On August 4th 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, and with it the British Empire was swept up into a vortex of death and destruction that would come to be known as the Great War. At its end, national boundaries would be redefined across Europe, Asia, and Africa, four world Empires would crumble, and over 9 million would lose their lives.
A Lost History
This year represents the centennial of that war, an occasion for the English speaking world to commemorate the allied victory in which the dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand so famously rallied to the defense of their sovereign; King George V. What is often forgotten however is that the first to answer the call of Empire before any of these was India. By the end of the war, the all volunteer Indian Army would suffer more casualties than Canada or Australia, yet the Indian story remains untold. The men of Punjab comprised the majority of that army, and despite fighting across the globe in France, Iraq, Palestine, Africa and Gallipoli, the memory and glory of these Punjabi soldiers have been lost to time.
Looking at it through today’s lens, it can be difficult to understand why the ruled would enter the fray for their ruler. However, this would not be the first time a great empire had their colonies fight as part of the imperial forces. The Roman army’s adaption to include a range of nationalities from its dominions was a key factor in the construction and government of their empire. The British Empire at its height was an even greater enterprise within which select groups of the colonized found a role. In the 19th century, the Irish and the Scots, once fearsome enemies of the English, would fly their banners at the vanguard of Britannia’s armies. And so it was with the Punjabi, whose recruitment into a vast imperial enterprise began immediately upon the annexation of the Punjab.
The fall of the Kingdom of Punjab
In the Anglo Sikh wars of 1846 and 1849, the British faced a ferocious adversary in the Khalsa forces of the Kingdom of Lahore. In Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh army, a courageous peasantry had been finessed in the art of war by French general’s who had fought under Napoleon; the Punjab was indeed unlike any power in India. Towards the end of the wars with the Sikhs, a London newspaper would report that the battle of Chillianwala on January 13th 1849 was one that had left the British Laurels drenched with blood. Five regimental colours had been lost, the feared corps of Dragoons had retreated and that it was “doubtful as to which had sustained a greater injury from the conflict.” In this battle the Punjabi soldier’s true mettle was on display, for in previous encounters rival factions within the Punjabi elite had conspired with the British for the destruction of the Khalsa forces and the upstart Jat Sikh aristocracy ushered in by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The British after annexation of Punjab maintained a healthy respect for Punjabi soldiers. Punjab had been appropriated through an inducement to treachery, rather than the outright might of the British army. The echoes of that pact reverberate up to this day as it was the state of Kashmir that topped off the bounty for the anti Khalsa element of Punjabi leadership. After annexation, a mutual admiration between the gentlemen soldiers of the British and the warrior saints of the Punjab would ensue. For the Sikhs, the British represented a neutral power. Indeed, after the collapse of the Sikh kingdom of Lahore, Hindu or Muslim, ascendancy would have been unworkable. The British were, at that time, the most martial nation on earth, an empire worthy of some admiration and made for a powerful partner for a minority group such as the Sikhs, who had been betrayed by some of their own countrymen.
For the British, the Sikhs represented a potential ally against the scourge of the Afghan – who, in 1842, had inflicted upon them an embarrassing defeat in the 1st Afghan War. With the annexation of the Punjab, they inherited a volatile border with Afghanistan. The Sikhs were the power that had defeated the Afghans, driving them out of Punjab and going on to claim the Trans-Indus territories of Afghanistan, including the Afghan summer capital Peshawar, as their own.
The British were quick to realize that governing Punjab with a heavy hand would be unwise in the face of the war-like Punjabis. The Rajputs, the warrior aristocracy of north India, considered the bearing of arms as the only acceptable profession. For those Jats who had thrown down their ploughs for sabres at the calling of the Gurus, to fight the good fight against an oppressor was enshrined as their religious duty and martyrdom had become a tradition. Thus a paternalistic system of imperial rule was set in motion for Punjab’s development, setting its trajectory apart from India and ensuring the loyalty of the Punjabi people. A loyalty Britannia would lean on more than once in the coming years.
Guardians of Empire
The first critical chapter in the story of this alliance occurred less than 10 years after Chillinawalla, during the Mutiny of 1857. Rebel Hindu and Muslim soldiers, mainly from the higher castes east of the Jumna, had positioned Bahadur Shah of the old Mughal Empire as the figurehead for their uprising and in doing so had raised an age old enmity with the Sikhs. Seizing the chance to attack Delhi, the Sikhs zealously extracted revenge against the last vestiges of the Mughals who had committed untold atrocities against the fledgling Sikh community of the 18th century. This ‘loyalist’ fervour proved decisive in quelling the Mutiny, and Punjabis were to be rewarded with imperial recruitment policies that would immediately favour enlistment of men from the Punjab. Within a couple of decades, Punjab would be transformed into a garrison state, not only for India but for all of the empire’s eastern possessions.
During this era a close fellowship developed between British Indian Army officers and the Punjabi soldier – camaraderie perhaps unrivalled in the history of armies. Within this ‘Punjabified’ British Indian Army, men of different races and religions lived, fought, bled, and died together in distant outposts of Empire that stretched from Africa to China. In many parts of the east, the very face of the British Empire was a turban clad Punjabi in an Indian Army uniform standing side by side with the Sahib. While it may be difficult to explain to outsiders the bonds between soldiers, it should be clear that without this camaraderie a Punjabi dominated army would never have supported a century of British rule.
Janet Roberston, a retired nurse from Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing recall’s many a story she heard while talking and reminiscing with WW1 and WW2 veterans during the 1960’s.
“WW1 had only ended 43 years earlier and I heard the stories first-hand from veterans. Many were in their 60's and 70's as it turned out they had ‘fabricated’ their ages and had signed up as 14 and 15 year old boys in search of adventure and excitement. I often heard British veterans say that a cheer would go through the ranks when they heard the "Punjabi pipes" and saw a regiment of turbaned men marching towards them, and it was commonly voiced, "Thank God, the Indians have arrived" or "Thank God the Punjabis are covering our flank". I wasn’t surprised to hear of their presence in the Far East, due to the close proximity, to what was then, the Indian Empire. What I didn't realize was the extent of that respect and esteem."
"On one occasion I had the pleasure of getting to know Field Marshal Viscount Lord William Slim. A man of courage who rose from the lowly rank of private to the highest rank in the British army, he was as tough as they came. He knew the men of Punjab very well, having commanded 14th Ferozpur and 15th Ludhiana Sikhs during the Burma campaigns in WW2. He told me an incident he once witnessed of Indian coolies being mistreated – “they wouldn’t push around the fighting soldiers of the Indian Army. Nobody would shove them off the pavement without getting hurt. You are in good company when you are with the Sikhs.”
Band of Brothers
Beyond the camaraderie between ruler and the ruled was the unity fostered amongst the Punjabis themselves. Within the secular forces of Maharaja Ranjit’s Kingdom, nationalist Punjabi Muslim forces had fought alongside Khalsa forces against the enemies of Punjab - Afghan and Briton alike. Under the British mixed class regiments, Punjabis would continue to vie for glory as one cohesive force, in which the ‘Izzat’ (respect) of the regiment or ‘Paltan’ superseded that of any individual creed. In the second Afghan War of 1878, an escort of a Punjab Frontier Force regiment faced an army of Afghans in Kabul, surrounded and with all British officers dead.
The outnumbered Punjabis were given a chance to lay down their arms, but to a man they elected to stand their ground. Led by a Sikh officer, Jemadar Jewand Singh, even the Muslim Punjabis sepoys chose to die defending the Izzat of their regiment. Regimental pride would spur single class regiments to epic actions, including 21 soldiers under siege from 10,000 Afghans at a remote windswept fort called Saraghari on India’s Northwest Frontier in 1897. Refusing to surrender and fighting till the last round, those 21 soldiers of the Queen cost the Afghans hundreds of lives. This unique camaraderie between bands of brothers even transcended the arbitrary 1947 line of partition when opposing Generals Harbaksh Singh and Baktiar Rana met to formalize a cease fire for the 1965 Indo-Pak War. To the astonishment of the UN observers the generals, on meeting, hugged like long lost brothers.
In the span of a few short decades after the 1849 annexation, the military’s secular and interventionist policies had cemented its position as the central authority in colonial Punjab. On the back of many hard won glories by Punjab regiments, the military administration wielded the largest budgets within the Government of India, and successfully transformed the province into a model of stability and prosperity. The rural Punjabis, both Muslim and Sikh, from which the rank and file of the army were primarily enlisted, had become the beneficiaries of an enterprise that spanned a globe. Abroad, from policing the Empire in the east, to celebrating in all the pomp and circumstance of the Empire in London itself, the Punjabi peasant was a celebrated transnational citizen of empire. At home, the predominance of the Punjab within the ‘jewel in the crown’ that was India would be asserted by King George V in 1911 at his Coronation Durbar in Delhi, then a part of the Province of Punjab; Calcutta had stood as capital city of India for 150 years but it was now to be replaced by Delhi.
Just three years later, the second chapter in the strategic relationship between the ruler and the ruled would again be memorialized in blood. In August 1914, Britain would face off against a European superpower for the first time in a hundred years, in what would be a fight for its very survival and the future of the world.
To be continued in the Next Issue:
On declaration of war, Britain’s standing army of 125,000 was quickly overwhelmed by a German army nearly 1 million strong. With the ports of the English Channel in peril, the situation was dire and Britain was compelled to ask the Indian army to mobilize to fight for the first time in Europe. The Indian Corps, comprising regiments from the Punjabi heartlands of Amritsar, Jalandar, Ludhiana and Ferozpur, were the first to arrive in the defence of Britain.
About the Exhibit
Duty Honour & Izzat - The Call to Flanders Fields
The centennial of the 1914 – 1918 First World War (WW1) is an historic opportunity not only for Canadians to commemorate those that lost their lives, but also to engage today’s youth and diverse communities about the significance of the sacrifices that were made. In collaboration with Simon Fraser University and the Indian Ex- Servicemen’s Society of BC, Indus Media Foundation Canada ( IMFC) is producing an exhibit for this Fall to highlight the significant contribution Punjabis made to the war effort. For more information on exhibit dates and lower mainland venues please visit: www.IMFC.org
ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF Indus Media Foundation