SikhSpectrum.com Monthly Issue No.7, December 2002
Sikh Soldiers In World Wars
I wrote this report for a history class. Most of the material is directly taken from works cited in the bibliography. My special thanks to Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh, the authors of Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of
the Sikh Military Tradition, who have
produced this valuable work after extensive
research of historical facts.
-- Vicky Singh
Sikh soldiers of the 8th Army with local boys in San Felice.
Imperial War Museum
Sikhs primarily come from the Punjab, a province of Northern India. Sikhs
are one of the most visible minorities. With his beard and turban, a Sikh
can be identified in any crowd. Still they are perhaps the least understood
as a people. Not many people know about the beliefs, practices and ethics
of the Sikhs, and still fewer will understand their significance. Being a
Sikh, it gives me a great pleasure to write about my people’s participation
in the two World Wars. I have divided this paper into two parts, the first
part contains a brief history of the Sikh people and the second contains
their role in World Wars.
Right from the ancient period of the Indus Valley civilization (3000 BC),
the Punjab has played a significant role in the history of India. Its
geographic location makes it the gateway of India from the northwest. All
through the ages, the fertility of its plains became the cause of its
wealth as also the reason for many invasions. Hardened with the extremes of
climate that exist in the region, it soon became the birthplace of a
war-like people. The Sikh religion originated in India in the fifteenth
Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, preached oneness of God
and brotherhood of man. At that time Hinduism and Islam were the
predominant religions in India; and relations between the two communities
were not good. Guru Nanak preached dignity of man and tolerance for the
viewpoint of others: "The World is burning, O Lord, Save it, O Save it, by
whichever door it pleases thee."(Guru Granth: The holy book).
was followed by nine successor gurus, when the Holy Book, popularly known
as Guru Granth Sahib was ordained as the Guru of the Sikhs. The book Granth
is not the guru. In Sikh thought, the Word is the Guru. During the
eighteenth century, Sikhs suffered great persecution at the hands of the
local rulers, but by the end of the eighteenth century they had established
their rule in northwest India.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the
kingdom collapsed, and it was incorporated into British India. After some
time the relations between the Sikhs and the British improved, and they
joined the army in great numbers. The valor of Sikh soldiers during the two
world wars was internationally recognized. Most people associate the Sikhs
with the army and sometimes with violence. This is a very inaccurate
picture and misleading.
As the allied nations stepped closer to the second global conflict, this
time with the Imperial Japanese and the Germans, Sikh soldiers once again
stepped forward and became the back bone of the British Indian Army.
Despite the rising voice of independence from the British, in India during
WWII, Sikhs still made the majority of the forces that India gave to the
war effort. India entered the war when the then viceroy of India, Lord
Linlithgow, without consulting Indian leaders, declared war against Germany
on behalf of India. There was widespread violence in many cities all across
India as British quelled demonstrations that would finally lead to end the
British rule in India.
However, states like the Punjab from where the
concentration of recruits into the British army came, looked curiously at
the events. With only voluntary recruitment into the army, young Sikh men
helped to swell the Indian army from 189,000 at the start of the war to
over 2.5 million at the end of the war. Those Indians, who secretly
supported the Germans, were shocked on 7 December 1941 to know that the
Imperial Japanese Air Force had launched an attack on the American Navy at
As Japan entered the war, it started to drive the colonial
armies of the Dutch, French, and the English out of Hong Kong, French
Indo-China, Philippines, Thailand, and Burma down to Singapore. The 11th
Sikh regiment played a major part in the war to route Japan from its hold
in South East Asia. Ironically it was the British led Sikh soldiers who had
fought in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1882 and 1886 and had helped to annex
Burma for the British Empire.
By the eve of the Second World War, Sikhs had fought on the mountains of
Afghanistan, the deserts of Africa and the trenches of Flanders. By 1944,
Sikh soldiers were well entrenched in the sweltering swamps of Burmese
jungles. The Japanese, better suited and well motivated were strongly
pushing westward to the plains of India. At the battle of Kohima, Burma,
15th Sikh regiment headed by Naik Gian Singh was facing defeat. As the
merciless machine gun shots from the Japanese foxholes burst from the bush,
Gian Singh pushed forward with his men behind him, he ordered his men to
cover him as he single handedly cleared foxhole after foxhole. Despite
being severely wounded, he continued to push through the intense fire and
clearing a strategically vital road. The Japanese were forced to retreat.
Gian Singh received the Victoria Cross, the highest order of gallantry in
the British Army, at the end of the war. Today in the Kohima cemetery,
among the 1,378 grave markers, is the famous Kohima memorial with its
When you go home tell them of us, and say, for your
tomorrow, we gave our today.
Sikh soldier of the 11th Sikh Regiment with a captured Nazi flag in Italy at the end of the Second World War.
Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of
the Sikh Military Tradition
Over 138,000 Sikh soldiers fought in Belgium and France
during World War I. More than a quarter of these soldiers became
casualties. In the first battle of Ypres at Flanders in 1914 a platoon of
Sikhs died fighting to the last man, who shot himself with his last
cartridge rather that surrender.
After the bloody battle of Neuve Chapelle
in 1915 the Sikh regiments had lost 80% of their men. The following is a
letter sent home by a Sikh soldier:
Thousand and hundreds of thousands of soldiers have lost their lives.
If you go on the field of battle you will see corpses piled upon corpses,
so that there is no place put hand or foot.
Men have died from
the stench. No one has any hope of survival, for back to Punjab will go
only those who have lost a leg or an arm or an eye. The whole world has
been brought to destruction. (Warrior Saints, Page 21)
When the first World War broke out in 1914, there were
six battalions of the Sikh Regiment forming part of the British Army. They
were named as 14th Ferozepur Sikhs, 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 35th Sikhs, 36th
Sikhs, 45th Sikhs and 47th Sikhs. Since Sikh soldiers were known for
their bravery, the British employed all their battalions, except the 35th
Sikhs, for fighting at such far-away places like Egypt, Palestine,
Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and France.
In all the battles in which they fought, they had to suffer heavy
causalities. However, there was no wavering among them and they always
stood like rock. The battle of Gallipoli was fought to capture
Constantinople so as to reach the Turkish land, who had entered the war
scene on the side of Germany. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers were finding it
difficult to fight the Turks so the regiment of Sikhs was sent for their
help. Although the allies did not succeed, the bravery shown by the Sikhs
during this operation became a glorious chapter in the history of warfare.
The task given to the Sikhs was highly dangerous. They were to capture two
Turkish Trench lines named as J-11 and J-13.
The brave soldiers of 14th
regiment Sikhs were equally divided for the task on these two lines. The
fierce battle took place on 3rd and 4th June, 1915, wherein the brave
soldiers of 14th Sikhs lost 371 men . Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton was the General
at that time. When Hamilton landed on April 25 at the Southern Tip of the
Gallipoli Peninsula, he found that their strength as compared to that of
the Turks was highly inferior. He also realized that the terrain greatly
favored the Turks, who were well dug-in. He had made the 14th Sikhs of the
Indian Brigade a part of his expeditionary force. Sir Hamilton wrote to the
Commander-in-Chief in India:
In spite of the tremendous losses there was not a sign of wavering all day.
Not an inch of ground was given up and not a single straggler came back.
The ends of the enemy’s trenches were found to be blocked with the bodies
of Sikhs and of the enemy who died fighting at close quarters, and the
slope was thickly dotted with the bodies of these fine soldiers all lying
on their faces as they fell in their steady advance on the enemy.
history of Sikhs affords many instances of their value as soldiers, but it
may be safely asserted
that nothing finer than the grim valor and steady discipline displayed by
on the 4th June has ever been done by soldiers of the Khalsa. (Martial
India F. Yeats-Brown, 1945.)
The brave Sikhs, who earned a very high degree of appreciation included
Sardar Udai Singh, who had saved the life of 2nd Lt R.A. Savory. The
handsome Sikh was over 6 ft tall and had a fair beard and light green eyes.
He was a wrestler from his very childhood and when in 1907 he went to take
part in a wrestling match in a nearby village, he was selected by the
British to join the 14th Sikhs. He was with the unit when Hamilton’s forces
landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula. It is interesting to note that when
after the war, he was offered a gallantry award, he pleaded that he should
be allowed to go back to his village so that he could pursue his wrestling
which was dear to his heart.
Another prominent Sikh soldier associated with
this battle was Bhola Singh. When Lt. Gen. Sir Reginald Savory came to
India in 1968 to attend the presentation of colors ceremony, Bhola Singh
was also present on that occasion. Remembering the past, the General spoke
about the close relationship between officers and his men. In his own
Only this morning (8th February 1968) Lance Naik Bhola Singh of the 14th
Sikhs, who had been wounded in Gallipoli in 1915, took the trouble to come
all the way from his home to call upon me, and after 52 years we saw each
other again. I was deeply touched, not only at having the pleasure of
him again, but also at the thought of all the trouble he had taken to come
When he was wounded, he and I were both young men. Now he is a
‘chitti dari wala’ (white bearded man) and I am old and bald, but although
we have both grown much older, yet our affection for each other and our
mutual pride in our old Regiment stays as young as ever. Long may this
continue. Wahe Guruji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji Ki Fateh. (Martial India F.
Flt. Lt. M.S. Pujji and Hurricane IIB
"I was posted to No.253 Squadron RAF, flying Hurricane IIB fighters from RAF Kenley, which is a couple of miles south of Croydon.
We were a mixed bunch, with pilots also from Poland, America, Canada and Australia.
Equipped with twelve machine guns, our hurricanes were extensively flown
day and night, to intercept German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft."
In August 1914, as the German Army advanced through France and Belgium,
more Allied troops were desperately needed for the Western Front. The
Indian Army, 161,000 strong, seemed one obvious source of trained men.
October, shortly after they arrived, they were introduced into some of the
fiercest fighting around Ypres. Losses were heavy. The average Sikh
battalion had 764 men when it landed; by early November Sikhs had only 385
men fit for duty. The fighting came as a shock to soldiers who were more
used to colonial warfare.
One man wrote home “this is not war; it is the
ending of the world“. The troops were taken out of the line and rested in
early 1915, but were soon back in the trenches, and involved in the
The Sikh Corps provided half the attacking force at the
Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Morale seemed to pick up in the spring of 1915,
only to decline towards the end of the summer, when it became clear that an
end to the war was not in sight. The Sikhs again took heavy losses at the
Battle of Loos in September. The two Indian infantry divisions were
withdrawn from France in December 1915, and sent to Mesopotamia. They were
moved because their morale was fragile, and it was thought unwise to expose
them to another winter on the Western Front.
Europe as Viewed by Sikh Soldiers
When behind the lines, on leave, or
recovering in hospital, the soldiers had plenty of opportunity to see
France and England. Did they embrace European culture or were they
alienated by it?
The wealth and beauty of European cities astonished the
soldiers, and they admired Europeans for their honesty, generosity, and
education. Some men wondered why India seemed so poor in comparison.
The soldiers' attitudes to Europe were not, however, uniformly admiring.
Several men commented that Europeans lacked spirituality, while one man
suggested that India was more beautiful than Europe, because India's beauty
was “clothed in modesty“.
Several men praised the education of European women, and gave instructions
for their own daughters to be taught to read. Others considered that
European women were "shameless", because they mingled so freely with men.
Some soldiers had love affairs with British and French women. In 1917, one
Sikh trooper even married a French woman (the news dismayed his family, so
he told them that he had married the woman only because the King had
personally ordered him to do so).
The Sikh Army fought in every major operations during World War One.
Letters home from soldiers on the Western Front offer extraordinary insight
into their feelings about the conflict and impressions of European culture.
In the last two world wars 83,005 Sikh soldiers were killed
and 109,045 were wounded. They all died or were wounded for the freedom of
Britain and the world and during shell fire, with no other protection but
his turban, a symbol of the Sikh faith.
1 Kushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1966)
2 F. Yeats-Brown, Martial India.
3 Amandeep Singh Madra & Parmjit Singh, Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of
the Sikh Military Tradition (New Delhi, 1999, viii, 182 p.)
4 Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War 1941-1945 (1964)
5 M.A. Lowry, An Infantry Company In Arakan and Kohima (1960 )
6 Movie: The English Patient, 1996 Directed by, Anthony Minghella.