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Granthi who inspired troops on Western Front || SNE

Sep 25, 2018


On December 31, 1915, Risaldar Major Amar Singh made an impassioned speech in Punjabi to his fellow Sikh cavalrymen in front of British officers. An experienced granthi (priest), he chose an auspicious occasion — Guru Gobind Singh’s birth anniversary — to spur the soldiers to rout the “tyrannical” Germans in World War I. “We have vowed before our Gurus that we shall never hesitate to sacrifice our lives in the holy war. This is the only way in which we can be called true Sikhs,” he declared. The assembly, sanctified by the presence of Guru Granth Sahib under a silk canopy, was held in a town hall-turned-makeshift gurdwara in the French township of Doullens.



Amar Singh’s address was translated and recorded in a scrapbook by Captain Tom Westmacott (1876-1951), who was born in Bihar and was familiar with Indian languages. The latter’s war diaries form the basis of the debut novel by his granddaughter, Vee Walker. Published by UK-based Kashi House, ‘Major Tom’s War’ was launched in London on Thursday.



Walker tells The Tribune, “Amar Singh’s role as a leader of the Sikhs on the Western Front and a courageous and dignified Risaldar Major cannot be underestimated. He was respected by troops of all faiths. By December 1915, his Sikh brethren, horsemen fighting dismounted, had already had their baptism of fire. He would have understood the importance of boosting the morale of his men.”



The novel also features other Sikhs who were part of Westmacott’s regiment, the 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse. Risaldar Harnam Singh was the British officer’s self-appointed protector, while Dafadar Arjan Singh served as his groom during the war.



“These men were my grandfather’s comrades-in-arms and he greatly loved and respected them. Hundred years after the end of WWI, I wanted to tell their story,” says Walker, a museum and heritage consultant who resides in Scotland.



Both Amar Singh and Arjan Singh survived the war. The former was granted the title of ‘Bahadur’, besides a pension and a chunk of land; the latter was awarded military honors too. The name of Harnam Singh, who succumbed to injuries in August 1916, is engraved on a panel at the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial in France. Walker hopes that the novel will help her get in touch with relatives of the Sikh soldiers. “I would love to meet the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these brave men one day,” she says.



Archival resources related to her book, which is expected to be available in India next month, can be accessed on majortomswar.com.



Poignant letter from France



On July 17, 1917, Risaldar Major Amar Singh wrote a letter from France to Dafadar Lal Singh, a relative/acquaintance based in Amritsar district. Written in Gurmukhi verse, it sums up the colossal tragedy of the Great War:



“What news can I give you but the following:
Many bridegrooms whose thoughts were with their wives have passed away
Many other men have struggled with death like fluttering pigeons
Their widows are weeping, since nothing but sorrow remains for them on earth
Many who were met by the cannon’s blast have passed silently beyond, as one sails away in a ship.”



These lines, written a year after Amar Singh lost his comrade Harnam Singh, figure in David Omissi’s book ‘Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999).

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