Hidden Heritage: Forgotten Heroes of the Somme

In 1914 as war began to unfold, the drive began to enlist Indian troops to bolster the war effort, Sikhs joined en-masse to the ranks of the British Army. In the depressing trenches of the German and Turkish fronts thousands of young Sikh volunteers fought and lay down their lives, defending land unknown to them, against an enemy that was no threat to India for an ally that occupied their own country.

The world was to behold the largest voluntary army ever in action, Sikhs made up nearly 20% of the British Indian Army despite being only 2% of the population. It was the estimate of Sir John Maynard that the contribution of the Sikh community in men and material was ten times that of any other community of India.

Indian Troops were amongst the first allied troops to be dispatched to the Western Front, ill-equipped with dealing with the cold of a European winter and more accustomed to the desert terrain of the North West Frontier of India, France proved to be a shock. Sikh troops were sent to Flanders, were instrumental during the battle of Neuve Chapelle and were part of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Little however is known of the role in the equally disastrous Battle of the Somme where over one million men died. So much so, that the British War memorial which commemorates the British dead fails to acknowledge the presence of any commonwealth soldiers.

 

Company of the 15th Sikhs perfroming kirtan  in their billets after being relieved from the line. Flanders was a perpetual battleground in World War I. The Sikh regiment was the first Indian contingent to land in Europe. “Unique stalwarts from the east” remarked the press. One of their t memorable events occurred on 28 October 1914 when the regiment was detailed to capture the village of Neuve Chappelle in France. After bitter hand to hand combat the village was captured – of the 280 Sikhs who started assaulted only 58 survived.

 
 

Trench Life. Men of the 14th Sikh Infantry in the trenches during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The 14th Sikh was virtually wiped out in Gallipoli as it lost 379 officers and men in one days fighting on 4 June 1915 when, as part of the combined Anglo-French forces they tried to assault the Turkish defenses

“I am now about to return to the trenches.  There is no hope that I shall see you again.  For we are grain that is flung a second time into the oven, and life does not come out of it.”

From a Sikh at the front to his father in India (Gurmukhi, dated 17/3/15): Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC

 
   Drawings by Paul Sarrut from the French postcard series Types de l’Armee de l’Inde or Men of the Indian Army

The Sikhs did not turn even their noses.  They were keen for the fight, and where one man fell, another from behind stood in his place.  And we took pleasure in the battle…  Until now God has preserved us, but there is no hope of any one of us returning to India.  This is no war, but the destruction of the world.”

From a Sikh soldier in hospital, England, to his friend in India (Gurmukhi, dated 31/3/15):Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC

 
 

 Sikh Cavalrymen, Pys, France 1914.

“…The Germans are very frightened of our men, but they are sturdy fellows.  Several times they have displayed the white flag and then attacked, but now we know their tricks and have taken many of them prisoner.  Spread this news everywhere because this is the only letter that I can send you.”

From a Sikh cavalry soldier, written from Marseilles Depot, and sent by hand to India (Urdu, dated 15/2/15): Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC

 

 
   If God spares me to return, I intend to start new customs.  Look, in our country people ruin themselves over marriages and lawsuits.  In this country rich and poor, high and low, go to church together and worship, and there is no distinction between them there…  The very best custom in this country is that a man chooses his own wife, and a women her husband.”  [letter dated March 12, 1918]  Punjab Past and Present, Essays in Honours of Dr Ganda Singh, ed. Harbans Singh and N. Gerald Barrier, 1976.

 
 

 Commemorating Lt-Col Jackie Smythe of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs in the memorial gates pavillion in London. 

 56 years ago I joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs in Loralai, Baluchistan and at once became embued with the teachings and the life of Guru Nanak. The Sikh Gurus, the Sikh religion, the Gurdwara, the Granth Sahib became part of my life. The British and Sikh officers of the Regiment were convinced that religion was an important factor in the make-up of a good soldier and we fostered that in every way possible.

An extract from a speech by Brigadier the Rt.Hon.Sir John Smyth, Bt.VC at a celebration of the 500th Birthday Anniversary of Guru Nanak, Grosvenor House, London, December, 1969.

 
 

 Men of the 1st Sikh in the trenches of Gallipoli.  At one time of my life (1914-1915 in France) the Sikhs exerted me to wear a turban. This was kindly meant in an endeavor to prolong my life by making me less conspicuous to the German snipers. I hated wearing a turban – simply because it took a long time to put on – and once on I couldn’t ever take it off. However, on the t important day of my life, there wasn’t time to “make me up” and I wore my British Service cap. It was sad but true that all the 10 Sikhs with me were killed – while I survived. I never wore a turban again. Brig. The Rt. Hon. Sir John Smyth, VC. Letter to the Times.  

 
 

 Sikh prisoners of war in German captivity, 1916.

One aspect of combat that is overlooked in Sikh history is the plight of the prisoners of war, the subject of these rare images. They were taken from a German postcard series. Placed in the context of the typical German soldier’s belief that the Indian soldier was a superior fighting man, its true purpose becomes clear – to counter such a belief and to instil confidence in the ordinary German trooper who would inevitably meet the Indian soldier in the battlefield.Very few accounts of Sikh prisoners of war have been documented, but one that makes up for the dearth is the subject of a book called Hira Singh by Talbot Mundy (1918).:

“One hundred Indian troops of the British Army have arrived at Kabul, Afghanistan, after a four months' march from Constantinople. The men were captured in Flanders by the Germans and were sent to Turkey in the hope that, being Mohammedans, they might join the Turks. But they remained loyal to Great Britain and finally escaped, heading for Afghanistan. They now intend to join their regimental depot in India, so it is reported.”
New York Times, July 1915.

 
 

 In his preface, the author mentions this newspaper story which was the inspiration for the book and continues with a tribute to the Sikh soldiers whose story he tells:

“I take leave to dedicate this book to Mr. Elmer Davis, through whose friendly offices I was led to track down the hero of these adventures and to find the true account of them even better than the daily paper promised.

“Had Ranjoor Singh and his men been Muhammadans their accomplishment would have been sufficiently wonderful. For Sikhs to attempt what they carried through, even under such splendid leadership as Ranjoor Singh's, was to defy the very nth degree of odds. To have tried to tell the tale otherwise than in Hira Singh's own words would have been to varnish gold. Amid the echoes of the roar of the guns in Flanders, the world is inclined to overlook India's share in it all and the stout proud loyalty of Indian hearts. May this tribute to the gallant Indian gentlemen who came to fight our battles serve to remind its readers that they who give their best, and they who take, are one.”

 

 “A remarkable people, the Sikhs, with their Ten Prophets, five distinguishing marks, and their baptismal rite of water stirred with steel; a people who have made history, and will make it again.”

Martial India, F. Yeats-Brown

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