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Images: Injured soldiers from WW1 being X-rayed. Photos: courtesy - Amarjit Singh Chandan Collection.


There's Little to Celebrate in The Memory of The First World War





World War One (WWI) began on July 28, 1914.

Now that a hundred years have passed, it’s time to introspect both Punjab’s role to ‘save the civilisation’ and the socio-political impact of the war recruitment on Punjabis.

At the beginning of the war, strength of the Punjabis in the British army was around 100,000 and then it rose exponentially.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) UK gives a count of 1.2 million oldiers from the subcontinent while as per David Omissi and Rajit Mazumder, during the war years, till December 1919, 1,440,437 men were recruited, including 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants.

By the end of the war, Punjab had provided some 360,000 combat recruits (almost half of the total combat force from the subcontinent), including 136000 Muslims, 88,925 Sikhs and 23,000 Hindus.

The main recruitment ground was the Dhan-Potohar area of the then Rawalpindi district and in the war employment drive 120,000 Punjabis were recruited from this area alone. The majority of them were Muslims and Sikhs.

Out of nine Victoria Crosses (VCs) awarded to the entire army from the subcontinent for valour and bravery, eight of them are Punjabis but at the hefty cost of 61,041 Punjabi soldiers dead and 67,771 wounded.

An army train is crossing bridges in leaps, taking our poor sons locked away -- this is one of the countless departing images narrated in Punjabi folk songs by women for their soldier sons and beloveds. There is this unbearable pain, rage and lament about induction of Punjabi youth as colonial subjects where women cry and their men stand speechless.

Chandler once wrote: “to say goodbye is to die a little”. But for Punjabi mothers and lovers these goodbyes were outright deaths, foretold bereavement gestures of lonely travellers.

The following verse of the wife of a departing soldier negates its own lyricism; the traumatised woman has even distanced herself from his man, she doesn’t even address him as her darling:

Putt mere Sao’hray Da, Laggi Laam Lava Liya NaavãN, tay Jãndey HoyaaN Das Nah Gya, MaiN ChityaaN Kidher Nu PãwaN

Son of my father-in-law has registered for the war [l’arme], he has left without talking to me, I don’t even know where to post my letters.

Looking at the socio-economic indicators of war recruiting areas, it is obvious that the primary reason of this huge enrolment was poverty and hunger. Mulk Raj Anand captured this trauma in his remarkable novel ‘Across the Black Waters' (1939) where Lalu, the main protagonist and a Punjabi peasant, gets himself recruited in the army for the sole purpose of reclaiming the piece of land his family lost, as a reward for serving.

But when he returns home, he finds his family destroyed and his parents dead.

This was every returning soldier’s tale.

They were all poor farmers who were compelled by their circumstances to become cannon fodders of those who had enslaved them. Mothers and wives kept pleading and praying:

“Rizq tay Roti Allah Dainda Ee SaiN Vay, Tik Pao IthaeeN Vay Dholan Yaar, Nah Vanjh, Nah Vanjh Vay Dholan Yaar”  and this prayer for their safe home coming:

Mothers’ sons have gone to the laam in the foreign lands, May Allah end the laam, my children, May the Five Souls of the Prophet’s family guard you, May Allah bring you back home safe. (Translation by Amarjit Singh Chandan and Amin Mughal).

There were propaganda songs as well to encourage war registration which were sung and delivered at the behest of local lords who were assigned recruitment targets and who never shied away from using intimidation and coercion:

Bharti Ho Jaa Vay Bahr Khadday Rangroot / Ithay KhawaiN Sukki Roti, Uthay KhawiN Fruit, Ithay PawiN Phatay LeeRay, Uthay PawiN Suit/ Ithay PawiN Tutti Jutti, Uthay PawiN Boot

The recruits are at your door step, Here you eat dried roti, There you’ll eat fruit. Here you are in tatters. There you’ll wear a suit. Here you wear worn out shoes. There you’ll wear boots.

But the promised life was a hell, a horrific experience culminating in nameless graves of these peasant boys all over Europe, Africa and Persian Gulf still waiting their visitors since a century.

This becomes more saddening while reading their letters from the war front. One soldier wrote: “No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back.”

Another one grieves: “In one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?”

And this one: “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums [so that] they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen”.

This is an absolute heart-breaking war lament: “I am like a soap bubble, and have no hope of life! How many days is it since I was separated from you, star of my eyes”.

Most of these letters were detained and censored by the war office as they carried strong messages to their fellow Punjabis to stop joining British army for war. Soldiers may have known about that censorship so they started using coded language:

“Think this over till you understand it,” or lines like these: “It is to be hoped that Uncle Censor will forward this letter on safely”.

And, after all these losses, when the war ends and wounded soldiers start arriving back home, they are rewarded with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 by the same army within a year. This brutality in Amritsar, Punjab, depicts how the colonial establishment valued all these sacrifices of the Punjabi soldiers and their families. This also proves that these young boys of Punjab were nothing more than a disposable mass for the English army.

This mournful mother of a dead soldier perhaps knew that from the very beginning:

Khanbh Khuss Ga’ay KaawaN Day, Bass Kar Germana, Bachay Kuss G’ay MãvaaN Day

Crows have lost their feathers. Germans: Stop butchering now, our sons are already dead.

Amarjit Singh Chandan is perhaps the only Punjabi writer to have explored this theme in detail. Recently, he said in an interview: “War songs are propaganda, patriotic, jingoistic. A folk song by its nature is a collective pursuit of masses initiated by an individual. It is an epigram. The folksongs on the wars lie printed on paper but nobody sings them, nobody even talks about them. In personal and collective consciousness intensity of tragedies rarely goes beyond three generations. It is disturbing to note that the loss of thousands of soldiers in WWI is absent from the memory. One main factor was that the British colonial state took much care of soldiers’ families by giving them inãms, jagirs, sanads, pensions etc.  After the war, the rewards bestowed were numerous.”

Amarjit Singh is absolutely right but these rewards didn’t erase the scars of war from the Punjabi psyche as almost every second family, particularly in the salt range area of Rawalpindi/Potohar lost a son or a relative. My own great grandfather served in WWI and was awarded a sword of honour and couple of other war awards but he used to express his guilt of fighting for the Crown as a subject in an army where locals were even barred to be commissioned officers because of their nativity and the warped Victorian values of racism.

It is a fact that the British coloniser threw these untrained peasant boys knowingly straight into the jaws of death by exposing them directly to the vastly superior Germans and their lethal weaponry. No wonder mothers plead repeatedly in folk songs for mercy:

SaRkaaN Tay JandyaaN Ni, Bas Kar German BhaiRya, Ghar Ghar RandyaaN Ni

Trees by the roadside, Wicked Germany, stop the war. There are widows in every household.

Sadly I couldn’t find a single Punjabi folk line which shows how the returning soldiers with war awards and honours were greeted or remembered. A rich oral tradition of ours famous for honouring her heroes is completely silent. But they are being remembered and cashed in by many an organisation in the UK which is busy selling them and their dead comrades as willing and eager soldiers who were dying to proves themselves as Rãj loyalists. They are ignoring the displacement and alienation this war caused all over the Punjab that resulted into a grass root level national movement for independence. They are also white-washing the coercion and conscription involved in the WW1 recruitment by the likes of Umar Hayat Tiwana in Shahpur district and other ‘land awardees’ at the behest of the English which is widely known.

Folk songs are the genuine history of any land and not a single word in any song praises the British Empire or shows gratitude for this terminal war employment rather the opposite:

WaikhaaN Chaar Chofairay, Jaani Nazzar Nah Away, Sãda Sabbar Farang’eay Nu Maar’ay

I look all around but can’t see my darling, my patience full of suffering shall destroy the Empire.

Remembering the Mesopotamian campaign of WWI where most of the Punjabis were killed, a hopeless helpless mother so silently weeps in this folk song that the land of five rivers starts howling:

SaRkaaN Vich To’ay Ni, BachRay GareebaaN Day, Basray Vich Mo’ay Ni

Roads are broken and the sons of the poor have lost their lives (far away from home) in Basra.


[Courtesy: TNS. Edited for]

August 3, 2014





Conversation about this article

1: Bikramjit Singh (London, United Kingdom), August 03, 2014, 1:47 PM.

There is a dire need for Sikhs to reassess what was the benefit of their serving the British during the Raj. The same empire that destroyed their kingdom and plunged them from being the masters of their own destiny to being slaves firstly to the colonial state and then to the so-called world's largest democracy. The British have a legacy of betraying those who always stood by them. Look at the Karens in Burma and the Sikhs. Both stood by the British and the British betrayed their interests without even a second thought. The betrayal of 1947 was followed by further betrayal in 1983 when the British government advised the Indian government on the proposed attack on Harmandar Sahib. How do you think those Sikhs who died for the British in 1914-1918 would have felt if they knew that just 60 years after their sacrifice the same British were advising on an attack on their most sacred shrine?

2: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), August 03, 2014, 4:00 PM.

Punjabis need to teach of these betrayal in schools and gurdwaras so our children can be wary of exploiting powers. And of empty promises.

3: Kuldeep (Moga, Punjab), August 04, 2014, 12:44 AM.

"Betrayal. Sacrifice. Poor Sikhs ..." Come on ... get over it. Get up and move on. Wake up in the morning, perform simran. Then, go to work ... be the best you can be at work. Teach your children to be honest and hard working. That is what we need. There's no point in whining. Every race is taken advantage of until it says, "no more". Blame India. Blame Modi. Better yet, blame Manmohan Singh. As a Sikh I take action, quietly. I control only myself. I blame no one. History does need to be taught. But, it is step #100 in solving our problems. I suggest we focus on Step 1 and 2.

4: Kaala Singh (Punjab), August 04, 2014, 2:01 AM.

The lesson is clear. We should stop being gun fodder for others and work for ourselves. The British used us like gun fodder in every war they fought after annexing the Sikh Kingdom. After the so-called "independence" in 1947 when the Sikhs joined India, the Indian state used us like gun fodder in every conflict that they have been involved in ... and they rewarded us with 1984. There is however one notable difference between the British and Indians. The British did have a sense of gratitude for our services, and offered us a homeland in 1947 but our inept and incompetent leadership at that time could not make use of this opportunity. The Indians on the other hand are an ungrateful race. The Sikhs protected this country and died for it protecting it in every war they have fought. Sikh farmers fed millions of starving Indians with subsidized food right from the 60s till the 80s and even today, when India did not have the money to provide food to its teeming millions. Look how they paid us back. The Sikhs should introspect and a build a future with the lessons taught by history.

5: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, USA), August 04, 2014, 8:24 AM.

Response to #3: I agree with you, there is no point in whining. But I disagree on the value and position of History, it should be in the top 5. Case on point, Sikhs have never whined, we got up and moved on after 1849, we were the best soldiers for the British up until 1947. Then came the Partition of Punjab, we got up again without whining, did not blame the British and went to work immediately. There are still refugee camps in West Bengal of people from 1947, no such camps or people in Punjab. We fought in Kashmir, 1962, 1965, 1971. Then we received the ultimate 'reward' in 1984. We are at a low point now in Punjab at least, we won't be down there for long, I guarantee you that. There are two things that will guide us to our high point again: Make no mistake about it. One, Simran and, two, History. Simran gives us Chardi Kalaa, has served us well and will continue to do so. But History is a great supplement and will prevent us from playing fools again. Bani tells us that Brahmanism is evil, history gives us proof of that. 1947 is a perfect example of misreading history and ignoring Bani, we whole-heartedly believed the Brahmin Nehru and ignored both bani and history. We lost access to the birth place of Sikhism, we should have played soldiers for Punjab, instead we became communal taking lead from Nehru and Gandhi. We should have remembered our history and reconsidered knowing what Mian Mir, Pir Budhu Shah did for us Sikhs and what, in contrast, Gangu did. We need our History and trust me we will reunite all Sikhs, we will understand what Nirankaris and Kukas are, they are nothing but important Sikh historical markers, our ignorance gives their so-called babas any legitimacy they think they have.

6: N Singh (Canada), August 04, 2014, 3:15 PM.

@#4: I think we Sikhs have misapplied and misused the concept of 'Sarbat da bhalla'. Nowhere in Sikhi does it say that Sikhs are meant to be 'cannon fodder'. Human life is a gift from God to be used nobly and purposefully. Sacrifice for a good cause is not the same as total disregard for your life, family or community. Suicide missions do not exist in Sikhi and yet I feel the Sikhs have been on a sort of 'suicide mission' in order to gain the approval and acceptance of others. Which in turn leads to the question about our 'lack of self esteem' and confidence in ourselves and our religion despite all our bravado.

7: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, USA), August 05, 2014, 12:31 AM.

After annexing Raj Khalsa / Sarkar-e-Khalsa, the British reorganized and dispersed the powerful Sikh armies to their colonies and used them to put down rebellions and fight their battles to expand their territories. The Mughals during their rule had amassed an enviable treasure during their rule of the subcontinent. This was taken by Durrani in his campaigns after plundering Delhi. Ahmad Shah Abdali in his numerous campaigns also looted all the wealth laden temples and provincial rulers. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first truly indigenous emperor of the subcontinent, painstakingly consolidated this treasure and stemmed the invasions. Under the pretext of safe-keeping, the British carted off this world's largest treasury from the Gobindgarh Fort Toshakhana (Treasury) and the Lahore palaces to London, where they had exiled the adolescent emperor. The British used this treasure to fund both the great wars and the Indian personnel to fight them. In return, they Partitioned the Sikh nation in 1947, driving animosity between peacefully coexisting Muslims and Sikhs. In June 1984, British stooges Mark Tully and Satish Jacob instigated the core circle of Gandhi by labeling Bhindranwale as a separatist and coaxing India into attacking the Golden temple, irreparably driving animosity between Sikhs and their Hindu brethren. Covertly, the British SAS agents helped plan the assault. Whilst the Sikhs were in the midst of this crisis, in the last week of May 1984, Christies of London auctioned off all the priceless effects of Duleep Singh.

8: N Singh (Canada), August 05, 2014, 12:56 AM.

Also, I think we need to re-think our role in the world. What does 'Sarbat da Bhalla' really mean? Fighting wars? Or is there another interpretation? For example how about finding the cure for AIDS, Cancer, etc. Writing world class music in the vein of Beethoven, an award winning novel or Oscar winning movie which leaves behind a permanent legacy for generations to come across the globe. There are numerous ways we can help humanity other than just fighting other people's wars. We need to develop our intellectual muscles, not just our physical ones, by redefining who we are as a community and what we want to become, what our contribution to the world is going to be, other than just 'cannon fodder'.

9: Kuldeep Singh (Moga, Punjab), August 05, 2014, 9:53 AM.

@ #5: Agreed history is important, but as I said previously, every race that can be used and manipulated, has been. Poor Duleep Singh ... wow, I just don't get it. It's hardly a surprise. What should the British have done? Given him his kingdom and let him rise up against them at the instigation of his mother? She was not smart enough to use diplomacy ... the Brits wanted power and paisa ... they didn't take it ... we gave it to them. Our fault, not theirs. Just my 2 cents. But, I wholly stand by my comments ... Simran, Seva, Chardi Kala ... it's that simple.

10: Col. Dr. Dalvinder Singh Grewal (Ludhiana, Punjab), August 08, 2014, 12:29 PM.

WW1 & WW2 had taken a lot of sacrifices from Sikhs. Our elders were amongst them. Whether they were used as fodder or they went to earn their living in hard times, it was their plight to live and die in the worst of wars. Finding the history and remembering our own, good or bad, is an essential requirement which we must not forget. This is the time when our young researchers have been able to piece together our past and we must utilize this.

11: RP Singh (Frankfurt, Germany), August 10, 2014, 6:09 AM.

Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on whether we should be fighting for the dastaar in the American army rather than considering the state of Sikhs in the army in the first place.

12: Harbinder Singh (London, United Kingdom), August 14, 2014, 3:05 AM.

This is a very important topic. I totally agree that Sikhs and other Punjabis became victims of what is now termed "predatory colonialism" and were sacrificed for a cause that was imperialistic. However, after much soul searching, one comes to the inevitable conclusion that to overlook the contribution of these soldiers, whatever their motivation for enlisting, would be to dishonour their individual sacrifices. We should recall their courage with loyalty and conviction and at the same time remind the world of the way in which they were victims of exploitation.

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