Sikh soldiers’ First World War contribution recounted in new book by Redbridge author
PUBLISHED: 10:00 06 February 2020
After six years of research a Clayhall author tells the untold story of the Sikh involvement in the First World War through the soldiers’ own words.
Sukwinder Singh Bassi is a data manager by day but in his free time he set about gathering hundreds of letters from Sikh soldiers and the result is his first book "Thousands of Heroes Have Arisen: Sikh Voices of the Great War 1914 - 1918".
He found an archive of more than 1,000 letters that were sent to and from Sikh soldiers at the British Library and over the course of three and a half years he went to work transcribing them all.
Sukwinder said: "It was a time consuming project but a real labour of love.
"The overall Indian contribution in terms of manpower was over one million people but most people don't know that."
He published extracts from almost 700 letters in the book which tells the story of the soldiers struggling to adapt to foreign lands and encountering racism along the way.
Sukwinder said: "There was a feeling of helplessness to their situation that came through in many of the letters.
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"The soldiers were also exposed to freedoms Europeans had that they were denied at home."
Through his research he found that a lot of Sikh soliders who fought in the First World War went on to the forefront of the Indian independence movement.
The First World War has been a hot topic following the release of the film 1917 and the actor Laurence Fox's comments disparaging the inclusion of a Sikh character, which he has since apologised for.
Sukwinder said he hopes his book educates people so they know the real history of the Indian contribution to the war effort.
He said: "What Laurence Fox said was factually incorrect but he didn't know it at the time.
"There's no way people didn't fight together then. It's not revisionist history, it's telling the truth."
Sukwinder donated copies of his book to the library at Atam Academy in Barley Lane and is hoping the book will be taught in other schools.
Atam Academy's chairman of governors Mankamal Singh said: "We hope the book will play a part in our secondary curriculum. It is important that the modern school curriculum duly recognise the soldiers of colour who played a key role in the British Army in the First World War."
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