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Sikhism Sikh Soldier: Battle Honours, Gallantry Awards


Jun 1, 2004
Sikh Soldier: Battle Honours, Gallantry Awards
A Book Review by T. SHER SINGH

The two volumes of "Sikh Soldier", by Narindar Singh Dhesi, have been collectively chosen as the sikhchic.com "Book of the Month" for Septenmber, 2010.

SIKH SOLDIER: BATTLE HONOURS [Volume One], by Narindar Singh Dhesi. Naval & Military Press, U.K., 2010. Paperback, pp vi + 192, £11.95. ISBN: 9781845748913

SIKH SOLDIER: GALLANTRY AWARDS [Volume Two], by Narindar Singh Dhesi. Naval & Military Press, U.K., 2010. Paperback, pp vi + 448, £14.95. ISBN: 9781845749057.

A few years ago, I found myself frantically preparing for a lecture I had been asked to give at the Imperial War Museum in London on the subject of Sikh awardees of the Victoria Cross.

I had done my research over several months, and was now already in London, England, with a dilemma - I desperately needed some critical info to complete my presentation, but it was nowhere to be found. I had gone through my own library which had a reasonable collection of books on Sikh military history, but with no luck.

I had scoured all of my other resources which were easily accessible to me ... always leading to a dead-end.

And then, quite by chance, I came across a tome in the hands of an acquaintance - it was a manuscript, yet to be published, of a detailed catalog of awards and honors received by Sikh military heroes through world history. He said he had it on loan and wouldn't let it go out of sight - understandably, I might add.

I glanced through it hurriedly and within minutes found all the information I had been looking for those last few months - facts, figures, names and all that I needed.

Needless to say, in the weeks and months that followed, I sought out the author. When I did track him down, he most graciously gave me a copy of his work for my personal reference library ... it has been an invaluable and oft-used addition ever since.

He did tell me then that he was actively looking for a publisher.

Well, finally, there's good news.

The monumental work by Narindar Singh Dhesi has finally been published and is now finally available to the public.

Divided into two volumes - the publishers are the renowned Naval & Military Press in United Kingdom - the first is titled "Sikh Soldier: Battle Honours", and the second, "Sikh Soldier: Gallantry Awards".

Before I had the pleasure of digging into these volumes, I - a layman in these matters - had no idea that there was a distinction, within military parlance, between ‘honours' and 'awards', leave alone any clue as to what it was.

The Foreword to Volume One tells us succinctly that Battle Honors are:

" ... a military tradition. They are an official acknowledgment to military units for their achievements in specific wars or operations of a military campaign. They are usually presented in the form of a name of a country, a region or a city where the regiment's distinguished act took place, together with the year when it occurred. Originally, a regiment's colours (standards) were practical tools for rallying troops in the battlefield. Since 1784, regiments have been authorized to bear battle honors on their colours for displaying the unit's past distinctions and thus represent the regiment's history and commemorate its dead. Presented by the head of the state, they are treated with great reverence. Battle honours can normally be found engraved, painted or embroidered on the Regimental Colours (for infantry units) or the Regimental Guidon (for cavalry regiments) ..."

Volume Two, in its Foreword, however tells us that

"... Since ancient times, soldiers have been honoured for gallantry in battle. Over the years and in different societies, such honours have taken many forms but since the 1850s, specific acts of bravery 'in the face of the enemy' by British and Imperial forces have been recognized by the award of a range of wearable decorations. These provide a visible indication both of the bravery of the recipient and of its recognition by the government and nation ..."

The sheer ambit and reach of what Narindar Singh has attempted and achieved has never been tried before.

I have a treasured possession from my teen years - a frayed and dog-eared copy of "The Sikhs: Portrait of Courage", a 1965 publication of the Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and Khalsa Defence Council of Delhi State.

It was a valiant attempt for the time to provide a brief essay on the military history of the Sikhs (author unknown), followed by a litany of the campaigns in which Sikh braves have been involved in modern history, and their respective awards and honours.

Unfortunately, the primary focus of the book was post-independence India. The list of "Honours, Awards and Decorations for Outstanding Gallantry" is limited to the years 1947 to 1965 - there has been no update since then.

Though the citations and extracts provided therein are good summaries, neither the information they provided nor the honorees and awardees they covered are exhaustive.

Similarly, ‘the Roll of Honour‘, listing the Sikh heroes killed in action at the close of Portrait of Courage, starts with October 1947 and runs out in 1965. Only those who sacrificed their lives in India's post-independence wars with its neighbors during the period are covered.

Narindar Singh's two volumes of "Sikh Soldier", however, covers the full gamut of the period after Maharaja Ranjit Singh, bringing us well into the new millennium.

Thus, even the so-called Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s are given decent coverage.

One can glean from a quick glance through these pages that Ranjit Singh had been careful in the composition of his army by focusing primarily on Sikh and Muslim troops. He did make an exception for the Dogra Hindus because he expected them to be as loyal to the Sikhs as Ranjit had been generous and gracious to their leaders.

Well, the Dogras weren't.

With 7 Infantry Battalions, 2 Cavalry Regiments, 19 Light Artillery Pieces, 3 Heavy Field Guns, and 55 Heavy Garrison Cannons under the command of the Dogras - Suchet Singh, Hira Singh and Gulab Singh - they betrayed the Sikhs at crucial junctures. They had entered into a written agreement with the British long before the "wars", whereby the Dogra traitors would be rewarded with the state of Kashmir by the British as payment for their treachery.

The rest is history - and that history, sadly, continues to limp on to this day!

[Today's Karan Singh, the current titular Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, is a direct descent of those very Dogra scoundrels, and his position and wealth a direct product of their kameenapan.]

Nothing thereon is missed - the Mutiny of 1857, China, Abyssinia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Burma, Ghana, East Africa ... and we're still in the 19th century.

All the way to the Iraq War of our time.

Sgt. Uday Singh was with Charlie Company 1st Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment of the U.S. Army when he was deployed to Iraq. On December 1, 2003,

"... Uday was in the lead Humvee of his platoon as a gunner while out on reconnaissance in Habbaniyah, when the platoon came under fire. Uday was the first to return fire, and kept the insurgents pinned down until reinforcements arrived. However, in the continuing fire fight, he was hit with a gunshot to his head and subsequently died whilst being transported to the hospital."

Awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, his ashes are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Washington D.C.

Narinder Singh's Sikh Soldier, Volume Two also informs us that his Khanda-adorned gravestone can be found in Section 60, Gravesite No. 8122 at Arlington.

These two volumes will be of immense value to anyone looking for information - true, accurate, complete - about the real heroes of almost all of the wars fought in the last century-and-a-half, and more.

Not the fictitious, self-glorifying pablum doled out by Hollywood, but tales of real heroes.

There is one version, for example, of what happened in Peking and 19th century Hong Kong, Damascus and Mesopotamia, Anzac and Gallipoli, Baghdad and the North-West Frontier, Ypres and Flanders, El Alamein and Tobruk, Monte Cassino and Florence, San Marino and Greece, Malaya and WWII Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma, Mandalay and Rangoon Road ...

It's the romantic and romanticized version you'll find in films like "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", "Tobruk", "Gallipoli", etc., etc. John Wayne meets Alec Guiness meets William Holden meets Mel Gibson ... and we're told how brave and grim-faced these oh-so-good-looking Yanks and Brits and Aussies and Kiwis were in saving the world on each occasion.

Nowhere, nowhere, will you find even a mention of the real people who fought the toughest battles, overcame the most insurmountable hurdles ... on the real battle-fronts, sacrificing their lives in the hundreds of thousands in other people's wars - wars that the Europeans got into with fearsome regularity in their fierce races against each other to colonize and plunder the world.

But, you WILL find true tales of extreme bravery and real valour in the pages of Narindar Singh's monumental work.

It will inform you unabashedly - even though it should turn French faces red today, if they had any self-respect and a smidgen of decency - that in 1952, the President of France awarded its greatest honour, ‘The Legion of Honour‘, to ace fighter-pilot Sardar Hardit Singh Malik.

Hardit Singh fought with the legendary Red Baron in the air-space over France, and in protecting it, achieved a stupendous NINE victories in the air!

All, while wearing a turban!

Later, in the 1950s, France welcomed him again as new India's Ambassador to France. And he proudly wore his glorious turban throughout his stay in gay Paree!

There's much to be learnt from Sikh Soldier, no matter what your orientation is, or which aspect of Sikh or military history you are interested in.

The two volumes are liberally illustrated with historical photos, even though they are small and in black-and-white - albeit through necessity, I'm sure.

But I would like to hope that there will be a second edition of these volumes soon in the offing. With a more extensive array of relevant photos to give us a better idea of the locations, conflicts and personalities we are being introduced to in these pages.

If such an edition does materialize, a proper index to each volume and a keener proof-reader's eye weeding out typos, would be definite assets to this extraordinary contribution.

I have no compunction in recommending these two volumes as a ‘must‘ addition to each Sikh household's library, no matter how small or limited it is.

I also look forward to more from Narindar Singh Dhesi.

He is no ordinary traveler through Sikh history.

Son of an Akali freedom fighter (Sardar Waryam Singh) - a real Akali, that is; not the wimps who have usurped the term in today's India - Narindar Singh was born in Kenya in 1940. He moved to England as a teenager in 1957 and joined the British Army.

Now in retirement from the army and subsequent business ventures, he lives at Southend-on-Sea in England.

It would be a blessing to the Sikhs worldwide if he continued to research and record other chapters of our military history, and in even greater detail.

All of us, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, need to learn more on the subject.



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