Exactly 100 years ago today on 19 May 1915 a young Sikh soldier, engaged in a fire-fight with Turks on the mountainous passes on the Gallipoli peninsula was struck behind the eyes by a Turkish bullet.
As it smashed into his skull it severed optical nerves rendering him completely blind. Regardless, he somehow continued to pass orders without interruption until he was forcibly removed from his post to seek attention.
The young Karam Singh was rightly awarded the highest medal of the Indian Army – the Indian Order of Merit. He was mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Ian Hamilton and Karam Singh, now permanently sightless, was awarded a land grant in the Montgomery District of Punjab.
Without the work of EFW volunteer Taranjeet Singh Padam, this story would have been forgotten like many hundreds of thousands of others. What happened next is a wonderful example of the Citizen Historian Project and how it is helping to create new histories.
Deep within the archives of the British Library, where Taranjeet works as a librarian, he discovered an article titled “Undefeated Karam Singh” in an obscure publication revealing Karam Singh’s post-war story as told 30 years later by Lt-Col Sir Clutha McKenzie.
In 1944, the 60-year-old Karam Singh single-handily traversed India over three days in the height of summer to seek training from an institution for blind veterans in Dehra Dun called St Dunstans. He wanted to learn ‘those dots you read with the fingers, and I should like to learn the typewriting too. Also, could you teach me me the harmonium and I want to learn a trade as well’.
From his village he wrote a letter, which landed on the desk of Sir Clutha MacKenzie. A veteran of Gallipoli, the letter rekindled fond memories of the Sikhs with whom he had fought:
‘We saw those splendid Sikh fellows working their guns, their dark eyes flashing, their tall CO, cool, trim, calm as on parade, quietly directing. Some of the men bloody with wounds, while many must have been lying dead in the pits, exposed as they were to the hail of musketry . . . We loved those Sikhs, we always exchanged smiles of friendly confidence. I was delighted one day when one of these tall handsome fellows beckoned me to enter his bivouac and made me eat a dish of curry and chappattis, a marvelous feast after our dry bully and hard biscuit. So Karam Singh was one of those grand gunners.’
Taranjeet’s discovery of the article, which is full of warm recollections and a rich description of Karam Singh, his deeds and spirited personality was quickly matched to another research finding in the Empire Faith & War project, which had uncovered, through the archivist at St Dunstans, a photograph of the doughty Sikh warrior.
Tomorrow we will publish that photograph of Lance-Naik Karam Singh IOM and learn where Taranjeet’s research is going next.
Photograph: Taranjeet Singh Padam at the British Library. By Raj Gedhu.