Past in Perspective

“At first we spoke of them with contempt. Today we look on them in a different light …. In no time they were in our trenches and truly these brown enemies are not to be despised. With butt ends, bayonets, swords and daggers we fought each other and we had bitter hard work.”
–German soldier who had witnessed Sikh troops in hand-to-hand combat at Neuve Chapelle, France, 1915.

The contribution of Indian and other Commonwealth soldiers should be part of the First World War curriculum in schools, where their contribution is hardly ever mentioned. Often the Indian soldiers were forced to improvise, using jam tins packed with explosives as grenades and inventing the Bangalore torpedo – a tube filled with TNT used to blow holes in barbed wire. The heavy death toll was also exacerbated by acts of negligence, where the Indian regiments were sent to Europe, not arriving before dozens had perished from cold and frostbite. Wounded Indian soldiers being cared for in hospitals in places such as Brighton were not allowed to receive direct care from English nurses, and recuperating troops were also kept under armed guard in locked camps. It is time that we look at the historic contribution of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. That is the only way to ensure that they do not become a footnote in history.

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