Rare images of Sikh soldiers who fought in World War I

One soldier in every six in the British Army was Indian, with Sikhs comprising one-fifth of the Indian contingent when the war began.

As we approach the centenary of the beginning of World War I, on July 28, revisionist histories are beginning to examine the role of non-white and non-European people in the war effort. From the Indian sub-continent, around 1.5 million soldiers volunteered to fight in places from Belgium to West Asia. Many of them were Sikhs.

Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One, an exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London organised by the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association, showcases the rich history of Sikhs who served in the British Army.

While largely unremembered in textbooks in the years after the war, contemporary documents and photographs do record their effort. The exhibition began on July 9 and will close on September 28.

“By telling the Sikh story, we want to remind the world of this wider undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire,” said UKPHA chairman Amandeep Madra. “This is British history and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain as well as filling in a tragically missing piece of World War I history.”

The exhibition brings together unprinted photographs, postcards, comics, drawings and other artefacts to trace the narrative of Sikhs in the British army. But it also goes beyond just the soldiers’ lives by looking at the families they left behind and collecting their oral histories.

Photographs show Sikhs cheerfully interacting with other soldiers and civilians.

Sikhs also became objects of interest when held in camps for prisoners of war. Axis forces took advantage of their capture and conducted controversial ethnographic studies of them.

The following images are a selection from the UKPHA collection.

Stalwarts from the East: A French lady pins a flower on the Sikh saviours of France, Paris, 1916. (Toor Collection)

Men of the 15th Sikh Regiment spend time with locals in a Flanders village after weeks in the trenches of the Western Front, c. 1915. (UKPHA Archive)

A Sikh soldier in a German prisoner-of-war camp, c. 1915. (Toor Collection)

Belgium street kids taunt a German soldier by dressing up as Sikh soldiers, c.1915. (Toor Collection)

A listing of captive Sikh soldiers who underwent a study into their racial origins by German scientists, c. 1918. (UKPHA Archive)

Sikh and British wounded recovering from injuries sustained in the front line to their left hand or arm, Southampton, c. November 1914. (UKPHA Archive)

Front cover of The Great War magazine showing men of the 45th Sikhs serving with British troops on the banks of the Tigris River, marching with their sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in Mesopotamia, 1918. (Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works)

A propaganda postcard praising the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Allied cause, c. 1915. (UKPHA Archive)

For the glory of the Raj: Indian troops charging the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle, March, 1915. An engraving of a painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Courtesy of Nanaki and Sahib Collected Works)

A profile sketch of Sohan Singh, the son of a Sikh farmer from Harpoke, a village in Punjab (now in Pakistan). He was born around 1894, and joined the 58th Vaughan's Rifles (Frontier Force), a regiment in Britain's Indian Army, probably just before war broke out. During the World War I, the regiment served on the Western Front in 1914-15, fighting in the Battles of La Bassee, Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Loos.

Sohan Singh was captured by the Germans and held prisoner in the Wünsdorf Camp near Berlin. It was here that the likeness of the 22-year-old Sikh soldier was captured by Hermann Struck, a German Jewish artist who published a book containing 100 of his portraits of prisoners of war. (UKPHA Archive)

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.