A little known chapter in the First World War’s 100-year old history – the contributions of India’s soldiers – is being told in a rare exhibit coming to Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus this month.
The touring exhibit, featuring life-sized storyboards and a historical artifact display, is currently available for viewing at the Surrey Centre Library. The exhibit will be featured Nov. 10 in the SFU Surrey campus Mezzanine, along with other related events.
The exhibit features Indian troops on the Western Front, where Canadians forged a proud military tradition in battles such as Vimy Ridge, and highlights the pivotal role that Sikh soldiers played as the war began, noting the shared heritage with Canadians and other allied powers.
The exhibit’s creator, Steven Purewal, says the role of India’s military force, particularly soldiers from the Punjab region, was substantive; more than 74,000 Indian troops were killed in the First World War, a heritage shared with Canada and its 66,000 lives lost during the war.
“As part of the war effort, South Asians made a significant contribution, and today, communities across Canada have little or no knowledge of the role India played and its shared history with Canadian counterparts,” said Purewal, a Surrey resident and community historian. “These are the ties that bind; it is a common heritage we can build upon.”
The founder of the non-profit society Indus Media Foundation Canada, Purewal hopes to work with SFU and community groups to promote the Indian First World War story among young people in schools across the country.
During the exhibit’s Nov. 10 visit to SFU, the Surrey campus will facilitate a daylong workshop for School District #36 teachers on creating lesson plans that focus on India’s war contributions.
The same day, at 1 p.m., the campus will host a special presentation on The India Army and the Great War, featuring Major Gordon Corrigan, author of Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914 -15. An internationally known war historian, Corrigan is a former officer of the Royal Gurkha rifles.
The free, public event will be held in the SFU Surrey theatre. Corrigan will place a wreath at the cenotaph in Cloverdale on Nov. 11 during the community’s Remembrance Day ceremony (11 a.m.).
“It’s fitting that SFU is helping to raise awareness and bring this story closer to the community,” says SFU Surrey campus Executive Director Steve Dooley. “We will also be working on developing curriculum to tell the story in a formal educational setting, so that its relevance in the First World War history is not lost.”
Says SFU historian John Craig, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences: “It is important to remember that the terrible conflict of the First World War was a global war of empires. The events of the 20th century dismantled those empires but political change doesn’t wipe out the importance of the experiences and memories of war.
“The story of the Indian regiments of the British Army is a particularly telling instance of this. At the time they fought for a sovereign and cause common to Canada and the Commonwealth, with a cheerfulness, industry and sacrifice equal to any of the Dominions of Britain.”
Purewal, an avid collector of military memorabilia, has spent many years tracking the India the First World War story.
“The role of India is a huge piece of our heritage, and it deserves to be shared, with our local community, and all of Canada,” he says. “It is a chapter of this global war that needs to be added to our history books – even a century later.”