Review of Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One.

This week the SOAS University of London in partnership with the UK Punjabi Heritage Association (UKPHA) launched their landmark exhibition Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One.

Hosted at the Brunei Gallery London, this exhibition tells the story of the important, and at times crucial role the Indian Army and in particular the Sikhs played in World War One.

Using a range of exhibits the curator’s hope to bring this little known story to a greater audience and encourage modern Sikhs to investigate their own past and roles their ancestors may of played in World War One.

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In order to give the visitor a greater understanding of the Sikh contribution the exhibition isn’t just limited to World War One.

It tries to give a brief history of the Sikhs themselves, starting in the 15th Century it follows the Sikhs journey from the creation of their own Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first clashes with the British Empire, to the immense contribution and sacrifice during both world wars and then finally to the calls for independence and partition.

The Exhibition hall is well laid out and as you move through hall, the exhibits follow a logical order, starting with early Sikh history, the outbreak of War, life on the Western Front etc each subject following seamlessly into the next giving the visitor a clear narrative and making it very easy to understand the chronological order of the history.

One of my favourite sections was about Sikhs in German POW camps. The Germans seemed to have been fascinated by the Martial nature of the Sikhs and even made sound recording of them which you can listen to.

Images of Sikh prisoners of War from German Sources.

Images of Sikh prisoners of War from German Sources.

The Exhibition has managed to secure some amazing items from the likes of the British Library, National Army Museum and even from the Queens private collection.

There are some real standout pieces on display and some of my favourites includes a gold embossed Sword and pistol owned and used by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and a stunning book of X-rays which shows the injuries suffered by some Sikhs on the Western Front.

The real star of the show, in my opinion is the stunning artwork and pictures that adorn the walls. With everything from colourful recruitment posters, calling the lions of the Empire to fight to a range of pictures showing life in the trenches they really bring to life the vast contribution that the Indian Army made during World War one.

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As Amandeep Madra (chair of the UKPHA) said at the launch of the exhibition:

The British Indian Army’s contribution was actually far greater than the better-known efforts of the white commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand put together. The non-white Empire’s efforts have largely been forgotten and their heroism and sacrifices omitted from mainstream narratives, or left as somewhat forlorn footnotes of history.

And yet men from Undivided India in particular ensured that the Western Front wasn’t lost in those first vital months, and then went on to fight the war’s forgotten fronts in Mesopotamia, Arabia, Palestine, North Africa and beyond. Their contribution has never adequately been recognised or even told.

By telling the Sikh story we want to change that and remind the world of this wider undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire. This is British history and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain as well as filling in a tragically missing piece of First World War history.

This exhibition certainly goes some way to rectifying that.

The Exhibition runs until the 28th of September 2014 and entry is free.
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Churchill: Man of Empire

Today is Empire day! Every year on the 24th of May throughout the Empire the achievements of this Little Island in the Atlantic Ocean were celebrated. In honour of this day I thought I would do a quick post on one of the Empires favourite sons, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.

One of the things I have noticed as I have researched for this blog is the amount of times you come across Churchill in the Empire. He seems to appear in pictures from the Sudan, India and South Africa and this is all before his greatest moment in World war 2.

He was born on the 30th November 1874 into one of the grandest families in Britain and was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. A true son of the empire he born at the height of Imperial reach.

Churchill as a child.

Churchill as a child.

Destined for a career in the army he struggled to pass the entrance exam for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It took him three attempts and he only qualified for the cavalry and not the Infantry. Sandhurst was the making of him and in 1894 he passed out 2oth out of 130.

Upon passing out he joined the 4th Hussars as lowly Cornet (2nd Lieutenant). With his pay at £400 pa but by his own reckoning needing £900 pa to live up to the standards expected he turned to war correspondence to supplement his earning.

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A young Winston in the Uniform of the 4th Hussars

Churchill was determined to see action where ever and whenever he could.

In 1895 he sailed to Cuba to see the Spanish fight Cuban guerrillas and he came under fire on his 21st birthday. It was while in Cuba that he first acquired the taste  for Havana cigars. Something that would acquire a fame of its own during WW2.

Churchill in India 1897

Churchill in polo kit. India 1897

In late 1896, Churchill transferrred to Bombay in India. A keen Polo player he soon established himself one of the best players in India. As always his aim was to see action, this time it was in Malakand in the North West Frontier to campaign against the Pashtun tribes.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

Churchill’s description of the Tribes on the NWF

India had a profound effect on Churchill and he saw India as the jewel in the Crown and essential to the Empire.

His racism towards the Indians would effect is outlook on dealing with The Indian independence moment and he had a deep dislike for Gandhi. His actions during the Bengal famine where ineffectual if not down right negligent but he always believed that The British Empire was a force for good in India and that by bring civilization to millions of ordinary Indians it would improve their lives.

Churchill in the Sudan.

Churchill in the Sudan.

In 1898 Churchill was sent to the Egypt where he explored the sites of Cairo and the Pyramids before joining the 21st Lancers in the Sudan. During this time he was commanded by General Herbert Kitchener and Douglas Haig, both of whom he would work with during WW1.

At the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 he would take part in what is know as the last meaningful charge by British Cavalry. His books on the Conquest of the Sudan became best sellers and he resigned from the army in 1899.

It is the habit of the boa constrictor to besmear the body of his victim with a foul slime before he devours it; and there are many people in England, and perhaps elsewhere, who seem to be unable to contemplate military operations for clear political objects, unless they can cajole themselves into the belief that their enemy are utterly and hopelessly vile. To this end the Dervishes, from the Mahdi and the Khalifa downwards, have been loaded with every variety of abuse and charged with all conceivable crimes. This may be very comforting to philanthropic persons at home; but when an army in the field becomes imbued with the idea that the enemy are vermin who cumber the earth, instances of barbarity may easily be the outcome. This unmeasured condemnation is moreover as unjust as it is dangerous and unnecessary.

From Churchill’s book Red River

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

In 1899 as the Boer War broke out in South Africa, Churchill obtained a commission to act as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. He was soon in the thick of the action. He was in a scouting expedition on an armoured train when it was ambushed. Captured and despite being a correspondent he was sent to Pretoria as a POW.

His escape and return to British lines turned him into a minor celebrity and this helped in securing his election to Parliament in the 1900 elections.

What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man … the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights

Churchill on the Boers

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Churchill in Command of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916

Churchill had a mixed war. As first lord of the Admiralty his proposal for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign lead to his resignation and after leaving the cabinet he travelled to the Western Front where he was given command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Correspondence with his wife shows that his intent in taking up active service was to rehabilitate his reputation, but this was balanced by the serious risk of being killed. As a commander he continued to exhibit the reckless daring which had been a hallmark of all his military actions, although he disapproved strongly of the mass slaughter.

I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.

Winston writing to a friend 1916

The Inter war years were some of the toughest Churchill would have to face. As an outspoken critic of disarmament and appeasement of Hitler’s Germany  he became something of a laughing stock. With the coming of war and Chamberlain’s resignation the country clamored for one man.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and immediately galvanized the country.

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Winston’s speech to the House of Commons 13th May 1940

The second World War has been called Winston’s greatest hour so it is somewhat ironic that in winning the war he destroyed the Empire he adored.

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill died on the 24th January 1965. He died known as the saviour of the free world and even in 2001 was voted the Greatest Britain of all time but in my eyes he will always be a son of the Empire.