The Forgotten Warriors: Sikh Soldiers of WWI
- Sikhs fought for the Allied cause in World War One. They made up 20% of the British army. However, their contributions remained greatly overlooked in historical accounts.
- Sukwinder Singh Bassi’s book “Thousands of Heroes Have Arisen: Sikh Voices of the Great War 1914-1918” sheds light on Sikh contributions in the war.
- One of the most notable poems in Bassi’s book is the one anonymously published in the Khalsa Advocate newspaper on May 8, 1915, titled “Ram Singh in the Trenches.”
Sikhs were an essential part of Britain’s manpower source throughout World War One. They made an incredible sacrifice fighting for the Allied cause. Thousands of Sikh soldiers demonstrated bravery while protecting Britain’s interests in the war. Yet, their involvement remained largely overlooked. Hence, there is little historical literature regarding their efforts.
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A book titled “Thousands of Heroes Has Arisen: Sikh Voices of the Great War 1914-1918” sheds light on Sikh sacrifices. The book – authored by Sukwinder Singh Bassi – was published by Helion & Company in 2019.
Bassi’s book is the product of extensive research carried out over more than five years.
Sikhs in World War One
When World War One began in 1914, Sikhs made up a significant portion of the British Indian Army. Throughout the war, the colonial power deployed over 100,000 Sikh soldiers across different battlefronts.
In his book Bassi brings to light the valiant warrior spirit of Sikhs and the challenges they faced during combat. Furthermore, his work offers a deeper understanding of Sikh history and culture.
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According to Bassi, Sikh identity became synonymous with bravery and heroism after World War One. However, the narrative of their involvement in the war is multifaceted. Some Sikhs were eager fight for the British Empire despite the difficulties.
Meanwhile, others grew indifferent to the conflict. The reasons may be that they were unhappy with their community’s treatment under British rule, yet this was probably never openly discussed.
Bassi’s book is a compilation of Sikh literature from the war. Many Sikhs who fought on the Western Front during combat penned notable literature. In addition to the letters they wrote for their loved ones, they also wrote numerous poems.
Some of these poems even featured in Sikh newspapers in India. However, these publications were under the control of the British colonial authorities. Hence, the majority of the poetry published had a pro-war sentiment.
One of the prominent Sikh newspapers of that time was the Khalsa Advocate. It anonymously published a poem on May 8, 1915 (mentioned below).
The poem tells the tale of a Sikh soldier fighting on the Western Front. It alludes to the protagonist’s desire to emulate his forefathers’ military successes, who fought alongside the British. Many Sikhs aided Sir Hugh Henry Gough in his effort to quell the Indian Mutiny.
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Furthermore, the narrator in the poem depicts finding meaning in the act of battle – a theme recurrent in Sikh literature throughout Bassi’s book. On the other hand, it also highlights the struggles of the narrator’s family. For example, the poem talks about how his wife died during childbirth while he was away fighting in the war.
The poem also raises questions. Was the poet subtly referring to the difficult living conditions that fighters’ families faced in India? Or was it used to focus readers’ minds on the afterlife?
Regardless of the intent, the poem is open to interpretation. But, most importantly, it’s an intriguing example of the literature circulated among Sikh readers during the war.
The Poem from Khalsa Advocate
RAM SINGH IN THE TRENCHES
This new-fangled manner of fighting,
Goes sorely against my grain;
I loathe being down in these trenches,
Like a bandicoot-rat in a drain.
Not thus were the ways of my fathers
When they fought for their country with Gough,
It was “Charge!” and a thousand brave fellows,
With a scream of defiance, were off.
I hate all this peeping and peering,
For a shot now and then at a head;
For me the fierce fight to a finish,
With thousands of wounded and dead.
The shells are screaming above me,
Like demons at odds for my soul;
I’m made for a rush at the gunners,
But I’m buried alive in this hole.
Yet amid all the roar and confusion,
The moon shines as sweetly on high;
As it shone that last evening in Jhelum,
When Mothi bade me good-bye
Mothi, my beautiful Mothi!
I remember her pitiful face,
With the glistening tears in the moonlight,
As she held me in loving embrace.
I shrank from the journey before me,
I was held to the spot by her charms;
The Bugle! I summoned my courage,
And tore myself out of her arms.
A letter has reached me from Jhelum,
And the light has gone out of my life;
My Mothi’s dark hour was luckless,
And now I’ve neither babe nor wife.
I see her out there in the moonlight,
Down there by the temple tank—
What is this in my hand? It’s a rifle!
Where am I? My mind seems a blank.
What’s that? It’s a shell? I’ve been dreaming,
Another Lall Singh lies dumb!
But Mothi’s out there in the moonlight,
She’s calling me! Mothi, I come.
I leap with a scream from the trenches;
Like a fiend through the bullets I go.
Mothi! They think I am a devil,
As I leap in the midst of the foe.
Ah, this is real war—to be stabbing,
And screaming, and panting for breath;
The seventh! My Mothi, I’m coming!
Ah, this is real fighting; it’s…(death).
Indeed, the poem remarkably reflects deep emotions of the Sikh community during the war.
Bassi’s book has undoubtedly played a crucial role in highlighting the literature and contributions of Sikhs during World War One, which have sadly been traditional ignored in historical texts.