britain, Belgium, France, Italy and other allies of Great Britain.
“Presently, I have 44 thousand names and I am still counting. My mission continues. ”
“In the last two world wars 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded. They all died or were wounded for the freedom of Britain and the world, and during shell fire, with no other protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith.” says General Sir Frank Messervy K. C. S.I, K. B. E., C. B., D. S. O., in the foreword of Colonel F T Bridwood OBE book, “The Sikh Regiment in the Second World War.”
Meeting family members in Punjab of some of the World War veterans, especially in the historic city of Sultanwind, brings tears and there is a different kind of hearty joy when sons and daughters of Sikh soldiers and their European officers who died alongside Sikh soldiers hug and embrace you in gratitude for enumerating their names and contribution. When Harpreet Singh Bhatti showed the medals of his great grandfather to military history author Dominiek Dendooven in April 2015, he not only made himself happy by sharing his forefathers’ laurels, he instilled deep satisfaction in me too.
Sikh soldiers went to the World Wars as loyal imperialist forces. Many went to war to keep the Sikh martial race tradition alive. Many others embraced war as they felt that they had a role to play in the fight for justice, peace and the Sikh spirit of Sarbat da Bhala -welfare of humankind; there were others who thought that it would help highlight the cause of Sikh self-rule and many others joined for simple pecuniary reasons. Nevertheless, whatever their motivation, to go to foreign lands, fight in climates they are not used to, under most trying circumstances and then do the ultimate sacrifice requires grit and determination which prowess was abundantly displayed during the two wars.
Presently, I have 44 thousand names and I am still counting. I am now focussing on Africa and Middle East and have found hundreds of Sikh soldiers died forgotten by their families and the Sikh community. To trace the untraceable is a daunting task but it has to be done. My mission continues.