At least 12 Indian Australians are known to have enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War. Two of them, Pte Sarn Singh and Pte Nain Singh Sailani were the only known casualties, both dying in the line of duty in the battle of Messines, in June 1917.
The Australian Defence Act of 1909 stated that those “not substantially of European origin or descent” were not eligible to enlist. Despite this, more than 400,000 people of Asian, Mediterranean, Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Indian descent voluntarily enlisted in the AIF.
Australians came into regular contact with Indian troops from British forces throughout the First World War, fighting in close proximity to them on Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Indian troops of any unit were highly thought of by the Australians. In 1915, Private Charlie Beherendt said: “I have been fighting side by side with Kitchener’s army, and the Sikhs and Gurkhas. The Indians fight like tigers and are a great unit to the Empire.”
Sarn Singh emigrated to Australia from Jullundur, Punjab, settling near Loxton in South Australia’s Riverland where he worked as a farmer. Singh was 38 when he enlisted in the AIF in May 1916 with the 43rd Battalion.
On 10 June 1917, during his unit’s advance on German positions at Messines Ridge, Singh was killed by artillery fire.
In Jullundur, his wife faced a future without her husband and provider, writing to Base Records:
“Words fail to express my mournful feelings and my miserable condition… I therefore see no one else except you who may do me any kind of favour for supporting my life as well as saving my virtue… it would have been much better if I might [have] died before my husband did.”
Sarn Singh has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, Flanders district in Belgium, which was the site of some of the war’s heaviest fighting.
He was awarded British War Medal and Victory Medal for his contribution in WW-1 (1914-1917). The posthumous awards were given to his widow in 1922.
Meghan Adams, Military History Section