A WWI Sikh Soldier's GiftSANDEEP SINGH BRAR
A military relic belonging to a wounded Sikh soldier from World War I reveals a story of war, the significance of the kirpan to Sikhs, and a bond of gratitude and respect between two men from different cultures that intersected at a military hospital in Brighton, England.
While researching the hospitals set up for Sikh soldiers in Brighton during World War I, I discovered an unusual artifact - an old World War I bayonet - with a military dealer in England. It had been issued to a soldier in the British Indian Army. Attached to the bayonet was an old faded paper tag with the following note:
‘This Bayonet was given by Subadar Thakur Singh MC, 14th Sikhs (Attached 47th Sikhs) to Colonel Sir Bruce Seton Bt of the Indian Medical Service in gratitude for the treatment he received at Kitchener Indian Hospital, Brighton’
What is a bayonet? Who was Thakur Singh? Who was Colonel Seton? What was the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton? Why would Thakur Singh give Colonel Seaton a bayonet as a gift? So many questions ... thus began a journey of discovery.
I started the journey by researching the bayonet itself, which I had purchased from the dealer.
A bayonet is a short knife that soldiers attach with a locking mechanism to the front of their rifles during battle, making the bayonet a deadly weapon in close hand to hand combat with the enemy, especially when there is not enough time to reload
a gun or when ammunition supplies have been depleted. Bayonet charges of the enemy position had been a standard military tactic in the British army and WWI saw this tactic once again employed in charging the German trenches en masse.
Every soldier was provided with his own bayonet which was carried in a holster attached to the trouser belt and easily accessible when needed. Although designs have changed over the years, the bayonet continues to be used by most armies around the world, a fact which is emarkable given that it was first used by armies in the 17th century.
Thakur Singh's bayonet is a WWI era British Lee Enfield SMLE Pattern 1907 Bayonet, designed to fit the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No 1, Mk III infantry rifle. Markings on the bayonet indicate that the bayonet was manufactured at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, England in November 1914 and issued to a British Indian Army unit.
Having researched the bayonet, I now turned my investigation to finding out more about Thakur Singh, Colonel Seton, their connection and their meeting at the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton.
My friend Gurmit Singh of Toronto is a Sikh military historian and collector with a great archive of hard to find British military records and regimental war diaries. With his help and through intense digging into military records, we came across multiple references to Thakur Singh and a profile of his military career soon began to emerge.
The 47th Sikhs were initially raised at Sialkot in Punjab in 1901 and were composed of 4 companies of Sikhs. Military records indicate that Thakur Singh had been part of the regiment from its early days, achieving the rank of Jemadar on March 17, 1901, promoted to the rank of Subadar on March 1, 1904, Subadar-Major on April 1, 1917 and finally the honorary rank of Second Lieutenant on October 7, 1919.
I was heartened to also learn that he had survived the brutality of World War I.
His full title at the end of the war was recorded as Subadar-Major Thakur Singh Bahadur, M.C. Order of British India, 2nd Class. The title ‘Bahadur’ was an honorary title that was used by winners of the Order of British India. The order was highly regarded and was awarded for distinguished service in a particular campaign or to officers with between 20 to 30 years’ service. The M.C. designates a recipient of the Military Cross.
This medal and title was instituted by the King on December 28th, 1914 to formally recognize the courage of junior officers during wartime. What is really interesting is that Thakur Singh was mentioned in the very first batch of soldiers, British or Indian, to be awarded the medal by King George.
During WWI there were only 12 Military Cross winners among the 47th Sikhs.
Before the war, Thakur Singh had seen combat in the 1903-1904 British invasion of Tibet to prevent the Russian Empire from gaining a foothold and received a Tibet 1903-04 medal with clasp for Action at Gyantse and in the march on Lhasa.
During World War I and immediately following it, Thakur Singh and the 47th Sikhs saw action in France, Mesopotamia and Palestine.
The 47th Sikhs were among the early Indian divisions arriving in France at Marseilles on September 26, 1914 as part of the 3rd Lahore Division. The 47th Sikhs participated in the attack on Neuve Chapelle beginning on October 25, 1914 and it was during the fierce fighting here that Thakur Singh was wounded in battle on October 27, 1914.
After hospitalization and eventual recovery Thakur Singh rejoinded the 47th Sikhs on January 11, 1915 England at Allouagne in France.
Gurmit Singh told me he had once seen a photograph of Thakur Singh and a picture of his medals posted by a collector on a military forum on the web. Unfortunately a lot of collectors removed these images from the net, no longer wanting people to know what they had in their private collections. The photos and posting were long gone and I could not find any trace of them after extensive searching. What a shame when a priceless piece of Sikh history disappears like that.
The other person in the story of this bayonet is Colonel Seton. Brevet Colonel Sir Bruce Gordon Seton (1868 – 1932), C.B., the ninth Baronet of Abercorn was both the son and grandson of soldiers. He entered the Indian Medical Service as a Surgeon Lieutenant in 1892. He served on the North-West Frontier in the Waziristan campaign of 1894-95 where he was severely wounded. He also received a medal in the Tochi campaign of 1897-98.
During his time in India Seton rose to hold the appointment of Deputy Director-General of the Indian Medical Service in a career that spanned over 20 years. He became a Brevet Colonel on June 13, 1913 (that’s what the Bt. abbreviation in the note stands for) and during the War served as the commanding officer in charge of the Kitchener Indian Hospital at Brighton.
The Kitchener Hospital was the largest of the three Indian military hospitals set up by the British during World War I at Brighton, which included the Royal Pavilion Hospital with 724 beds, the York Place hospital with 550 beds and the Kitchener Indian Hospital with 1,700 beds.
Colonel Seton eventually retired from the British Army in May 1917.
During his tenure as the commanding officer of the Kitchener Hospital, Col. Seton was viewed as a strict disciplinarian but there is also another side to the man in terms of his attitude towards the Sikh soldiers that my research uncovered.
Knowing how important a role religion played in the lives of the patients at his hospital, Col. Seton had a gurdwara set up for the Sikhs and ensured that they were provided with copies of Guru Granth Sahib. He also requested the Imam of the Woking mosque (the only mosque in England at the time) to visit the Kitchener Hospital to discuss setting up a mosque for the Muslim patients.
When the honour of Indian soldiers fighting on the frontlines in France was questioned by the military authorities suspecting the possibility of self-inflicted wounds by Indians, it was Colonel Seton who on his own initiative undertook a top-secret medical study based on 1,000 wounded soldiers admitted to the Kitchener Hospital. Col. Seton chose wounds for study which were most likely to be self-inflicted: wounds ... to the hand, the arm and forearm, the leg and the foot.
His findings indicated that the incidences of such wounds were by mere chance and statistics showed that the occurrence of such wounds among the Indian soldiers was no higher than among soldiers of other British regiments in the war.
Being wounded in the attack at Neuve Chapelle on October 27, 1914, Thakur Singh would have first been transferred to field hospitals in France before eventually making his way to the newly set up hospitals of Brighton. Thakur Singh would have been one of the early arrivals of the wounded Sikh soldiers to arrive in Brighton in December 1914 and may have initially been at the Royal Pavilion hospital before being transferred to the Kitchener Hospital.
The note on the bayonet confirms that he received treatment at the Kitchener Hospital.
While in hospital, Thakur Singh would have been afforded all of the respect that a senior officer in the British Indian Army was entitled to, including private hospital rooms only shared with other officers, separate facilities for use by officers, as well as a dedicated staff. Being an officer, Thakur Singh would also have received visitors and not been subject to as harsh restrictions as those placed on other soldiers visiting the town of Brighton or interacting with the civilian population.
During his recovery in Brighton, Thakur Singh would likely have been invited as an honoured guest for tea or dinner at the
homes of prominent Brighton personalities and politicians.
Why would Thakur Singh have given Colonel Seton a bayonet? Is this not an odd gift?
To a Sikh, one of the most sacred articles of their faith is the kirpan. Mandated by Guru Gobind Singh for all Khalsa Sikhs to carry, it reminds Sikhs of their commitment to fighting injustice and oppression in any form.
As Sikh soldiers were shipped out to faraway lands as part of the British Indian Army, to fight the Great War, the amount of personal items that they were allowed to take with them was severely restricted. The British were accommodating in allowing Sikh regiments to take the Guru Granth Sahib, their Scripture and Spiritual Guide, with them, as well as musical instruments for kirtan, the singing of hymns during a Sikh prayer service ... something they regularly did in their base camps wherever they were posted.
In the surreal landscape of the battlefields of France and Belgium, their spirituality provided Sikh soldiers with a sense of strength and sanity while facing a determined enemy in the first mechanized war of the 20th century. It was a which saw
unprecedented efficiency in killing and death never before seen in warfare.
With the lack of personal items on the battlefield, the bayonet likely filled the role of the sacred kirpan for the Sikh soldiers. Looking for a special and meaningful gift to give Col. Seton and knowing full well that an old veteran of the British Indian Army like Col. Seton would fully value and understand the cultural and religious significance of the gift and appreciate it, Thakur Singh chose to give Colonel Seton a bayonet.
Being manufactured in November 1914, this would have been a brand new bayonet at the time of Thakur Singh's hospitalization and he likely requested and received it from one of his staff members in December 1914 or early January 1915 to present to Col. Seton as Thakur Singh's hospital stay in Brighton neared an end.
Being an officer, Thakur Singh’s gift would not only have been something that he gave to Col. Seton in gratitude for his own personal medical treatment. As an officer and leader of men, Thakur Singh would also have been representing all the Sikh and other Indian soldiers in this gift presentation to ensure that Col. Seton would be aware that the work of his medical team at the Kitchener Hospital at Brighton was appreciated by all of its patients.
I am thankful that this old bayonet has survived a full century to eventually complete its journey and end up in Sikh hands again for safekeeping. The almost forgotten story of the warrior Thakur Singh and his special gift is now commemorated on SikhMuseum.com, where the bayonet can be viwed and further details of his saga found.
To learn more, visit the SikhMuseum.com Exhibit - "Doctor Brighton’s Pavilion."
Sandeep Singh Brar is the Curator of SikhMuseum.com and the creator of the world’s first Sikh website, Sikhs.org
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 31, 2012, 5:35 PM.
What an emotional article! All children in Europe should know of the extraordinary stories of the hundreds of thousands of Sikh soldiers - like Thakur Singh - who sacrificed their 'today' for Europe's 'tomorrow'
2: N. Singh (Canada), July 31, 2012, 9:59 PM.
Sandeep Singh ji: Thank you! This was brilliant. A very well researched and equally well told story. It is very much appreciated and your work is a wonderful legacy for our future generations.
3: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), August 01, 2012, 1:24 AM.
Yes, by all means, Sandeep is the first man who took the initiative to put Sikhs - our history and our stories - on the cyber map. I remember decades ago we used to exchange his name amongst our friends ... like sharing gems of info in school. Would love to see his photo on one of his articles - so that we can put a face to his name.
4: Joginder Singh Rakhra (Pasir Mas, Malaysia), August 01, 2012, 4:35 AM.
I have a similar looking bayonet with me. Passed down from my grandfather, S. Hari Singh Nihang to my late father and to me. It was originally brought to Malaysia by my grandfather (village Kandayal, somewhere near Moga, Punjab) along with several other swords (missing/stolen?) and a spear. My grandfather was a tailor for the officers attached to the British Army and the plantations, at the British Military Hospital at Taiping Garrison (my hone town in Malaysia). The bayonet was rusty and dented and I have cleaned it up and placed it before Guru Granth Sahib at my residence, where parkash is done daily. The wooden handle is missing. It looks like a World War relic. How do I identify it?
5: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), August 06, 2012, 5:09 PM.
Joginder, I am glad that your grandfather's old bayonet has found a place of respect beside the Guru Granth Sahib. To learn more about your bayonet type on Google, search terms 'British Bayonets' and 'Bayonet Identification' to begin your journey of discovery.
6: Avtar Bahra (United Kingdom), September 11, 2012, 8:13 AM.
Great article. I have images of Subedar Thakur Singh And his medals somewhere on my computer. Top soldier!