When Britain remembers those fallen in service of their country in November, this year’s ceremony will be particularly poignant, writes Telford & Wrekin Council leader Kuldip Sahota. Seventy years since the end of the Second World War, and a century after some of the bloodiest battles in the First World War, the nation will unite […]
When Britain remembers those fallen in service of their country in November, this year’s ceremony will be particularly poignant, writes Telford & Wrekin Council leader Kuldip Sahota.
Seventy years since the end of the Second World War, and a century after some of the bloodiest battles in the First World War, the nation will unite to remember the millions who gave their lives in service of Britain.
It is important also that we should also remember the contribution by the British Indian Army, and the Sikhs in particular, in both conflicts.
Although Sikhs are only two percent of the Indian population today and may have been even less at the turn of the 20th century, they formed well over 20 per cent of the British Indian Army.
Even today, Sikhs number only 20 million in Indian in a population of some 1.2 billion, yet they represent well over 12 per cent of India’s armed forces.
During the First World War, one in seven Sikhs of fighting age volunteered to serve in the British army and were, along with Gurkhas, regarded as a warrior or martial race by the British.
They served in all the major theatres of war: The Somme, Flanders, Ypres, East Africa, Palestine, Gallipoli, Middle East, Mesopotamia and so on.
After the bloody battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the Sikh regiments had lost 80 per cent of their men and three regiments stood at only 16 per cent of their original composition. In Gallipoli, 14th Sikh regiment lost 371 officers and men in mere minutes.
The Sikhs did not wear hard helmets as were the standard issue for Army regiments. Instead they chose to remain true to their faith and wore their turbans with pride, just as I and thousands of my fellow Sikhs do today in all spheres of life.
In the trenches and deserts, the Sikh battle-cry, ‘Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’ (Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart) was heard on all battlefronts.
As well as their standard issue British rifle, they all retained and used their traditional weapons such as swords and daggers for close combat fighting. Known for their martial prowess and never-say-die attitude, Sikhs would win gallantry awards across the Empire.
Close to 1.5 million Indians served in what was the largest volunteer army ever assembled.
Every sixth British soldier serving was from the Indian sub-continent, making the BIA as large as all the forces from the rest of the British Empire combined – including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
My grandfather Baba Labh Singh was in the British Army and I have tried to find out more about his service record, but this is difficult.
When he died in the 1960s, I was boy of 11 or 12 and we all lived in the same house. He used to hallucinate that he was experiencing gas attacks and he would gather up his bed sheets at night and run round the house shouting, ‘run away, run away, gas is coming’.
A few months later he died from natural causes. His Army record shows he served in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, but he must have also served early in the war on the Western Front where he must have experienced the horror of gas attacks.
So when the Second World War broke out, Sikh soldiers were once again at the forefront and made up a disproportionate number of the forces that India gave to the war effort. Sikh men helped to swell the BIA from 189,000 at the start of the war to more than 2.5 million by the end of the war.
They served in Middle East, Burma, Greece, the North African desert and Italy. They fought and stopped the Japanese advance through Burma and into India. Not only were they in the Army, they also served in the Navy and Royal Air Force – remember Mr Singh from the 1960s film Squadron 633.
My uncle served in Burma and won a medal for his bravery in Rangoon and he lived to tell us his tales. Growing up in India in the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost every Sikh family in our village would talk about their loss in the Second World War and how they were affected by it.
When after the war British industry needed unskilled labour, Sikhs who had served in the British Army were given priority visas to come to Britain. This explains why Sikhs make up a disproportionally high number of people originally from India now living in the UK.
Most worked in the West Midlands foundries where the work was hard, heavy and dirty and from which they did not shy away.
That generation has now retired or have passed away and their children and grandchildren now live in times of greater tolerance, pride and status than their forefathers.
As I sit here and write this article I feel that in a small way I am giving a voice to all those Sikhs who gave their loyalty and life voluntarily to the British Empire – and now the British have accepted their children and grandchildren as their equal.
~ Source: shropshirestar.com