Review of “Thousands of heroes have arisen”

Thousands of heroes have arisen: Sikh voices of the Great War 1914-1918
by Sukwinder Singh Bassi
Published by Helion & Co., 2019
Hardback ISBN 978 1 911628 98 9
390 glossy pages plus 23 pages of appendices, bibliography and index
4 maps. Illustrated. Cover price not stated.

This is a considerable and valuable work of research and compilation, being largely based on transcripts of the letters sent home to India by ordinary soldiers. Men of the Sikh faith, who represented less than 2% of the population of India in 1914 but some 20% of those serving in the ranks of the Indian Army, served in every theatre of war. The book draws to a great extent on records of the former India Office that are held at the British Library and allows us hear the private, personal voice of the Sikh soldier.

I already knew a little of the background and practices of the Sikh faith but found the introductory chapter on this subject most helpful, for it set a tone and context for the rest of the book. The many hundreds of letters that follow (the author and addressee of virtually all being known, and also the language in which it was written) naturally go down to the small matters of life affecting any soldier in any war: yearning for home and missing loved ones; concern for friends and family who were also serving in the army; how the man missed certain things or that he was unable to obtain something else. But the letters open up a wider horizon: men express surprise and respect for the way of life in France; they provide vivid descriptions of front line conditions and going into action; they express pride in what they are doing and what they perceive as achievements by the Indian forces. They make up a patchwork rather than a coherent narrative of events, of course, but I found them very educational.

I was also fascinated to read of Gurbachan Singh, who claimed the distinction of being the only Indian sent to fight in Europe with the Australian Imperial Force – especially when a quick search for his service records brought up 15 men named Singh (although I have not checked the others to see if they went to France)! Gurbachan’s records show that he was aged 43 when he enlisted in 1916, so he was an unusual soldier in more than one way.

The author provided each chapter with good historical background on the campaign in each theatre of war, on recruitment and pay, and on the constant British fear of sedition and mutiny in the Indian ranks.

For anyone interested in understanding more deeply the role played by India in the Great War and the immeasurable Sikh contribution to eventual victory, “Thousands of heoes have arisen” should not be missed.

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Gurbachan Singh’s AIF army service record