‘The forgotten soldiers’: families of Sikh heroes who fought in Second World War tell of the struggle to keep their stories alive

Jas Daine and Boota Singh were among the lucky ones whose grandparents survived the Second World War, but they want to know more about how the Sikh regiment played a part in wartime history
Mehre Singh and Jagat Bains were both soldiers in the Second World War.Mehre Singh and Jagat Bains were both soldiers in the Second World War.
Mehre Singh and Jagat Bains were both soldiers in the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire were not properly commemorated due to “pervasive racism”, an investigation recently found.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) apologised after its investigation found that those individuals were not formally remembered in the same way as their white comrades.

While Jas Daine’s grandfather Mehre Singh was one of the lucky soldiers who survived the Second World War, she never got a chance to have a “grown up conversation” with him about his time as a soldier in the Sikh Regiment before he passed away.

Mr Singh was a stoic man who didn’t like to divulge many details on what happened during the Second World War, like many others of his generation.

Jas knows he would be emotional to know that an attempt is being made to make sure his fallen comrades are finally going to be remembered.

‘Master Singh’

Mr Singh grew up in northern India, in Punjab, and came from a farming background.

Jas Daine and her grandfather Mehre Singh.Jas Daine and her grandfather Mehre Singh.
Jas Daine and her grandfather Mehre Singh.

He went to France to serve during the Second World War and served for only a short time as a sniper, but his family still to this day are unsure about the finer details of his contributions.

“What I am very strongly concerned about is that they are never ever mentioned in history that they had this part to play,” Jas added.

“I know a lot of my ancestors also had a part to play helping the British Empire protect against a neighbouring country, especially in the mountainous areas.

“They did help the war effort - especially the Sikh Regiments - which is where my grandfather would have been.

Boota Singh and his grandfather Jagat Bains.Boota Singh and his grandfather Jagat Bains.
Boota Singh and his grandfather Jagat Bains.

“It’s never mentioned how brave they were and that’s my concern, especially for those who did die.”

‘It was a really split view’

“I remember him telling me that there was such inequality with how he was treated and how the British officers were treated,” Jas said.

“I remember overhearing these conversations about when they were serving - they were used to a hot climate and he was always very cold and they never had the right uniform.

“They weren’t given the same respect - they were always treated as ‘you’re not as good as us,’ kind of thing - that’s the impression I got from him but it wasn’t like that from everyone.

“He said there were some really good characters and lovely people that he met who he would call comrades. So it was a really split view.”

‘He made his own impact’

After his time in the war, in the 1950s, Jas’s grandfather launched a travel initiative so people in India could have a better life in England.

He then went on to become the headteacher of the local school and brought education to his village - and was known as master Singh.

It was only in his later years that he moved to England to be with his family.

“He used to teach us how to march, I knew all the commands when I was little. We used to do the left to right march and the salute,” Jas says.

“I remember from the age of 7-11, when he couldn’t look after himself, that he came to live with us.

“He always talked about the nice things - I think that’s a common trait with men of that age.”

Growing up, Jas has always wanted to understand more about how the efforts of her grandfather and his comrades helped in the Second World War but she has almost given up.

“It’s really difficult even with spellings of names,” she said. “It might be spelt differently when he came over here to how they’ve spelt it there. It varies so much.

“Around that time there was The Partition of India.

“When they opened a school it was a Sikh school - and my family was Hindu before that - so there was also a conversion to Sikhism. There's so many layers to the story.”

Britain had ruled India for almost 200 years but in August 1947 that all came to an end.

British India was divided into two independent states which would rule themselves: India, and Pakistan - and in 2017 East Pakistan later split from Pakistan and became Bangladesh.

“He made his own impact in a way,” Jas added. “I think that’s why he tried to do a positive thing because he had this opportunity - if that was all that was going to come out of it.

Jas said: “There’s so many layers to the story.”

‘Where is Sikh history taught?’

Boota Singh is one of the people behind the Lions of the Great War statue in Smethwick - a war memorial featuring a statue of a Sikh soldier.

It was commissioned to honour people from the Indian subcontinent who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

He said more should be done to include Sikh history in school.

“I’m an educator and we don’t talk about Sikh history in any way, we don’t talk about it in the curriculum. It's barely talked about when we talk about the First and Second World War.”

‘We rely on oral history’

Boota’s grandfather, Jagat Bains, was also a part of the Second World War but very little is known about his role – other than his rank was thought to be Naik, equivalent to corporal.

“One of the things he felt very very strongly about was when they were marched into France they were made to sit on the trucks and not come out while the white soldiers participated in a parade,” Boota said.

“It’s a story that’s been passed through generations but the problem is there’s not a lot of documentation and corroboration and that’s a problem.”

Like Jas, Boota has experienced many hurdles trying to look into what part his grandfather played in the Second World War.

He said the Government has acted too late to try and remember hundreds of thousands of non-white soldiers.

He said: “While the Second World War is still in living memory the opportunity has been lost by recognising it so late. It’s that idea that justice delayed is justice denied.

“I’m sure there might have been white, British soldiers that might have been able to add more information and context.

“I’d like the establishment to do more to recognise the contribution because it will help with race relations, it binds together that we have shared relations.

“We weren’t really recognised and oral history is great if you can pass it on, but there’s a generational language gap now.

“We’ve integrated into the UK and there’s many families now whose children don’t speak Punjabi, so the grandparents can’t pass stories on.

“They are the forgotten soldiers of the Second World War.”

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