As the world turns its attention to the centenary of the Great War, this summer will see a landmark exhibition as part of a wider 3 year project presented by the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) to commemorate the remarkable but largely forgotten contribution and experiences of Sikh soldiers, as well as the families they left behind.
‘Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One’ will be held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, from 9 July to 28 September, and is the launch event of a three year project to reveal the untold story of how one of the world's smaller communities played a disproportionately large role in the ‘war to end all wars’.
From the blood-soaked trenches of the Somme and Gallipoli, to the deserts and heat of Africa and the Middle East, Sikhs fought and died alongside their British, Indian and Commonwealth counterparts to serve the greater good, gaining commendations and a reputation as fearsome and fearless soldiers.
Although accounting for less than 2% of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up more than 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities. They and their comrades in arms proved to be critical in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, helping save the allies from an early and ignominious defeat.
The Great War’s Forgotten Army
The exhibition will see this untold, or at least largely forgotten, story put centre stage for the first time. Undivided India provided Britain with a massive volunteer army in its hour of need. Close to 1.5million 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 during 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 British Empire combined – including the forces of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
The exhibition itself is the centrepiece of SOAS’s own WWI centenary commemorations and will also serve as a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for UKPHA’s community-driven effort to create new history, as the public will be encouraged to sign up as Citizen Historians.
The story of Sikhs in WWI will be told through original artefacts including unpublished photographs and drawings, newspapers and comics, postcards, stunning works of art, uniforms, gallantry medals, and folk songs sung by the wives left at home.
It will also feature a unique album of X-Rays of wounded Indian soldiers’ injuries generously lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.
It offers a unique opportunity to learn about this largely unknown aspect of the war and will also feature:
• a cinema zone featuring rare archive film footage including of the first Sikh fighter pilot
• sound recordings of Sikh POWs captured on the Western Front
• an interactive kids’ educational zone and commemorative wall
• a pre-story section on the Sikh warrior tradition including original artefacts from the days of the Sikh Empire
• a series of associated Sunday Symposiums featuring expert speakers