On Armistice Day hundreds of Sikhs from the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Austria and Greece gathered in the Belgian town of Ieper to commemorate the sacrifices of Sikh soldiers who fell in the First World War.
Sikhs participated in the ‘poppy parade’, a yearly ceremonial walk of thousands from the centre of Ieper up to the Menin Gate, where the names of numerous Sikhs who sacrificed their lives are individually listed. Sikhs walked behind five Sikhs carrying each carrying the Sikh national flag (Nishan Sahib) and a banner with the image to get across an important message regarding the fundamental importance of the Sikh identity.
The Last Post – the traditional (British) salute to the fallen warrior – that is sounded at 8pm every evening under the Menin Gate, a British memorial to commemorate all soldiers who fell around Ieper, was heard at 11am on the dot. 11 Sikh representatives from different countries across Europe, then put down wreaths under the Menin Gate and payed tribute to Sikhs who sacrificed their lives so the people of Europe could live in freedom.
There was also a special Candlelit Vigil of Remembrance on the Menin Gate Memorial Rampart organised by Sikhs soon after the main ceremony (see programme below). Thousands of postcards were distributed by members of the Sikh community to highlight the importance of the Sikh identity. The postcards read:
‘Around 80,000 Sikh troops fought in Belgium and France during World War I. More than one quarter of these soldiers became casualties. In the first battle of Ypres in Flanders in 1914 a platoon of Sikhs died fighting to the last man.’
‘The people of a free Europe should never forget the contribution and bravery of Sikh soldiers during World War 1. Sikhs recognise their sacrifices as an important part of their modern history and their contribution for the freedom and liberation of Europe. This needs much greater exposure and proper recognition as part of the existing commemorations of the fallen.’
‘During these challenging times the distinct Sikh identity and their tradition as fighters for freedom depicted by those courageous Sikh soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our freedom should be promoted and celebrated across Europe. The visible Sikh identity is fundamental to the way of life and very existence of a Sikh and should be protected and given the highest respect by European governments and institutions.’
The Menin Gate Memorial is perhaps the most visited Great War Memorial on the Western Front.The Menin Gate marked the start of one of the main roads out of Ypres towards the front line and tens of thousands of men must have passed through it and onwards along the infamous Menin Road, so many of them never to return.
The Menin Gate is not a memorial tucked away in some remote part of the town, remembered now and then. The Menin Road is still an important thoroughfare and traffic and pedestrians pass under the gate as part of the daily life of Ypres. In this aspect alone, Remembrance is kept very much alive in Ypres, but there is more.
Every night of the year, without exception, policemen close the road to traffic at 8.00 p.m. and then stand at the salute while buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade play “The Last Post”. This happens whatever the weather and there is always someone there to watch. The people living near the Menin Gate often open their doors and stand on their doorsteps to join in this daily act of Remembrance in honour of the young and brave who came from all over the world to die in the defence of their town.
During the summer battlefield-tour months, there may be many hundreds of visitors attending the ceremony. On really significant days such as November 11th, the Last post Ceremony will take place at 11.00 a.m. as well as 8.00 p.m. and especially when this date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, there will be large parades with thousands present. The ceremony is a moving one no matter how many people are there, and has taken place almost continuously since 1927. During the Second World War, when the Germans occupied Ypres, the ceremony was banned. The bugles were kept safe, however, and when the Germans left Ypres in 1945, the plaintive notes of the Last Post rang out under the Menin Gate that same evening.
Its large Hall of Memory contains the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died without graves, incised into vast panels. As bodies are found even to this day, although not a frequent event, when identified they receive a proper burial, and the name is removed from the Menin Gate.
Pictures from Menin Gate of the inscriptions of some of the Sikh missing soldiers: