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Website to preserve history of WWI Sikh soldiers

By Ians English

London, July 7: As the world marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, hitherto unknown tales of Sikhs during The Great War (1914-18) are being captured for the first time using the latest in mapping technology and a crowd-sourcing initiative to preserve family stories that were at risk of being lost forever.

Thanks to the launch of a website titled 'Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One' (empirefaithwar.com ), funded in the main by a grant of 448,500 pounds ($583,000/Rs 4 crore) from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the remarkable contribution of Sikhs to the First World War will be placed within the wider narrative of how the first global conflict in history pulled in men, money and materials from around the world -- most notably for the British Empire, from India, and in particular the northern state of Punjab.


"The endeavour by the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) represents a major shift of emphasis from institutional or historian-led research and interpretation to a community-focused drive to tell a story that would otherwise remain a footnote in history," said Amandeep Madra, the UKPHA chair.

Despite accounting for less than one per cent of the population of India at that time, Sikhs made up nearly 20 per cent of British Indian armed forces at the outbreak of hostilities. Indian troops overall comprised one in every six of Britain's wartime forces. It's not surprising, therefore, that many Sikh families in Britain have a wartime connection but their stories -- including those of turbaned Sikh cavalrymen at the Somme -- have mostly remained hidden and undocumented until now.

At the heart of the website is a new database that will be used to collect and share previously untold accounts of Sikh soldiers. Significantly, in order to create as complete a picture as possible of the Sikh experience of the war, the database will also include details of those alongside whom the Sikhs fought, the families that they left behind and those in the community who opposed the conflict.

The results will be displayed on an interactive 'Soldier Map', created using Google Maps technology. Records are pinpointed to a soldier's place of birth -- inevitably somewhere in or near the undivided Punjab -- rather than to where they may have fought or died.

"Crucially, this approach has the potential to generate a strong emotional pull for British Sikhs through their connections to familial villages and towns. It is hoped that by engaging with the Soldier Map, members of the public will be able to discover unknown connections to their ancestral heritage, the aim being to encourage a sense of ownership of, and connection with, those who fought and endured the 'War to end all wars'," Madra said.

So far, nearly 8,000 records of Sikhs killed in action -- taken from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's (CWGC) casualty database -- have been pinned on the map. The striking geographical picture that emerges reveals patterns of recruitment into the British Indian Army a century ago, reflecting the fact that recruits from the state of Punjab represented around half of its wartime strength.

The map and database represent the culmination of UKPHA's three-year-long 'Empire, Faith & War' (EFW) project, which has already inspired over 200 families to tell the story of their ancestors. Such accounts were at risk of being lost forever as older generations passed away.

The association is calling out to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike to step forward as Citizen Historians and help create a virtual memorial and legacy. "By combining family memories and memorabilia with archival records, this collectively curated community endeavour will create a unique, definitive, database of the Sikh experience of WW1 for families, researchers and historians to freely access, add to and make use of," Madra said.

Also presented for the first time on the website are the voices of two veterans in the form of revelatory audio interviews recorded over 30 years ago by historian and author Charles Allen.

The first is with John (Jackie) Smyth VC of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. As a young lieutenant on the Western Front, he led 10 Sikh "supermen" (as one contemporary British newspaper described them) on a suicide mission to carry 96 bombs across 250 yards -- the length of two football pitches -- of No Man's Land.

The second interviewee was a pioneer of the skies, (Honorary) Flight Lieutenant Hardit Singh Malik. This extraordinary Sikh was the first Indian pilot to fly for the Royal Flying Corps and the only one to survive the War. He faced the Red Baron's Flying Circus during the Battle of Passchendaele and miraculously survived an encounter in which his plane was riddled by over 400 bullets.

"To enable the public, researchers and educators alike become involved, learn about and teach this forgotten aspect of British wartime history, the EFW website will continue to develop until the end of 2016 to host an array of exciting new resources," Madra said.


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