Battlefield Tour 2009Date: Wednesday, 27 May, 2009
A journey through a momentous chapter of Sikh history left visitors moved as they walked in the footsteps of the heroes who fought and died with the British Army during The ‘Great War' of 1914-1918.
Seventy people joined ASHT Tours on May 2nd, with expert guides from Anglia Battlefield Tours who brought the conflict to life. The party were able to stand in places where Sikh soldiers had actually fought, touch and feel real weapons from the Great War, and get a glimpse of the invaluable contribution made by ‘India's fighting sons'.
The tour included a pilgrimage to the spectacular Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle. The palace like structure is a memorial to all Indian Soldiers including many Sikhs who died in the conflict. The memorial walls are inscribed with the names of many Sikhs whose lives were cut short in the muddy battlefields of Northern Europe.
At dusk, the group joined the hundreds of spectators who gathered for ‘The Last Post' ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. This poignant and sombre remembrance ceremony has taken place every day at 8pm since 1926 and tributes the tremendous sacrifice made by millions of men and boys for the freedom of Europe.
Read about the experiences of the tour group below:
Jeevan Kaur Sanghera. Age 10
My name is Jeevan and I'm 10 years old. When my papa first told me about the trip I was more excited about travelling on a coach through the euro tunnel. I've not learnt much at school yet about the 1stworld war and the British Army. All I really knew was that the 1st and 2nd world wars were fought by the British Army that only had British Soldiers. It was only when my parents told me that my great grandfather and great great grandfather fought for the British in both wars that I first knew what the army was really made up of.
When I went to the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle I felt very sad but also very proud. I didn't realise how many Indian soldiers from all over India were involved. The list of names felt endless. It was sad knowing that a lot of the Sikh soldiers would have been buried instead of cremated in the tradition way. I certainly won't forget my experience at the memorial and hope to visit it again.
We went into some trenches and it was exciting yet very scary. The historian told us the conditions the soldiers would have lived in for days at a time. It was horrible!
My favourite time on the trip was taking part in the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate. I felt very proud to represent both Britain and India. I really wanted everyone to know we, as Sikhs, are a very important part of British history. I know now when we are taught about the 1st and 2nd world wars at school I can tell everyone what we did too!
I was a little sceptical about the trip to France and Belgium. Walking around battle fields didn't really seem appealing at first. However, with the information and guidance provided by the Historians I could almost hear, smell and feel the battles that took place at Whitesheet Ridge near Ypres and Neuve Chapelle. Walking in the trenches, holding guns and knifes gave us just a small insight into the conditions the Indian soldiers had to live in. I think the most overwhelming feeling was the fear and loneliness. All I could think of was the age of these soldiers who were so far away from home but also for those they left behind, parents, wives and children. It's not just the soldiers that had been forgotten over time but also their family back home in India.
Visiting the Indian Memorial was a very personal and emotional experience for me. Both my grand father and great grandfather fought for the British Army in the 1st and 2nd world wars. Even though they were not based in France or Belgium it was an opportunity for me to remember their contribution and reflect on what they would have gone through. Especially for my great grandfather who lost his life in the 1st world war, leaving behind parents, a young wife and 3 sons.
The final stage of the trip was the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate.
This was probably the most humbling experience. Even though it was a relatively small gathering, all the soldiers that fought in the battles were still remembered and honoured today. Just being part of the group representing the Indian Soldiers made me feel so proud. But even more so by the reaction we got from others that attended. It was the perfect way to end a trip that took us through time mixed with both sad and proud emotions.
The one thing I learnt from the trip was how little I and others are aware of the contribution made by India for the British Army. There is just so much to learn and I just hope sharing my experience on the day is just an eye opener for others to take this opportunity and study the 'true' history. I certainly know I will make the effort to find out more.
Dr Gurnam Singh
Immediately after the last post ceremony I was approached by a gentleman whose name was Charles Standing. It was apparent that he was very emotional about the occasion. He said to me that he was a teacher and had brought 40 students to the ceremony. He informed me that his grandfather had served in the British India Army alongside Sikh soldiers. He wanted me to know that his grandfather had often told him that the Sikh soldiers were the finest, most noble and courageous soldiers he had ever served with. He asked me to convey his gratitude and his best wishes to the coach party.