Indian soldiers pictured during the First World War. PHOTO: AFP

The forgotten service of Punjabi soldiers during World War I

As many as 320,000 recruits from the Punjab took part in WWI. It’s time we acknowledged their valour.

Ammad Malik December 01, 2021

More than a century after the guns fell silent in Europe, the University of Greenwich has disclosed records of the Punjabi servicemen who played a crucial role in Britain’s WWI victory. The registers had been kept in the basement of the Lahore Museum since they were compiled in 1919, a year after the Great War ended. The records comprise of 26,000 pages providing data on the service record and family background of each individual recruit.

Historians from Greenwich University have thus far uploaded the data from three districts – Sialkot, Jalandhar and Ludhiana – onto a website. The records from the remaining 25 districts are to be uploaded at a later date.

The British had long admired the ferocity and ruggedness of the Punjabi soldier, who had vanquished one Afghan army after another, during the reign of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At a time when other Indian rulers failed to counter the East India Company threat, Ranjit Singh acted with swiftness to negotiate the 1809 Treaty of Amritsar. The truce would hold till the Maharaja’s death in 1839, an event which ultimately paved the way for Punjab’s annexation into British India. Despite the power vacuum and constant infighting between khalsa generals in the years following Ranjit Singh’s demise; it had taken the British a combination of two costly wars and treachery to complete the conquest of Punjab. The historian Amarpal Singh argues that troops of the East India Company came within an inch of total defeat at the 1849 Battle of Chilianwala, but were able to recover as the khalsa held back from a decisive blow.

After the British Indian army was reorganised following the failed 1857 sepoy mutiny, Punjab emerged as the chief recruiting pool for the imperial armed forces. British colonialism began to eulogise Punjab as ‘our Prussia’ and Victorian racial ideology cultivated Punjabis as a ‘loyal military race’. By the time European armies began to mobilise in summer 1914, the ‘Punjabisation’ of the Indian armed forces was complete. Over a million Indians would serve overseas in WWI – with Punjab contributing the lion’s share of recruits.

German war planners had initially expected a quick victory against the Allied powers. The Kaiser’s General Staff hoped to achieve this by text-book execution of the so-called ‘Schlieffen Plan’. For the plan to succeed; Germany would have to invade the Low countries and defeat the French Army before the Russians on the Eastern front could mobilise. The Germans would then divert troops to the Russian theatre, thereby avoiding a two-front war. Though the German war strategy made sense in theory; it was unrealistic as it required a flawless unfolding of events.

One of the first major setbacks to the Schlieffen Plan was the Battle of Yrpes in autumn 1914, where Punjabi soldiers played a pivotal role in stalling the German juggernaut. The delay would prove fatal to Berlin’s war ambitions as it allowed critical time for British and French troops to shore up their defenses. Recruits from the Punjab would distinguish themselves in battle again at Neuve Chapelle. The British led offensive at Chapelle initially broke through German lines but was later halted after heavy causalities on both sides. More than a thousand Punjabi soldiers lost their lives during the ill-planned attempt at taking Gallipoli. The gallantry of Punjabi troops at Gallipoli has only recently come to light, after a book on the subject was published by Peter Stanley. Professor Stanley, who extensively studied Australian accounts of the battle, found multiple mentions of a Sikh infantryman named Karam Singh. As narrated by Australian veterans, Karam Singh was blinded after being hit by an artillery shell but had continued to fight and rally Allied troops.

Other theatres of WWI where Punjabi recruits served par excellence include Africa and Mesopotamia. The British Indian Army won a total of nine Victoria Crosses in the Great War – with eight of them going to Punjabi soldiers.

While the contribution of Sikh soldiers in WWI is now being recognised globally after the release of the war film ‘1917’, there hasn’t yet been a notable attempt to shed light on the war service of regions comprising Pakistani Punjab. Historians in Pakistan are certainly guilty of ignoring the subject, but Indian military writers have also worked overtime to project the battlefield success of Punjabi soldiers in the war as an exclusively ‘Sikh’ triumph. However, a closer study of recruitment patterns reveals that the bulk of troops who fought in the Great War were drawn from West Punjab, part of modern day Pakistan. Contrary to the narrative set by Indian authors, Punjabi Muslims formed by far the largest group of recruits (156,300), followed by Hindus (63,900).

The participation of Sikhs in WWI- around 62,000 - paled in comparison to that of the Muslims and even dwarfed the number of Hindu volunteers from the province. The highest volunteer rates were recorded in areas such as Chakwal, Gujar Khan and Jhelum. The Rawalpindi division alone provided 120,000 soldiers, by far the highest of any region in British India. Part of the explanation why so many men from West Punjab enlisted in the imperial armed forces lies in economics. Recruitment rates were highest in arid regions, where agriculture alone did not provide a stable income. The British understood this and ran a village to village campaign promising volunteers economic incentives such as cash and land holdings in return for war service. Cultural factors played a role too. Prestige or ‘izzat’ in Punjabi villages has long been associated with combat experience. For many recruits, the war provided them a chance to win highly coveted gallantry awards such as the Victoria Cross which would etch their names in village folklore.

Historians from the subcontinent have traditionally been very critical of Punjab’s role in the freedom movement and have accused Punjabis of being complicit in the imperial exploitation of India. Though this viewpoint holds some merit, the experience of Punjabi recruits in WWI served in many ways as a catalyst for the independence movement in India. The Punjabis were the first Indian community which traveled to the west in great numbers and witnessed its blatant double standards. The imperial powers of Britain and France claimed to be fighting for freedom, while they denied that same right to the colonies. WWI convinced both Punjab and India, that the ‘white man’ was not invincible. If Punjabi soldiers could beat back wave after wave of German attacks, then India too could win freedom from the British.

The acknowledgment of Punjab’s contribution in WWI, especially that of Muslims, would also help in combating Islamophobia and racism faced by the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. British Pakistanis, most of whom are Punjabis, are eyed with suspicion and their patriotism is questioned by far-right parties such as the UKIP. A sustained diplomatic and public relations drive, led by the Pakistani government, can play a crucial role in informing British citizens of the Great War’s forgotten history. On the domestic front, the Punjab government should sponsor academic research on the subject, so that future generations won’t have to rely on foreign sources for historical study.

Ammad Malik

The writer is a defence and security analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. His work focuses on Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East and issues concerning military strategy.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Murtaza | 1 month ago | Reply

Good content

Danish | 1 month ago | Reply

An eye opening article. Each word appears to be like pearl. I donot know why these level of research is not available in our curriculum books. Articles like this should be promoted on main stream. I would like to say thanks to author for his extra ordinary work and effort.

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