As the world marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, 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 empirefaithwar.com with the grant of £448,500 (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 material from around the world --- most notably for the British Empire, from India, and in particular 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.
Sikhs made up nearly 20% 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,” Madra said.