Records of World War I Indian soldiers made available after century old records found

The Prince of Wales touring a regiment of Indian Calvary in 1921 Credit: PA

For the first time families of Indian soldiers who served in World War I will have access to the service records of their ancestors, thanks to a new website set up by historians.

The service records were kept in the Lahore Museum building for almost a century before they were found, and hundreds of thousands of them are being digitised so that families can find out more.

It gave my family the answers we wanted about my grandfather Jagat Singh.

It was something my dad never really talked about because his dad never did either. My grandfather had served in World War I, there had been some talk about the Somme, and that was it.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to fallen soldiers in 2015 Credit: AP

My dad said his father spoke so rarely about it, and in that of course he was not alone,  many returning from World War I simply did not recount what had happened to them, perhaps burying the horrors, so that they could get on.

So that was really all we knew, no records no physical proof of our grandfather serving in the war

And then came Laurence Fox.

I had been covering the film 1917 directed by Sam Mendes in which, of course, a Sikh soldier is featured in a section, being transported from the front line with other soldiers.

Lawrence Fox’s take on it - he later apologised - was that this looked like political correctness gone too far, what was an Indian soldier doing in the film?

Sam Mendes had told me, when I asked, that he put the soldier in there to make a point, to reflect that hundreds of thousands of soldiers from India had fought for the allies.

I took to Twitter in response to Lawrence Fox’ query to point out that my grandfather had served during World War I, one of around 130,000 Sikh men in the British Army, but I didn’t know the exact details of his story.

Enter renowned historian Amandeep Madra who has made it his business to research the history of Punjabi who made up such a large part of the Indian army.

He saw my tweet - I’ve just got access to military records which had been kept in a building in Lahore for the best part of a century, he told me, there are detailed lists village by village of Punjabi men who were recruited to fight for the British during World War I.

The military record that showed where Jagat Singh signed up

Amandeep duly took a look at those records and lo and behold there he was my grandfather Jagat Singh, on a typed out military record showing that he was recruited from our family village Babak in the district of Hoshiarpur, which was one of the main recruiting grounds in the Punjab.

He joined what’s listed as Cavalry 19, referring to the 19th Indian Cavalry also known as Fane’s Horse.

This he told me, was one of the very few Indian regiments that were at the Somme.In fact Amandeep told me, your grandfather could well have been that Indian soldier depicted in the film 1917.

We have no photographs of my grandfather, I often wonder when I see pictures of WW1 Sikh soldiers on horseback in France, whether he was there, amongst those faces.

But we do know that he was there for sure, thanks to those old printed records on yellowing paper, and that for us is priceless. 

I’m sorry my dad’s not around to see this.

The hope is that this new digital resource from the UK Punjab Heritage Association and the University of Greenwich, being launched to coincide with Remembrance Day, will help answer questions for many Indians seeking to know about their families contribution to the war.

The website will eventually hold the records of more than 300,000 individual soldiers.

The hope also, of course is that this will dispel any of the myths surrounding the service of soldiers from India during the Great War, that their sacrifice will at last get the recognition it deserves.