UPDATE 14 DECEMBER 2019 – this blog has now reached over 40,000 people. If you have read, followed or shared, thank you so much.🙏
The ebook of Major Tom’s War was launched today at the Military Literature Festival at Chandigarh. I hope to see some of you 2pm – 3pm today when I speak at Venue C. Enjoy the read!
Depinder Sandhu walked into the hotel foyer and I knew him. Not from a photo but in that deep-down, ah-there-you-are-my-friend! kind of way – which is both inexplicable and yet entirely familiar.
I think it was his eyes. Depinder might not have been wearing the full beard, turban and cotton army tunic of his forebear Risaldar Major Amar Singh, but there was not one moment’s doubt in my mind about who he was. And I have, of course, been looking for him for the past decade – or possibly even for over a century, if you look at it in a different way.
All the photographs I have of Depinder’s great-grandfather show him smiling, not just with his mouth (not always visible within the fabulous beard) but with his eyes and his whole being too. Amar Singh was clearly a man at ease with himself and with whatever life threw at him.
I first came to know Amar Singh through the pages of the giant scrapbook my family calls the War Diary. This was compiled in 1919 by Evie Winnington-Ingram, my grandmother, from her (then) husband-to-be Tom Westmacott’s letters, documents and photographs 1914 – 1918. Tom then carefully annotated each image with a name.
One entry for 1915 describes how Amar Singh with tears in his eyes begs Tom not to go on a risky errand into No-Man’s-Land. Both men are officers with the 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse. Tom still goes on this supposedly secret mission to check the barbed wire is intact and returns, oddly elated at his success and with his palm ripped to shreds, only to find Amar Singh waiting for him. His friend has been watching him the whole time, ready with a party of six men to come to his aid, had he been more badly injured. No keeping a secret from Amar Singh!
Amar Singh’s life and work are already celebrated through my prizewinning novel Major Tom’s War – but meeting his descendants on my visit to India completes the journey of the book for me.
He was not merely one of the senior Indian officers present on the Western Front: he was the spiritual leader of all the Sikh troops there. To devout Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib is the personification of the Guru himself and must be treated as such: canopied, awoken and put to bed, and fanned with a chauri. The faithful should also never turn their back on the Guru. Imagine accomplishing this level of respect while ‘on the hoof’? Amar Singh and his men did just that.
I have also travelled widely in France to research the locations mentioned in my grandfather’s war diary. It has been lovely for example to return (to both Amar Singh’s family and the town where it took place) the fine tale of the Doullens gurdwara. The great ceremonial room upstairs in the chateau-like Mairie became the Diwan Hall and Amar Singh gave a thunderous speech to rally his men after their first year in the trenches. Tom recorded every single word, down to the last Waheguru. Most of the Division’s British officers were present, those not as respectful of religions other than Christianity as was India-born Tom must have felt slightly sheepish in their stocking soles.
Amar Singh’s sense of humour shines through the incident of the funeral at Frevent. He was determined to ensure a fine pyre for a respected brother officer who had died of wounds. Tom arranged with a Town Major to provide Amar Singh with a small amount of timber and fuel then left the Sikhs to it, probably suspecting full well what was to come. Amar Singh swiftly had the body placed on top of the entire stock of timbers destined for the trenches. Then he had all the fuel poured on top. Whoompf! Up went the pyre and their friend was suitably honoured. Unfortunately the high wind caught the flames and soon the whole town was alight. No-one was hurt – but it did a lot of semi-intentional damage. A small act of protest and defiance perhaps!
Tom asked Amar Singh how it had all gone later in the day. ‘Oh, very, very well, sahib,’ he must have grinned. My grandfather only heard the complete truth from the Town Major (who narrowly escaped a court martial!) years later and doubtless he roared with laughter.
Amar Singh was even canny enough to outwit the military censors. As the war progressed, an increasing amount of correspondance which revealed the grim reality of the western front was intercepted. By July 1917, the decimated infantry had long since been sent to Mesopotamia. The only ‘Indian Voices of the Great War’ (c.f. David Omissi’s superb work) which remained in France were those of the cavalry. Amar Singh put pencil to paper to write this in Gurmukhi verse to Dafadar Lal Singh (a family member perhaps?) in Amritsar:
What news can I give you but the following:
Many bridegrooms whose thoughts were with their brides have passed away/ Many other men have struggled with death like fluttering pigeons/ Their widows weep since nothing remains for them on earth but sorrow/ Many met by the cannon’s blast have passed beyond/ As, in a ship, one sails away.
I found out from his family that Amar Singh returned to India from France with ambitious plans for a chateau-inspired house with a three-storey tower. The top floor provided a sunny and quiet place for Amar Singh’s devotions. The ruins still survive in Butala today.
The symmetrical lines of eucalyptus trees on the approach to Takkapur where Amar Singh lived later in his life are very reminiscent of the lines of poplars planted to provide shade on the approach roads to many French towns. I wonder if their planting too was inspired by Amar Singh’s travels?
After the war Risaldar Major Amar Singh was awarded the Indian Order of Merit Second Class, a sum of money, a grant of land and the honorary title Bahadur – brave leader. To be honest, this seems very little for all he accomplished.
We know Amar Singh travelled to London and to Paris during the war. He returned not only with strong ideas about culture but also with a desire to better his community through good works. He took on and eventually drove out the moneylenders from his village, opening a bank there instead, which helped its inhabitants prosper.
So how was it we managed to find Amar Singh’s family? My publisher Kashi House did some exemplary photo-archive research and then the Chandigarh Tribune covered the story. Amar Singh’s family saw it and made contact. I seized the opportunity of an invitation to the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh this December to meet everyone. It was just meant to be.
His philanthropic family have continued his good works by founding and running the Captain Amar Singh Public School near Takkapur today. It was an honour to visit the school with Depinder and to meet two of Amar Singh’s grand-daughters and his grand-son who still runs the school, plus other family members.
Depinder has now bucked the trend for staunch army service within the family to become an oil and gas executive. He may have been required to abandon his turban and beard in the process (due to strict international health and safety regulations) but he is still every inch a Sikh his great-grandfather would recognise and be proud of.
Depinder has lived in eight different countries (so far!) with his wife and their son. This experience has shaped a kind, intelligent and caring young man who has assimilated a wealth of cultural experience.
Amar Singh was an excellent army officer and a great Sikh but above all a remarkable human being. His story should be told and shared in schools in Punjab and throughout India and I began this process during my visit with lectures in schools in Chandigarh, Sangrur, Mojowal and Amritsar as well as the Captain Amar Singh Public School.
Amar Singh is an Indian hero who should be studied, celebrated – and above all, emulated.
Author Vee Walker lives in the Scottish Highlands. Her debut novel Major Tom’s War, based on her grandparents’ experience of the Great War was a recent prizewinner at the SAHR Military Fiction Awards 2019.
Major Tom’s War will be launched as a revised and extended second edition ebook on Saturday 14 December 2 – 3 Venue C at the Chandigarh Military History Literature Festival. The paperback version will be available from February 2020.