Autumn Roadshows 2014

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A souvenir card from the First World War, displayed at our Leicester event

Michael Noble reports from the Hidden Histories Autumn Roadshow Programme

We’ve just completed our first round of roadshows, which took us to Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to share some of our work and ideas. We were very pleased to welcome members of community groups, interested individuals and staff from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local councils who came along to listen and participate.

Our Principal Investigator, John Beckett outlined his idea of ‘Hidden Histories’ and explained that we were interested in examining the stories of people who took part in the First World War but who do not fit the conventional model of a Tommy. To illustrate his point he presented a picture of Wilfred Owen next to a similarly-posed portrait of a Daffadar (Sergeant) of the of the 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers of the Indian Army and asked the audience to name them. Many of the attendees could identify Owen, none could name the Daffadar. And neither could we. His, John pointed out, is a hidden history.

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Mike Heffernan presents his research to the audience at Leicester

We had the privilege of hearing from community representatives who wanted to share their ideas for commemorative projects. In Nottingham, Dr Irfan Malik presented the story of the Dulmial Gun (which we blogged about here) and described its importance to his family. Local artist Joy Pitts gave us an insight into her work and her ongoing Military Boots project and Eric Pemberton of the African and Caribbean organisation Banyan presented his painstakingly researched calendar, which he also brought along to the Leicester event. He was joined at Leicester by the Ramgarhia Social Sisters who have recently returned from a visit to the Empire, Faith and War exhibition and who have been inspired to create a tapestry work to tell the stories of the Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Also at Leicester was Roy Hathaway, who has amassed a collection of around a quarter of a million vintage cigarette cards, many of which feature soldiers and imagery from the war. Roy was kind enough to display some of his collection at the event. In Derby, we were joined by Daljit Singh Ahluwalia MBE and his wife Parkash, who are planning to develop a local exhibition of the Sikh contribution.

All three events featured a short talk given by one of our Co-Investigators. In Nottingham and Derby, Natalie Braber presented her work and answered the question of what a linguist has got to do with the First World War. In Leicester, Mike Heffernan gave a talk on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the effort to memorialise the dead in an appropriate and fair manner.

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Some of Roy’s collection, displayed at Leicester

We were encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by the attendees and will be pleased to work alongside them as they develop their projects. If you were unable to come to any of the roadshows, but would like to get involved, please contact us for a friendly discussion.

 

The Dulmial Gun

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The gun at Dulmial

 

A nineteenth century cannon sits at the entrance of a Pakistani village. Michael Noble takes a look at the story of the Dulmial Gun.

Dulmial is a village approximately a hundred miles south of Islamabad in Pakistan. A century ago, the area was part of British India, which meant that its inhabitants were drawn into the Great War on the side of the Allies. A settlement steeped in military history, Dulmial sent 460 of its men to fight in the British Army, the largest single participation of any village in Asia. Nine gave their lives. In recognition of this service and sacrifice, in 1925 the British government offered Dulmial an award of their choosing.

The man in charge of this choosing was Captain Ghulam Mohammad Malik, the highest ranking and most decorated soldier in the village. The Captain was a man of great experience, having commenced his military life in the Derajat Mountain Battery and participated in Lord Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880. A career soldier, he eschewed the British offers of land, money and water facilities, choosing instead to have Dulmial’s contribution recognised with the presentation of a cannon.

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Officers of Dulmial pose with the gun

The British agreed to this selection and provided Dulmial with a twelve pounder. Agreeing was the easy part. Getting the thing to Dulmial would be quite a different matter. The gun was to be collected from the First Punjab Regimental Centre in Jhelum, from where it could be carried by train to Chakwal. There, the gun was dismounted and loaded in a cart to be pulled by three pairs of oxen for the remaining 28 kilometres. The roads were semi-mountainous and passage was difficult. It would take the ox carts two weeks to cover the distances. From five kilometres out, at Choa Saiden Shah, the route became more difficult still and Dulmial had to despatch five additional pairs of oxen to relieve the initial six and complete the gun’s journey.

Safely in Dulmial, the gun was placed at the main entrance to the village and a photograph taken with the local commissioned officers. It remains there today, a reminder of the contribution that Dulmial made in the First World War.

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The plaque attached to the base of the monument

Dulmial is now known within Pakistan as the ‘village with the gun’, but it is rather less well known in the UK. ‘This is because very little has been written or published about the the village in English’, says Dr Irfan Malik, a Nottingham man whose family originates in Dulmial. ‘I have visited Dulmial many times over the years’, he continues ‘and I have made it my aim to research the World War One history of the village as it played such an impressive part during the time’. It is Irfan’s intention to bring this hidden history to a wider audience and help to share the reasons of just what a nineteenth century Scottish cannon is doing in the mountains of Pakistan.

 

Indians in the Trenches

The Sikh contribution to the First World War was a significant one. Michael Noble looks at the written evidence of their efforts and at a modern campaign to ensure that their sacrifice is not forgotten.

The First World War is often described as the first modern war. Although other conflicts may also lay claim to that title, among them the American Civil War and the Boer War, certain commonalities can be found that make them ‘modern’. The advanced nature of the technology, the adoption of industrial techniques, the role of the media and the suggestion of ‘total war’ all make the First World War recognisably of our own era, even as it slips from memory into history.

One of the most significant ways in which the war can be considered modern is in the fact that, for perhaps the first time in history, a majority of the combatants were literate. Although some level of literacy has been present, by definition, throughout recorded history, prior to the late 19th century, testimonies have usually come from the wealthy, powerful and educated minority. The First World War could perhaps be described as the first major conflict of mass literacy.

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Royal Horse Artillery gunners writing letters

Reading and writing skills were not merely useful from a military organisation point of view, as the ongoing Operation War Diary makes clear; it also means that many of the participants in the conflict left a paper trail of their thoughts and feelings in the form of letters, diaries and, famously, poetry. Reading the personal documents of soldiers and their families is a privilege that lets modern readers gain intimate insights into the experience of life and war from those who were directly involved.

Of course, part of that range of epistolary comes from the soldiers who were drawn from different parts of the world. In 1999, the historian David Omissi collected and edited a selection of letters from Indian soldiers who found themselves on the Western Front and published them as Indian Voices of the Great War.

A selection of these letters now form the basis of Indians in the Trenches, a short film made by Dot Hyphen Productions who have made it their mission to educate and inform people in the 21st century about the actions of Indian solders in the First World War. The film features modern Sikh performers wearing the uniforms of a century ago and giving voice to the words of their forebears.

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@SikhsatWar logo

A recurrent theme is the sense of bravery and willing sacrifice. The testimony stresses not so much the conditions in the trenches, or in Europe particularly, but rather the ‘opportunity’ to engage the enemy, the winning of distinction, the desire to be sacrificed and the need to observe Sikh practices while at war.

Sowar Natha Singh, writing from France in January 1916 mentions expecting, even wanting to die. As he set his pen to paper, he did not expect to ever leave France. ‘I should like to die in this country’, he says. ‘I have no hope of seeing [the children] nor do I wish to see them for I have found a good opportunity for sacrificing my life’

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The WW1 Sikh Memorial Fund (@SikhsatWar)

Eight months later, Bakhlawar Singh, 6th Cavalry writes about his belief that the Sikhs ‘are fortunate men to have been given the chance to fight in this great war’.

 

The spirit of sacrifice pervades not just the letters and diaries, but the breadth of the Sikh experience in the war. Over 100,000 Sikhs took part in the war and, of the twenty-two Military Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers, fourteen went to Sikhs. This contribution is being reflected in a new campaign to create a lasting memorial to these soldiers. Jay Singh-Sohal is leading the campaign to raise funds to set the memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield. He says ‘we want to ensure that our community has a lasting legacy of remembrance for those who fought – a memorial will ensure that their service is never forgotten and that in future people remember their heroism.’

Indians in the Trenches is available to watch below.

You can get involved in the Sikh memorial campaign here.

 

 

 

 

Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One

Stalwarts from the East
‘Stalwarts from the East’ A French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France, Paris, 1916. (Toor Collection)

In 1914, Sikhs represented just 1% of the population of British India but made up 20% of the British Indian Army. Michael Noble looks at a new exhibition that commemorates their role in the First World WarStalwarts from the East

One of the reasons that the war of 1914-18 is considered a world war is that the European powers were swift to involve their colonial possessions in the conflict. For Great Britain, this meant drawing on territories from all over the globe, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, India, the ‘jewel’ in the imperial crown. India provided Britain with a massive volunteer army of over a million men, a sizeable portion of which were Sikhs from Punjab in northern India. Their role in the war is now being commemorated by the UK Punjabi Heritage Association (UKPHA) who have curated an exhibition entitled Empire, Faith and War.
The exhibition’s organisers are keen to emphasise not just the depth of Indian involvement in the war (illustrated by the fact that every sixth British soldier would have been from the Indian subcontinent), but also the breadth. Accordingly the exhibition has been designed to describe the full Sikh experience, from the Sikh Empire to the breaking out of war in 1914 and from there, through the varied experiences of Sikh soldiers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and of Sikhs who remained in India throughout.

The exhibits include propaganda and recruitment material, newspaper excerpts, artefacts such as clothing, medals and phulkari and of course many excellent photographs that depict Sikh soldiers, their loved ones and their comrades from around the world. The story is brought to life through film footage, sound recordings of Sikh POWs and curiosities such as x-rays of injured Sikh soldiers.

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A propaganda postcard praising the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Allied cause, c. 1915. (UKPHA Archive)

Empire Faith and War is much more than an exhibition. The project has larger ambitions to illuminate ‘the Great War’s Forgotten Army’ and will do so through the production of a documentary film, a commemorative publication, education packs for schools, a touring mini-exhibition and ultimately, a database of soldiers’ and families’ stories, which they aim to create with the help of volunteer ‘citizen historians’. The aim is to leave a legacy in which this hidden history is a little less hidden and rather more reflective of the size of the contribution made by those brave men from India.

Empire, Faith and War is at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London until the 28th September.

 

Before the beginning…

Greetings all.

We’re now just shy of three weeks away from the centenary of the start of the First World War, meaning that we’re currently a hundred years on from the thick of the July Crisis. While things are, thankfully, not nearly as tense, confused and dangerous as in July 1914 and although the stakes are nowhere near as high, we can nevertheless sympathise with the politicians and diplomats who were charged with handling the burgeoning situation with no idea of how it would develop.

Our project is in its very early stages, in the round that is still marked ‘planning’. We’re working to develop a programme of roadshows, making contacts in different community groups, devising ideas for research and public engagement and preparing a series of blogs, of which this is very obviously the first.

Overall, we’re looking forward to discovering many new and not-so-new stories of the First World War and the events and situations that encircled it. Our mission is to highlight those ‘hidden histories’ that may not have become part of the conventional narrative of the war but were no less a part of it. We hope that by the end of the centenary cycle we’ll have helped to bring these stories back to the surface and into the minds of those of us fortunate enough to live one hundred years after those blind steps towards war.