Sikhs have made a long and valuable contribution to the British Army and a unique respect for each other’s courage, skill and determination have led to a proud, shared military heritage.
Recently, on the most prestigious of Sikh days, when Sikhs everywhere honour the bravery of their forebears at the deadly Battle of Saragarhi, Minister for Reserves – Julian Brazier MP, joined Major General Richard Stanford MBE, GOC Regional Command, and esteemed guests from the Sikh community in a special event in the heart of London.
On 12th September 1897 in an ultimate test of devotion to duty, 21 British Indian Army Sepoys (Sikh soldiers) defended the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North West Frontier Province (now Pakistan but then part of British India), against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen.
Rather than surrender, the soldiers fought to the death against impossible odds for nearly 10 hours with basic ammunition and bayonets. Although the outpost was lost, the Afghans later admitted to having lost around 180 of their soldiers with many more wounded, demonstrating the expertise of the Sikh warriors.
To honour the selfless commitment and courage of these Sikh soldiers they were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of the time.
The heritage of Sikh Service to the Crown is humbling, courageous, inspiring and continues today in the Regular Army, Army Reserve and Army Cadet Force. The event at Armoury House in Finsbury, London, highlighted that contribution, in particular looking at how the values exemplified by the Saragarhi 21 are demonstrated in current serving Sikh personnel.
There are currently 180 Sikhs in the British Army and their integral contribution and success is undoubtedly due to the common core values upheld and shared between Sikhism and the Armed Forces: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Commitment.
During the course of the morning, the First World War Sikh Heritage Platoon recalled stories of their great grandfathers and Jay Singh-Sohal provided a moving account of the selfless commitment and bravery of Sikhs, from their unflinching loyalty in 1897 to operations today.
Adding colour and pageantry to the commemorative event, the Band of the Rifles marched and played traditional music. Rifleman Mandeep Singh, 25, from Birmingham is himself a proud Sikh.
Lance Corporal Ian Chave played the last post and a solemn silence was held in memory of all those who had fallen in service of the Crown, before a dramatic “War Cry” was performed by Captain Makand Singh. The guests were then treated to a Punjabi lunch with spiced tea in the Honourable Artillery Company’s historic Prince Consort Rooms.
Lieutenant Daljinder Virdee, 25, from Iver Buckinghamshire is a pharmacist officer in 256 Field Hospital Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in London. He said he takes inspiration from the 21 Saragarhi Warriors every day: “The RAMC motto is strength in adversity and in tough times when odds are stacked against you these soldiers stood their ground and did not give an inch. They were my forefathers and their strength is in all of us”.
Major Sartaj Singh Gogna, 37, from Brentwood is a senior instructor at the School of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in Arborfield. He joined the Army 15 years ago and as Chairman of the British Armed Forces Sikh Association he often get asked about the challenges facing Sikhs thinking of joining the Army. “When I signed up I was a clean shaven, short haired bloke. And surprisingly it was the Army that has helped me to grow spiritually and supported my decision to become a fully practising Sikh, wearing my Dastar (turban).”
Reserves Minister Julian Brazier said: “We’re determined to make sure that any Sikh joining up will feel at home in the Armed Forces of today. That’s why we have the British Armed Forces Sikh Association providing personnel with a practical support network, complemented by the spiritual guidance offered by our Sikh Chaplain. We have prayer rooms in every unit, vegetarian ration packs for every operation, and a flexible dress code so that these days a Sikh in a turban can stand guard outside Buckingham Palace.”
The British Army is keen to commemorate such events to keep the memory of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers’ contributions to our history alive and to inspire others to follow their example: this is the second year that they have commemorated the Battle of Saragarhi, with last year’s commemoration also coinciding with the launch of the Armed Forces’ Sikh Association.