Digitised records uncover forgotten British Indian soldiers who fought in WWI

London [UK] : As the UK and the world observes Remembrance Sunday on November 14, some of the names and other details of half a million World War One (WWI) soldiers are finally coming to light, providing new information about the allied war effort and valuable information about British Indian Army troops from undivided Punjab.
The records of hundreds of thousands of Indian Army soldiers from Punjab, a region now divided between India and Pakistan, which had lain in a forgotten archive, are being made available to people for the first time, UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) said in a release. Punjabis of all faiths – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – made up around a third of the British Indian Army though they accounted for less than eight per cent of the population of British India at the time.
“That equates to one-sixth of all the Empire’s overseas forces hailing from Punjab making their contribution larger than that of Australia. And yet until now, very little was known about them, in most cases, not even their names,” the UK Punjab Heritage Association said.
When World War I concluded in 1919, the then Punjab Government compiled a series of registers listing the names of every man that had served in the Army. “The resultant records have remained unresearched for almost a century.”

Comprising some 26,000 pages, listing more than 300,000 individual names, the ‘Punjab Registers’ provide village-by-village data on the war service and pensions of Punjabi recruits, as well as information on their family background, rank and regiment.
“They offer a detailed breakdown of the recruiting practices of the Indian Army a century ago and into the individual soldiers revealing insights into their occupational, social, political and faith backgrounds. In some cases, they also detail the awards they received and the far-flung theatres of war that they served in, and from which at least 15,000 did not return,” the release said.
It said the Punjab Registers offer new information on colonial casualties and help to correct the omissions in the historical record identified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
“They also help us to understand why Punjab was so badly affected by the influenza pandemic which raged across the globe from 1918 and which was largely brought back by returning soldiers. The Registers have been tracked down and are being painstakingly digitised by volunteers from the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA). The project is a collaboration with the University of Greenwich which has also helped fund a new website www.punjabww1.com,” UKPHA said.
The heritage association said it secured access to the records of some 320,000 wartime service personnel after years of correspondence and relationship-building with the Lahore Museum in Pakistan.
A future project aims to eventually make available the entire database of hitherto largely unknown archival material.
This initial pilot project will make records available from three districts – Jalandhar and Ludhiana both now in independent India, and Sialkot now in Pakistan. These have now been uploaded on the site which utilises google maps technology to pin soldier records to the place of recruitment.
“It also enables the curious to search for soldiers by name, region, regiment or unit. The records can also be searched on a village-by-village basis allowing individuals to search for their ancestors or others from their familial place of origin,” the release said.
It said these newly rediscovered records have already allowed a number of British Punjabis to piece together details of the roles of their ancestors or others from their native villages in the Great War.
“Former Conservative Party Chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Labour shadow minister Tanmanjit Dhesi learnt that their family villages provided soldiers who served in various theatres of war from the Western Front, the Middle East and even East Africa. In the case of Warsi, she also discovered that one man also served on the North-West Frontier with Winston Churchill. Dhesi has uncovered definitive proof of his great-grandfather’s war including the fact that he was wounded in action,” the release said.

Speaking before the launch UKPHA Chair Amandeep Madra said Punjab was the main recruiting ground for the Indian Army during World War I, making its contribution as significant as that of Australia.
“Often referred to as the sword arm of British India, its importance in fighting the Great War cannot be overstated. And yet the contribution of its men has largely been unrecognised. In most cases we didn’t even know their names until now,” he said.
“In digitising these records we’re allowing the global Punjabi diaspora, as well as researchers and academics worldwide, access to a rich seam of data which helps tell the stories of men of all backgrounds who fought alongside one another and other British and allied troops in the trenches of the Western Front, at Gallipoli and in the deserts and heat of Africa and the Middle East.
“Equally we hope that descendants of those who served can fill in some of the gaps and help us build up a richer picture of Punjab’s contribution. Their recollections, family archives and ephemera are of vital importance in telling the full story of the war and of individual men. Together we can do justice to the collective service of the fighting men of Punjab in what we hope is just the first stage in creating a proper archive of Punjab and World War One,” he added.
Dr Gavin Rand of the University of Greenwich said the registers provide a unique and granular record of Punjab’s role as the Raj’s principal recruiting ground, offering unparalleled insight into the rank-and-file colonial soldiers who fought on behalf of the British Empire in the First World War.
“There are an estimated one million Sikh, Muslim and Hindu Britons of Punjabi origin in the UK and 102 million globally – many hailing from areas which were heavily recruited during the First World War. While there is immense interest from the Punjabi community in their histories, the personal and family histories of Punjab’s First World War volunteers are largely unknown, even to many descendants. Few Indian veterans left written records of their service, and many Punjabi family histories are dominated by the upheavals and migrations which followed Punjab’s partition in 1947,” he said.
“Whereas the ancestors of British and Irish soldiers can easily search public databases of service records, no such facility exists for the descendants of colonial soldiers. By making some of the unique data recorded in the registers widely available for the first time, the project will provide the basis for extensive engagement with the Punjabi community in and beyond the UK by allowing them to access records of their ancestors’ wartime service, as well as providing unique insights into the villages of pre-partition Punjab,” he added.
The release said that successful completion of the pilot project and the positive uptake of the website by the people will lead to a larger, more ambitious, project encompassing the release of the registers for a further 25 districts comprising some 275,000 soldiers’ records.
Other aspects planned include interactive roadshow events across the UK, as well as educational resources for schools, the release said. 

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