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Contribution Digitised

More than a century after the World War I (July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918), the British Historians paid a rich tribute to the soldiers from Undivided Punjab Province of British India, who had fought for the British Army. On the 103rd anniversary of the culmination of World War I observed as Remembrance Day on November 11 across the globe, they digitised a portion of the service records of more than 320,000 troops from Undivided Punjab. It may be noted that the Partition of India in 1947 led to the Province being divided into East Punjab and West Punjab in the newly Independent Dominions of India and Pakistan, respectively. While Punjabi Muslims are the majority in West Punjab (Pakistan), Punjabi Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus are the majority in East Punjab (India).

For the last 10 decades, the Punjab Registers, compiled by the Provincial Government of Undivided Punjab in British India after the end of the war, were lying unread at the basement of the Lahore Museum in Pakistan. Finally, London-based UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA), in association with the University of Greenwich, digitised these documents, containing details of the account of each soldier who had participated in WWI from Undivided Punjab. Now, one would have to enter the name of the village or district on the map of Undivided Punjab at to find and track details of each soldier.

Victory Parade, London (1919). Risaldar-Major Amar Singh Bahadur of the 38th Central India Horse (far left) leads his men through Admiralty Arch towards Buckingham Palace during the Indian Army Victory Parade on August 2, 1919

Talking to the media in London, Chairperson of the UKPHA Amandeep Madra said that he had approached the Lahore Museum Authorities after receiving information about the Punjab Registers from military historians seven years ago. The curator of the Museum sent him the sample documents with extensive details, which helped the UKPHA and the University of Greenwich digitise the files. Madra stressed: “Punjab was the main recruiting ground for the Indian Army during WWI. And yet, the contribution of the individuals has largely been unrecognised. In most cases, we didn’t even know their names.” He informed the press that Punjab had sent more than 0.5 million soldiers to WWI, comprising one-third of all Indian troops and more than other commonwealth territories, like Australia. According to Madra, the project contains 45,000 records from three Punjab Districts: Jalandhar, Ludhiana (in India) and Sialkot (in Pakistan). The UKPHA has a plan to release registers for the remaining 25 districts of Undivided Punjab, comprising the records of an estimated 275,000 soldiers.

A captured Punjabi soldier in a prisoner-of-war camp (1916)

As per data provided by Lahore Museum, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim soldiers from British India had taken part in the war in France, Middle East, Gallipoli, Aden and East Africa. Meanwhile, British Opposition leader Tanmanjeet Dhesi has discovered that his great-grandfather had served in Iraq and received injuries while in action, losing a leg. “These records give people written proof that our ancestors were there, fighting for Britain. This is about recognising both the contribution my family made, but also the contribution and sacrifice that people from across the Commonwealth made for the war effort,” he told the British Media.

Three Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers who saw action in WWI

For his part, Gavin Rand of the University of Greenwich stressed: “The personal and family histories of Punjab’s WWI volunteers are largely unknown, even to many descendants. Few Indian veterans left written records of their service, and many Punjabi family histories are dominated by the upheavals and migrations which followed Punjab’s Partition in 1947.” He further said: “Whereas the ancestors of British and Irish soldiers can easily search public databases of service records, no such facility exists for the descendants of colonial soldiers. By making some of the unique data recorded in the registers widely available for the first time, Punjabis can access records of their ancestors’ wartime service.

For a long while, European Historians have been seen ignoring the contribution of soldiers from India and other former British colonies to the war. In her 2015 publication ‘For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18’, Shrabani Basu mentioned that nearly 1.5 million Indians (combatants and non-combatants) arrived in Europe and other frontlines. The Imperial Records, too, stated that a total of 172,815 animals, including horses, mules and camels, were part of India’s contribution to the war. “By the time the war ended in November 1918, nearly 10% of the Indians were either killed, missing or grievously wounded. The numbers are staggering – 72,000 killed and a little under 80,000 wounded,” wrote Commodore Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired officer who served in the Indian Navy.

Indian cavalrymen taking part in the Bastille Day parade on July 14, 1916 at Paris led by three Punjabi officers

In April 2021, the British Government tendered apology to India and Pakistan, after a report revealed that entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes meant that nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers, who died fighting for the Empire during WWI, were not commemorated the same way as other martyrs. The Report also revealed that an estimated 45,000-54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel, were commemorated unequally. Another 116,000-350,000 casualties were not commemorated at all!

Ben Wallace, the British Defence Secretary, told the House of Commons: “There can be no doubt prejudice played a part in some of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s decisions.

Three pages from the Punjab Registers accessed from Lahore Museum, which has now been digitised

Punjab and WWI facts (At a glance):
28 districts, 26000 pages & 3.20 lakh service records in Lahore Registers
5 lakh men from undivided Punjab participated in WWI, some did not volunteer
Punjabi soldiers served in as far as France, Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Salonika, East Africa, Gallipoli
In Ludhiana district, 26% of eligible men volunteered (eligible as per age), in England and Wales 24% had volunteered
Punjabis contributed regardless of communities – Sikhs, Hindus & Muslims – soldiers from Punjab were from different backgrounds
Punjab provided more troops for WWI than Australia
6% of British forces in WWI were from Punjab

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