First World War centenary reveals an untold history of Sikh soldiers

SURREY – Coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the First World War this Remembrance Day, images of poppies, Canadian maple leaves and saluting soldiers will adorn Surrey’s public places. Tales of valour, honour and duty will be remembered.


But there’s another side of the story that hasn’t been told, until now.


Duty, Honour Izzat, a new exhibition put together by Surrey resident Steven Purewal, details the story of 500,000 Punjabi combatants who fought alongside Canadians in the First World War.


Purewal, a British-born Indian, has been collecting primary artifacts from WWI pertaining to the involvement of Punjabis, such as war medallions and propaganda art. He said that the Sikh side of the story has been grossly underrepresented and even the public school system completely bypasses that aspect of its history.


"The deficit isn’t just at the common layman’s level, it’s even in academia," Purewal told the Now at the Central City Library, where the Duty, Honour Izzat exhibition currently resides.


"And even within professional historians, they have not picked up on this because they have no reason to. The only people who have a reason to tell this story are the people from that community, and we haven’t done it ourselves," he said.


Purewal is, of course, referring to the unrecognized Sikh soldiers who fought in the First World War that were omitted from the history books in several famous battles; namely, Flanders Fields, Vimy Ridge and both battles of Ypres. And that’s just to name a few.


"We’re not saying, ‘Why haven’t you told our story?’ because we haven’t told it ourselves," Purewal said. "That’s the point of this project, is really telling the story so we don’t have that occur again."


While he’s been sitting on this information for quite some time, collecting artifacts and sources, Purewal said it became more pertinent than ever to put together the exhibition now that the centenary of WWI – which happened from 1914 to 1918 – has approached.


"I spent the whole summer doing this," he confirmed. "I thought, ‘If we don’t do it this Remembrance Day, I think we haven’t done justice to these people. It has to be done now.’" One of those injustices, Purewal points to, is an incident with Surrey’s Newton Legion that turned away Sikh veterans wearing turbans during a Nov. 11 ceremony.


Another is the foreword in a popular children’s book widely used in local schools In Flanders Fields -The Story of the poem by John McCrae, which lauds the involvement of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops in WWI.


There’s no mention of Indian troops, which outnumbered the Canadians and Australians combined.


"If you read these things, you wouldn’t know that thousands of (Punjabis) had already fought in those grounds, (nor that) they were even there in the war," he said.


"These (books) are null and void after this. They’re inaccurate, and they do a lot of harm because it translates to a perception in the mainstream that ‘You guys don’t carry your weight, you don’t participate in Remembrance Day’… It’s a huge omission that needs to be corrected."


The omitted information from WWI is what also links many South Asians to the Fraser Valley.


"The reason that there are so many Sikhs in the Lower Mainland is because of our military heritage. For 150 years, being a Sikh was synonymous with being a soldier… we basically came out here at Queen Victoria’s behest," Purewal said. "We were full-fledged British subjects."


As part of Duty, Honour Izzat, Purewal and SFU are teaming up to bring an ex-British military officer for a public lecture at SFU Surrey on Nov. 10. As well, 10 Surrey schoolteachers have signed up for a workshop with Purewal to add the untold bit of history to their curriculum.


"We haven’t done our forebears justice by not having told the story already, that’s how I see it and that’s why I’m compelled to tell the story," he said. "We have a joint heritage, a joint history (with Canadians). By not recognizing it, it undermines our ability to have a better common future."


Duty, Honour Izzat: The Call to Flanders Fields WW1 Centennial Exhibition, put together with the help of Surrey’s Simon Fraser University and some government funding, is on display at City Centre Library until Nov. 2, and will move to the Surrey Archives from Nov. 4 to 15.

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