The forgotten service of Punjabi soldiers during World War I


As many as 320,000 recruits from the Punjab took half in WWI. It’s time we acknowledged their valour.

More than a century after the weapons fell silent in Europe, the University of Greenwich has disclosed information of the Punjabi servicemen who performed a vital function in Britain’s WWI victory. The registers had been saved within the basement of the Lahore Museum since they had been compiled in 1919, a yr after the Great War ended. The information comprise of 26,000 pages offering information on the service document and household background of every particular person recruit.

Historians from Greenwich University have to this point uploaded the information from three districts – Sialkot, Jalandhar and Ludhiana – onto a web site. The information from the remaining 25 districts are to be uploaded at a later date.

The British had lengthy admired the ferocity and ruggedness of the Punjabi soldier, who had vanquished one Afghan military after one other, during the reign of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At a time when different Indian rulers did not counter the East India Company menace, Ranjit Singh acted with swiftness to barter the 1809 Treaty of Amritsar. The truce would maintain until the Maharaja’s demise in 1839, an occasion which finally paved the way in which for Punjab’s annexation into British India. Despite the ability vacuum and fixed infighting between khalsa generals within the years following Ranjit Singh’s demise; it had taken the British a mixture of two expensive wars and treachery to finish the conquest of Punjab. The historian Amarpal Singh argues that troops of the East India Company got here inside an inch of complete defeat on the 1849 Battle of Chilianwala, however had been in a position to get better because the khalsa held again from a decisive blow.

After the British Indian military was reorganised following the failed 1857 sepoy mutiny, Punjab emerged because the chief recruiting pool for the imperial armed forces. British colonialism started to eulogise Punjab as ‘our Prussia’ and Victorian racial ideology cultivated Punjabis as a ‘loyal military race’. By the time European armies started to mobilise in summer time 1914, the ‘Punjabisation’ of the Indian armed forces was full. Over one million Indians would serve abroad in WWI – with Punjab contributing the lion’s share of recruits.

German battle planners had initially anticipated a fast victory in opposition to the Allied powers. The Kaiser’s General Staff hoped to realize this by text-book execution of the so-called ‘Schlieffen Plan’. For the plan to succeed; Germany must invade the Low nations and defeat the French Army earlier than the Russians on the Eastern entrance may mobilise. The Germans would then divert troops to the Russian theatre, thereby avoiding a two-front battle. Though the German battle technique made sense in principle; it was unrealistic because it required a flawless unfolding of occasions.

One of the primary main setbacks to the Schlieffen Plan was the Battle of Yrpes in autumn 1914, the place Punjabi soldiers performed a pivotal function in stalling the German juggernaut. The delay would show deadly to Berlin’s battle ambitions because it allowed important time for British and French troops to shore up their defenses. Recruits from the Punjab would distinguish themselves in battle once more at Neuve Chapelle. The British led offensive at Chapelle initially broke via German traces however was later halted after heavy causalities on either side. More than a thousand Punjabi soldiers misplaced their lives during the ill-planned try at taking Gallipoli. The gallantry of Punjabi troops at Gallipoli has solely lately come to mild, after a guide on the topic was revealed by Peter Stanley. Professor Stanley, who extensively studied Australian accounts of the battle, discovered a number of mentions of a Sikh infantryman named Karam Singh. As narrated by Australian veterans, Karam Singh was blinded after being hit by an artillery shell however had continued to battle and rally Allied troops.

Other theatres of WWI the place Punjabi recruits served par excellence embody Africa and Mesopotamia. The British Indian Army received a complete of 9 Victoria Crosses within the Great War – with eight of them going to Punjabi soldiers.

While the contribution of Sikh soldiers in WWI is now being recognised globally after the discharge of the battle movie ‘1917’, there hasn’t but been a notable try to make clear the battle service of areas comprising Pakistani Punjab. Historians in Pakistan are actually responsible of ignoring the topic, however Indian navy writers have additionally labored additional time to venture the battlefield success of Punjabi soldiers within the battle as an completely ‘Sikh’ triumph. However, a better examine of recruitment patterns reveals that the majority of troops who fought within the Great War had been drawn from West Punjab, half of modern-day Pakistan. Contrary to the narrative set by Indian authors, Punjabi Muslims shaped by far the biggest group of recruits (156,300), adopted by Hindus (63,900).

The participation of Sikhs in WWI- round 62,000 – paled compared to that of the Muslims and even dwarfed the quantity of Hindu volunteers from the province. The highest volunteer charges had been recorded in areas akin to Chakwal, Gujar Khan and Jhelum. The Rawalpindi division alone offered 120,000 soldiers, by far the best of any area in British India. Part of the reason why so many males from West Punjab enlisted within the imperial armed forces lies in economics. Recruitment charges had been highest in arid areas, the place agriculture alone didn’t present a secure earnings. The British understood this and ran a village to village marketing campaign promising volunteers financial incentives akin to money and land holdings in return for battle service. Cultural components performed a task too. Prestige or ‘izzat’ in Punjabi villages has lengthy been related to fight expertise. For many recruits, the battle offered them an opportunity to win extremely coveted gallantry awards such because the Victoria Cross which might etch their names in village folklore.

Historians from the subcontinent have historically been very important of Punjab’s function within the freedom motion and have accused Punjabis of being complicit within the imperial exploitation of India. Though this viewpoint holds some benefit, the expertise of Punjabi recruits in WWI served in some ways as a catalyst for the independence motion in India. The Punjabis had been the primary Indian neighborhood which traveled to the west in nice numbers and witnessed its blatant double requirements. The imperial powers of Britain and France claimed to be combating for freedom, whereas they denied that very same proper to the colonies. WWI satisfied each Punjab and India, that the ‘white man’ was not invincible. If Punjabi soldiers may beat again wave after wave of German assaults, then India too may win freedom from the British.

The acknowledgment of Punjab’s contribution in WWI, particularly that of Muslims, would additionally assist in combating Islamophobia and racism confronted by the Pakistani diaspora within the UK. British Pakistanis, most of whom are Punjabis, are eyed with suspicion and their patriotism is questioned by far-right events such because the UKIP. A sustained diplomatic and public relations drive, led by the Pakistani authorities, can play a vital function in informing British residents of the Great War’s forgotten historical past. On the home entrance, the Punjab authorities ought to sponsor tutorial analysis on the topic, in order that future generations received’t must depend on overseas sources for historic examine.



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