By Cyndi Stonebraker
Niagara Gazette — For many people, Veterans Day is just another day off from work or school. Maybe a free meal from a local restaurant for those who’ve served. Another sale at a big-box store. The significance of the event lost on those who look forward to, what this year will be a long weekend. What they don’t realize is that where Memorial Day was established to honor civil war dead, Veteran’s Day has definite historical importance.
Although the treaty of Versailles was signed June 28, 1919 fighting had actually ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities between allied nations and Germany went into effect. That day was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — Nov. 11, 1918.
Armistice day was approved as a legal holiday in 1938. After WWII and American forces fighting in Korea, legislation was approved in 1954 changing the name to Veterans Day to honor American veterans of all wars. In Niagara Falls we have the unique proximity to Canada and offer a nod of thanks to our allies. There are also members of our own community who served as allies, yet they go unnoticed.
It is a little known fact that more Indians volunteered to fight for Britain in WWI than all the Scots, Welsh and Irish combined; up to 1/3 of them Sikh’s despite making up just a fraction of India’s population. As early as September 1914, Indian troops were moving into France to reinforce British troops that had lost a huge number of causalities. Indian troops were on the Western Front by the winter of 1914 and fought at the first Battle of Ypres. In total, 800,000 Indian troops fought in all the theatres of the war including Gallipoli and North and East Africa. By the early 20th century the Sikh’s homeland, Punjab, was providing more than half the troops used in the British-Indian army despite Sikh’s making up just 1% of the county’s population. With the onset of the First World War, Britain found it had a useful new source of war conscript; the enlistment of the Kalsa.
The Kalsa are a group of Sikh men who are initiated wear on their bodies a set of symbols which have very much to do with military status. As well as the commitment to remain faithful to Sikh teachings, the Kalsa vow to take up arms to defend themselves and others against persecution. At the end of the 17th century, the Tenth Master Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) proclaimed, “when all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword,” giving rise to the concept of saint-soldier. For the Sikh warrior, once on the battlefield, it was honorable to fight to the end under the banner they served. One particular story told of a German regiment, seeing Sikh’s fighting against them running out of ammunition, taking out swords and marching toward them. In all 47,746 Indians were classed as killed or missing with 65,000 wounded. The Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry including 12 Victoria Crosses.
On a local level, the Niagara Sikh Association continues the time honored tradition of service by opening their doors to everyone at their 19th Street community center. These are the people who will step up first whenever a need arises in the community. From their initial participation in 2007 as part of the Niagara Falls Memorial Day Committee, the Niagara Sikh Association’s presence at Memorial and Veterans Day observances in honor of their forefathers who gallantry served, is always a welcome and colorful one. Their devotion to helping others will once again be demonstrated on Monday at Hyde Park. This year their attendance will include placing a wreath among those set by area posts and legions. Members will also serve — free of charge — refreshments and hot beverages to ward off the morning’s chill.
So this Veterans Day when you thank a vet for their service, please also thank a Sikh. Because there is a pretty good chance one of their family members faced down the Nazi threat to democracy and freedom just like yours did.Cyndi Stonebraker is a US Navy veteran and Niagara Falls resident.