Sukwinder Singh Bassi, Thousands of Heroes Have Arisen (Helion, 2019, 2021)
From the very beginning of World War I, Britain knew it would need all its Empire could give to beat the Germans and their allies. They sent to India to tap into that massive well of manpower. Among those who answered the call was the small but disciplined Sikh community that sent over 100,000 men to fight. Sukwinder Singh Bassi has collected an archive of 700 letters along with other sources to bring the Sikh war to life and to honour their memory.
Bassi introduces the Sikhs and their religion, and how they became loyal soldiers of the crown. They fought all over the globe in World War I and punched well above their weight. Indeed, Bassi argues, ‘bravery and heroism became synonymous with the Sikh name’. The letters begin with favourable Sikh impressions of France, which they viewed as an alien but welcoming place. Their belief in their God led to fatalism and acceptance of war and the environment in which they fought. Thei courage often got them wounded and having to convalesce in English hospitals, though many fretted at having to go back to the trenches while others lamented the cost of war on the Sikh soldiers. Bassi turns to the famed Sikh loyalty to the King that the British had manipulated, particularly through religious texts, but in most cases appears genuine. Of course, part of their desire for victory was to get home quicker.
What they were trying to escape from was the hell of the Western Front. Bassi notes that the Sikhs fought in nearly every major engagement and some were suspicious that they were being used as cannon-fodder. The British withdrew the Indian infantry from the Western Front at the end of 1915, leaving the cavalry behind, but by then many of the Sikh soldiers had seen enough of mud, freezing cold, warplanes, gas, and German shells. Bassi includes mentions from behind the lines where the men could recover from their ordeal. The Sikhs fought in the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, and East Africa, among other flashpoints, and Bassi takes us on a tour of the world at war through their letters. Many letters complain of deprivation compared to the comforts of France, others make brief references to fighting and those killed and wounded, and some speak of their maltreatment when made PoWs. A few Sikhs enlisted in other Imperial armies such as Canada and Australia. Bassi also highlights letters, poems, and newspaper articles from India in addition to letters to family and loved ones from the front. He curiously leaves the topic of recruitment and pay until near the end of his collection. Bassi follows that with a section on sedition and conspiracies, arbitrary British efforts to suppress dissent, and the shocking episode of the Komagata Maru. Bassi concludes with an epilogue on the maltreatment of Sikhs by the British when they returned home from the War, including the infamous Amritsar Massacre.
Bassi’s collection provides a well-rounded look at how the Sikhs understood their war. He prefaces each chapter with a useful summary of what the letters mean when taken collectively. As for those well-chosen letters, they describe a war that is at once familiar but also capture how strange most of this was to the Sikh soldiers. There is some repetition in parts that slow us down, and we’re left wondering at what the censors deleted that might have changed some of the rosy pictures being sketched by the soldiers. Nevertheless, Bassi has made an important contribution to our knowledge of the Great War in all its facets, and his editing skills along with the eloquence of many of the soldiers, makes for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
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