‘Mapping’ Sikh Heroes: A Website to Remember World War I Soldiers
An exciting UKPHA project seeks to record the contribution of Sikhs to World War I through crowd-sourced stories.
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. The latest in mapping technology and a crowd-sourcing initiative to preserve family stories is being used for this project.
A website titled Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One , funded in the main by a grant of Rs 4 crore from the Heritage Lottery Fund, seeks to record the contribution of Sikhs to the First World War. It will place this information 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 the northern state of Punjab, in particular.
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.Amandeep Madra, UKPHA
Despite accounting for less than one percent of the population of India at that time, Sikhs made up nearly 20 percent 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 have mostly remained 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. The database will also include details of those alongside whom the Sikhs fought, their families and those in the community who opposed the conflict.
The results will be displayed on a ‘Soldier Map’, created using Google Maps. Records are pinpointed to a soldier’s place of birth, rather than 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.Amandeep Madra, UKPHA
So far, nearly 8,000 records of Sikhs killed in action 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 the database are the culmination of UKPHA’s three-year-long EFW project, which has already inspired over 200 families to tell the story of their ancestors.
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. He 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.
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