By Dr. Pavandeep Singh Sandhu
Sunday 1st November 2015, the UK’s first national memorial commemorating the service and sacrifice of Sikh soldiers who fought during World War One will be unveiled at the National War Arboretum, Staffordshire.
The “WW1 Sikh Memorial” is the first of its kind. A statue commemorating the 130,000 Sikh soldiers who fought in the Great War will be unveiled in a ceremony.
The Sikh contribution is remarkable, as despite being only 1% of the Indian population at the time, they constituted 20% of the British Indian Army and were represented in over a third of the regiments at the time.
The memorial has been uniquely funded through a grassroots campaign by the “WW1 Sikh Memorial Fund” on the Kickstarter website. More than 200 people from across different faiths and backgrounds contributed from £1 to £1,000 to fund the memorial.
It is an important event, as the memorial will serve to immortalise the values and virtues of the Sikh way of life which were enshrined so deeply in the men that served a century ago. Furthermore, it will serve to remind the Sikhs of today, and of generations to come, that courage, strength and determination, when combined with compassion and love, can serve as a potent elixir to conquer the toughest of life’s challenges.
I was lucky enough to be involved with ‘Indians in the Trenches’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EE4wQ52znrA) a production which brought letters written by Sikh soldiers on the front lines to a wider audience. It highlighted something very important to me – that these were ordinary men from villages back in Punjab, much like the elders of the wider Sikh diaspora of today. They were people just like us. Yet here they found themselves in the utter hell of war. What made them stand out was that despite operating in extremely punishing conditions, they maintained their adherence to the Warrior’s Way – the Khalsa Way. Surrounded by death and hardship, they did not falter from their task, were ready to die, and carried out such heroic feats on the battlefield that they are still honoured today.
From stories recalled by my grandparents, to gurdwara speeches, and more recently from Sikh media, I have been hearing about the deeds of our ancestors from a young age. They didn’t care about being remembered or honoured. They just did their duty and followed the Guru’s instructions. They were always prepared and their lifestyle and character made them unbreakable. To me, this is the ‘secret formula’ shared by so many of our ancestors and what I feel is conveyed by the memorial being unveiled on 1st November. In today’s day and age where courage, honour and righteous action are often sacrificed for popularity and wealth, as can be seen in the current situation in Punjab as well as the wider world, this memorial will serve as a powerful inspiration to both young and old. We may not be engaged in a physical war but the conflict against our inner evils forever rages and if we are to make an effective contribution to today’s broken society we must begin to walk the Way of the Warrior.
The charities founder and chairman Jay Singh-Sohal says: “It is a tremendous achievement for Sikhs to be able to finally have a national monument in honour of the bravery and sacrifice of our forebears. For far too long the contribution of those from India to the war effort has been overlooked but now young people have a symbol of remembrance which they can visit at the National Memorial Arboretum and which will inspire people from all backgrounds well into the future.”
The Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt MP paid tribute to the community in the “Sikh Chronicles” souvenir publication to be released to mark the unveiling:”Sikh Service personnel have served with great distinction in the British Armed Forces. We recognise their outstanding contribution, and the strong link with the British Armed Forces which continues to this day. As Minister for the Armed Forces, I am grateful for all that they have accomplished; their incredible efforts have helped to build a better world for future generations. Defence recognises that our people are our most important asset; we will continue to do all that we can to ensure that our Services reflect British society, and that we recruit individuals from all communities including the Sikh community.”
The memorials patron, Peter Singh Virdee from the Virdee Foundation, says: “The sacrifice of Sikhs who’ve served Great Britain will surely never be forgotten, now that this community initiative has led to the creation of a permanent national memorial at the centre of remembrance in our country. The monument will undoubtedly inspire future generations to follow in the footsteps of their forebears and contribute great things to our society.”
Sir Francis Richards, Chairman Imperial War Museums, says: “The Memorial will be a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made by Sikh servicemen during the First World War and can only serve to increase awareness and appreciation of the Sikh contribution to British military history. Most importantly, it will ensure that we remember in perpetuity those Sikhs who gave their lives in Britain’s defence.”
We look to complete the fundraising campaign with enough funds to maintain the memorial for as long as the Arboretum exists. So that all those who come across that place, in the countless years to come, may hear the voice of the bearded Subedar, whispering to them from the ageless stone:
“Darkness, Death, and great Evil’s might
Lo! All tremble at the Khalsa’s sight.
Bound by the Code, we saw it through,
And if we can do it, so can you”.