Sikh Anzacs: Forgotten Heroes of World War I

by Manjari Singh

In the annals of history, there are often stories that remain hidden, waiting for someone to uncover them and bring them into the light. Such is the tale of Desenda Singh and his compatriots, nine valiant Sikh men who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Anzacs during World War I, embodying the principles of equality and justice that their faith holds dear.

Desenda Singh, a Private in the 34/3 Light Horse Regiment, ventured far from his homeland in India to fight alongside the Australian Imperial Force in Egypt in 1918. His great-grandson, Nehchal Singh, now residing in Melbourne, reflects with immense pride on this familial connection to Australia’s history. For him, discovering his ancestor’s military service was a revelation, a link spanning five generations and continents, binding his family to the fabric of Australia’s past.

The journey of uncovering Desenda Singh’s legacy began with a photograph and genuine war medals, hidden away from the knowledge of even his own daughter. Nehchal Singh’s quest for truth led him to delve into his family’s history, tracing the footsteps of his ancestor’s bravery. Through meticulous research and collaboration with historians, he pieced together the narrative of his great-grandfather’s sacrifice and commitment to his newfound home.

Crystal Jordan and Len Kenna, historians with the Australian Indian Historical Society, shed light on the broader context of Sikh involvement in the Anzac forces. They reveal that among the 16 men of Indian origin who embarked on this journey, nine were Sikhs. These men, driven by shared values and a sense of duty ingrained by their faith, saw it as their religious obligation to confront the forces of evil represented by the Germans.

Despite Australia’s fraught history of racism, Nehchal Singh sees his adopted country as a beacon of inclusivity, echoing the sentiment he believes his great-grandfather would share. His appreciation for Australia’s diversity is intertwined with his reverence for Desenda Singh and his fellow Sikh Anzacs, who, though their numbers may have been small in the grand scheme, played a significant role in shaping the identity of the Sikh community in Australia.

For the Sikh soldiers who enlisted, the battlefield was not just a place of conflict but also a crucible where their roots in a foreign land took hold. As Len Kenna aptly puts it, “You can’t grow a tree without roots.” Through their sacrifices and service, these forgotten heroes laid the foundation for future generations to claim their rightful place in the tapestry of Australian history.

As we commemorate Anzac Day each year, let us remember not only the gallantry of the soldiers whose names adorn monuments but also the unsung heroes like Desenda Singh and his comrades, whose stories remind us that valor knows no boundaries of race or creed. Theirs is a legacy of courage, resilience, and the enduring quest for justice that resonates across generations, inspiring us to honor the past as we shape the future.

Manjari Singh

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