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Two Heroes





At the Annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony yesterday (Sunday, November 11, 2013), my thoughts turned to the question of what do courage, bravery and sacrifice on the battlefield really mean?

As a civilian I will never know but I would like to tell you about two young soldiers who did.

One, born in Punjab, died fighting for his country, Canada. The other, also from Punjab, died fighting for his country, the United States of America. They were separated by nearly a century from each other.

Toronto Daily Star, August 9, 1916

PTE. BUKUM SINGH, the first Sikh to enlist with an Ontario battalion has been twice wounded since he went to the front ... He was reported injured for the first time two months ago. His name appears among the wounded in today's list.

Bukum Singh came to Canada from Punjab in 1907 ... He went overseas with a Kingston battalion. 

Buckam Singh arrived in France in January 1916 as part of the 20th Canadian Expeditionary Force. The unit fought in France and Flanders as part of the 4th Infantry brigade, 2nd Canadian Division. Notable actions included the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, the advance along the Scarpe, Canal du Nord, Canal de le Escault and the advance to Mons in the Last Hundred Days. Over 4,310 men served in the 20th Battalion during the war and 20% of them were killed and 43% were wounded including Pvt. Buckam Singh. Over 398 decorations including 2 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the 20th Battalion.

The Battle of Mont Sorrel took place from June 2 to June 14, 1916. German forces were able to initially capture a majority of Mont Sorrel, also known as Hill 62, within the early portion of the battle. However, Canadian forces were eventually able to retake Hill 62, but at a heavy cost. The total Canadian casualties for the battle approached 8,000.

That’s 8,000 casualties in just one battle over two weeks!

20th Battalion War Diary Entry - Fri., Jun 2, 1916 THE BLUFF, BELGIUM

Fine and warm. About 9 a.m. enemy opened a very heavy fire on front line about a mile to our left. Bombardment continued for several hours. There was considerable counter-battery work in our rear. Our area was fairly heavily shelled -- communications were broken down, and trenches damaged. Late in afternoon, a number of lacrimatory shells were used. These caused some inconvenience at Bn. Hqrs. At 8.35 pm. what looked like a counter-attack developed on our left. This quieted down in about an hour, and usual night’s work was proceeded with. Rifle and M.G. fire less active. Casualties 1 killed 14 wounded.

Pvt. Buckam Singh who one of those casualties that day. He was hit in the head with shrapnel which his medical report lists as a gunshot wound to the head.

After one month in various hospitals it was determined that Buckam Singh was sufficiently healthy and on June 29, 1916 he rejoined the 20th Battalion in the field. Just 3 weeks later on July 20 Buckam Singh was shot and seriously wounded at St. Eloi.

He died alone in a military hospital in Canada in 1919 while his wife and parents were half a world away in Punjab.

Wounded twice in two separate battles within the span of two months. We don’t know what kind of man he was but we can say that Buckam Singh was clearly an exemplary soldier who displayed extra-ordinary bravery and did not fear the enemy. He was at the forefront of the battle. Those are really the quintessential qualities of a Sikh warrior as it relates to our military heritage.

Now fast-forward a 100 years.

Different soldier, different time, but the same story of courage and bravery in combat.

Last month I had a chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC and the military grave-marker/memorial to Sgt. Uday Singh of the United States Army killed in Iraq in 2003.

He is the first Sikh soldier buried at Arlington and his military memorial has a prominent khanda on it.

Uday Singh was born in Jaipur and raised in Chandigarh, Punjab. He came to the United States with his family in 2000. His family had a long history of military service as many Sikh families do. Uday’s father had been in the army, his grandfather had fought in World War II and his great-grandfather had fought in World War I.

Uday's unit was deployed to Iraq in September 2003. On December 1, 2003 Uday was in the lead Humvee (a military vehicle) of his platoon as a gunner while out on reconnaissance in Habbaniyah, when the platoon came under fire. Uday was the first to fire back and kept the insurgents pinned down till such time as reinforcements could arrive. However, in the continuing firefight he was shot in the head anddied on the way to the hospital.

In a letter dated 28 October, 2003 that Uday Singh wrote to his family -- a month before his death  -- he wrote:

I have been lucky so far and have lived through a dozen fire fights. The worst one was an IED, this is like a booby trap and as soon as I got to it, it blew up in my face. I was lucky to get away with a few scratches.

Yesterday we were hit by RPG's and I saw the dude firing and my weapon jammed. I was so upset because I was the only one who saw the guy shoot at us.

By the way, I got promoted to gunner but as far as life expectancy goes, I got demoted because I am standing on a Hummer with my body exposed and I am the easiest target. But don't worry I will be back.

Lots of love.

Tragically, he never came home.

Such is the bravery of countless soldiers like Buckam Singh and Uday Singh that we remember at this time of the year on Remembrance Day and Veterans Day. This is not a time to glorify war, or talk of the politics of war but to simply remember our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country and never got to come home again to their families.

That’s what Remembrance Day means to me.

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To learn more about the Annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony, please CLICK here.

[The author is the Chief Organizer of the Annual Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony held in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, at the site of the Buckam Singh memorial, and the Curator of]

November 11, 2013

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