Last week on Remembrance Sunday of the First World War Centenary, Britons paid homage to the contributions of the fallen British and Commonwealth soldiers. From the symbolic ceramic poppies in the moat around the Tower of London to celebrations in the Parliament, schools, churches, military bases- special tributes were paid nationwide.
On this occasion, the British Parliament commemorated the remarkable but largely unknown contribution of one of the world’s smaller communities, the Sikhs. Their disproportionate large role was marked by a special reception in the usually Members’ Only dining room, the Churchill Room in the House of Commons.
The event was hosted by Wolverhampton South West MP, Paul Uppal in conjunction with the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA). The keynote speech was given by Cabinet Minister, the Right Honourable Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport under the bust of Sir Winston Churchill.
Members of the armed forces, politicians, schoolchildren and members of the Sikh community came together to ‘Remember Them’, and listen to a unique classical Indian musical performance of a wartime Punjabi folk song and a stunning rendition of the Last Post on the Dilruba before holding a minute’s silence to remember the fallen.
Descendants of both British and Sikh World War One soldiers were also in attendance, along with a company of re-enactment soldiers dressed as the 15th Ludhiana Sikh regiment from the National Army Museum’s ‘Road to the Trenches’ project. The 15th Ludhiana were amongst the first detachment of Indian soldiers on French soil one hundred years ago who helped stem the German tide.
Three-year project launched
UKPHA’s project ‘Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One’ aims to commemorate the experiences of Sikh soldiers and the families they left behind. Over the next three years they will collect and share stories from the Sikh community and build a unique online database of Remembrance.
Other outputs include education packs, a commemorative publication and a documentary film.
In doing so UKPHA and its volunteer Citizen Historians, including young people from all backgrounds, will help enlighten the world about the untold story of how one of the world's smaller communities played such a disproportionately large part in the 'war to end all wars'.
A remarkable contribution
Although making up just 1% of the population of British India (and concentrated mainly in the northern region of Punjab), Sikhs made up nearly 20% of the British Empire’s Indian Army at the outbreak of the war.
Their contribution, and that of their Indian brothers in arms, proved critical in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, helping save the Allies from an early and catastrophic defeat.
Lest We Forget
The meeting was graced by keynote speaker, Secretary of State for Culture, the Right Honourable Sajid Javid MP, who praised the Sikh contribution and the UKPHA for their work.
Labour Frontbench spokesperson, and Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton South East, Pat McFadden, added his congratulations and appreciation of the Sikhs’ exemplary role.
Lord Indarjit Singh CBE spoke eloquently about the Sikh wartime heroics while Major General Nitsch OBE of the British Army added his praise and thanks and quoted from the Great War poem ‘Harnam Singh’ penned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Corps on the Western Front, General Sir James Willcocks, and noted how Sikhs continue to serve in today’s British Army.
Speaking at the receptionPaul Uppal MP said: “The first Remembrance Sunday of the Centenary offers us a chance to reflect upon all those who served in Britain’s forces one hundred years ago. The Sikh and wider British Indian Army’s contribution was huge but remains largely forgotten.
As a Member of Parliament which includes one of the largest Punjabi communities in Britain I’m delighted to be able to help remind my fellow Parliamentarians and others about this immense contribution which now at last is being properly commemorated by UKPHA’s ‘Empire, Faith and War’ project.”
UKPHA Chair Amandeep Madra added: “UKPHA is honoured to be able to bring the ‘Empire Faith & War’ project to the heart of the British establishment. It could not be more fitting or timely as we mark the Centenary a day after Remembrance Sunday. Our three-year project will help tell the untold story of the Sikh contribution and help the world Remember Them.”
Around 130,000 Sikhs served in World War One – around as many Sikhs as currently reside within Greater London. In total around 423,000 Sikhs live in the United Kingdom.
Pat McFadden MP said: “As an MP representing a constituency with a large Sikh population, I know this anniversary is of huge importance to the Sikh community today. It is a source of pride and of course of reflection on the many young lives cut short by war. Of what they gave and of the futures they may have had.
“For our tomorrow they did give their today. We honour their memory, their sacrifice and the brave record of the Sikh contribution to World War One”
Lord Indarjit Singh noted how by the end of World War One, some 130,000 Sikhs had seen active service, fighting from the Somme to Gallipoli and across Africa. “Over 138,000 Indian troops fought in Belgium and France, many of them Sikhs,” he said.
“Sikhs fought with great distinction in the freezing mud-soaked battlefields of Europe and with equal distinction in the Middle East. In the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, the 14th Sikh regiment sustained very heavy casualties.
“Many plaudits were showered on Sikh soldiers by the British and their allies, and rightly so. Their courage and record in battle is second to none and we should remember them with pride. They have set the bar high and we, succeeding generations, must show we are equal to the challenge,” he added.
Photo courtesy: Raj Gedhu