"Lions of the Great War" to honor war contributions of British Indians
SMETHWICK, England -- Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk was hit with a smattering of controversy shortly after the Hollywood blockbuster screened in cinema halls across the United States. Some corners of the Indian American community questioned why Nolan's retelling of one of the most pivotal battles of World War II left out a narrative of the Indo-British contributions to the cause.
The English town of Smethwick probably won't be facing similar complaints, as the West Midlands locale plans to erect a 10-foot statue of a Sikh Warrior to commemorate the sacrifices made by British Indians during World War I (also referred to as The Great War).
Sculptor Luke Perry was commissioned to create the "Lions of the Great War" monument, which is expected to be erected on Smethwick's High Street. The oldest and largest Sikh gurudwara in Europe is also located on High Street; the local Sikh community converted a Congregational church into a gurudwara in 1961, about one year before the Smethwick race riots.
"Millions of men from the Indian subcontinent fought in the two world wars, serving in the British Indian Army," a news announcement released by the Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council stated. "The majority of these soldiers never visited the country they were fighting for, yet many sacrificed their lives on the battlefield or afterwards. The contribution of these soldiers is unmeasurable."
An estimated 1.5 million Indians fought in the Great War, according to a London School of Economics (LSE) blog series on South Asian culture and history. LSE's Vedica Kant stated Indian nationalists campaigned to participate in the British war effort when fighting launched in 1914. Providing personnel support for the British war effort, it was reasoned, would open the door for Indian nationalists to campaign the crown for greater rights and freedoms.
Most of the British Indian Army fought battles in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq/Kuwait). Kant, in her LSE blog post, stated nearly 600,000 Indians fought in the Mesopotamia theater during the Great War.
"The Middle East was the most important theatre of war for India during the Great War," Kant wrote. "Four of the six expeditionary forces India provided for the war effort were sent into action in the Middle East.
"Indian infantry and cavalry played an important role in protecting the Suez Canal in Egypt and later in the battle for Palestine, where Indian cavalry played a crucial role in gaining control of the city of Haifa," Kant continued. "Indian mountain batteries and infantry units also played an important role in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign."
The Western Front, meanwhile, saw more than 138,000 Indian soldiers taking the battlefield, according to the United Kingdom's National Archives.
"Indian soldiers took pride fighting in a 'white man's war' to prove themselves equal and their letters express loyalty and prayers for British victory – for many, their family honour was bound up with military tradition," a 2017 news article published by the U.K. National Archives stated. "They suffered heavy casualties, fought with courage and won eight Victoria Crosses on the Western Front out of a total of 11 awarded during the war."
There was also discontent, according to soldiers' letters written during the war and now made public by the U.K. National Archives. One of those letters was penned in 1915, with Sir Walter Lawrence, Great Britain's Commissioner for the Welfare of Indian Soldiers, to Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener.
"In the Sepoy's [Indian soldier's] letters there is a constant mention of the fact that the 'black pepper' is being used up and the 'red pepper' is being saved, in other words that the Indian troops are being deliberately sacrificed and the British troops preserved," Lawrence wrote to Kitchener. "When I was at headquarters I asked for a statement which would enable this fallacy to be refuted, and for some rough figures which I got regarding the affair at Neuve Chappell I am of opinion that it could be shown that the British have suffered more heavily than the Indians. I have not yet received the statement which I asked for."
U.K.'s National Archives, the London School of Economics and other agencies or organizations, in light of the 100-year commemoration of the Great War's conclusion, continue to publish or research the Indian involvement in World War I.
Smethwick, with its estimated population of about 14,000, is one of the six towns making up the Sandwell metropolitan borough, which is located in England's West Midlands county. The town is northwest of London and just outside of Birmingham.
Town officials have been working with Guru Nanak Gurdwara to bring the Lions of the Great War monument online. The statue, though a representation of a Sikh warrior, will commemorate the contributions made by all Indian subcontinent warriors and service members during the Great War, which was fought from 1914-1918. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the war's ending.
Guru Nanak Smethwick will reportedly cover the costs associated with designing and building the statue.