And yet their far from inconsequential role remains largely forgotten. Undivided India provided Britain with a massive volunteer army in its hour of need. Close to 1.5 million Indians served, fighting in all the major theatres of war from Flanders fields to the Mesopotamian oil fields of what is now Iraq.
Surprisingly, every sixth British soldier serving in the war would have been from the Indian subcontinent, making the British Indian Army as large as all the forces from the rest of the Empire combined – including the forces of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
The 'Empire, Faith & War' (EFW) project will see this missing part of the story put centre stage for the first time.
The Sikhs did not turn even their noses. they were keen for the fight, and where one man fell, another from behind stood in his place. and we took pleasure in the battle... until now god has preserved us, but there is no hope of any one of us returning to india. this is no war, but the destruction of the world.
A letter by a Sikh cavalry soldier at Marseilles sent by hand to India, 15 February 1915
Speaking at the project's launch exhibition, UKPHA Chair, Amandeep Singh Madra, said:
The British Indian Army’s contribution was actually far greater than the better-known efforts of the white commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand put together. The non-white Empire’s efforts have largely been forgotten and their heroism and sacrifices omitted from mainstream narratives, or left as somewhat forlorn footnotes of history.
And yet men from Undivided India in particular ensured that the Western Front wasn’t lost in those first vital months, and then went on to fight the war’s forgotten fronts in Mesopotamia, Arabia, Palestine, North Africa and beyond. Their contribution has never adequately been recognised or even told.
By telling the Sikh story we want to change that and remind the world of this wider undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire. This is British history and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain as well as filling in a tragically missing piece of First World War history.
Amandeep Madra, 8 July 2014
Between 2014 and 2016, the EFW project will commemorate the experience of Sikhs in WW1 through the creation of a major exhibition, documentary film, commemorative publication, educational materials for schools, and a touring exhibition.
A core aspect of the project will be the creation of a database of WW1 stories developed with the help of members of the community in their role as Citizen Historians.
We are 'recruiting' at least 1000 people from Sikh and non-Sikh backgrounds to sign up as Citizen Historians, to discover, record and pass on stories of the Sikhs in WW1.
With help from online guides and other resources, they will be encouraged to discover and tell the stories of their own WW1 ancestors. They can also ‘adopt’ individuals and conduct research into their lives. Crucially this will also include uncovering the experiences of those left behind – the wives, mothers and others who waited anxiously for loved ones to return. We are also interested to learn about non-Sikhs who served alongside Sikh soldiers, as well as those Sikhs who opposed the war.
By combining family memories and memorabilia with archival records, we have the opportunity to collectively create the definitive database of the Sikhs and WW1, thereby creating new history for current and future generations to enjoy.
See all press releases relating to the project here.
The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional support provided by the Foyle Foundation, members of the Sikh community and business sponsors.
The UK Punjab Heritage Association is a leading charity in the field of Punjab and Sikh culture that is run on a voluntary basis by professionals who are passionate about their heritage.
We aim to deliver projects with a scholarly yet accessible approach combined with cutting edge in-house design.
Our dedicated team has over 100 man-years of research behind them. They have a track record comprising books, exhibitions, lecture series and websites produced in collaboration with a wide range of high-profile partners.
UKPHA has joined the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Centenary Project, a network of over 500 local, regional, national and international cultural and educational organisations. Together, they will present a vibrant global programme of cultural events and activities aimed at connecting current and future generations with the lives, stories and impact of the First World War.
Involving people is at the heart of the project and there are several ways for the public to get involved throughout the life of this multi-year project.
By becoming a Citizen Historian (see above) you can gain valuable new skills and experiences. Learn more about how you can become a Citizen Historian here in the section CALLING ALL CITIZEN HISTORIANS.
Volunteering plays a central role in our work and the project continues to offer exciting volunteering and training opportunities to people from all backgrounds.
We are also undertaking an extensive nationwide programme of outreach events, including memory collection and oral history interviews. These will take place with the help of volunteers, schools and community groups both from the Sikh and wider community. We will be calling upon them to join us in creating new ways for current and future generations to connect with the Great War of 1914-18.
If you want to support the project with a donation, you can do so at Just Giving. Your support is much appreciated.
With your help we will remember them