Skip to main content

The Sikhs, the British Indian Army and the Empire

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The Sikhs have been part of the British Indian army for close to a hundred years. During this time they not only covered themselves with glory, but also helped fight the battles of the Raj, both in India and abroad. The first Anglo-Sikh war in 1845 followed by the Battle of Mudki made an impact on the British under Lord Gough, who were suitably impressed by the fighting qualities of the Sikh soldiers. In the Battle of Mudki (1846) the British army first came face to face with the Sikhs. The British had to retreat. Subsequently during the Second Anglo-Sikh War at the Battle of Chillianwala(1849), the British were decisively defeated by the Sikh army commanded by General Sher Singh Attariwala. The defeat had incensed the Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, who sacked the British commander LordGeneral Hugh Gough. Due to treachery in the Lahore Durbar, the British prevailed but they realized the prowess of the Sikhs as soldiers and wished to bring them into their fold.

Incorporation of Sikhs in the British Indian Army

The British made overtures to the Sikh leadership and they acquiesced. The British followed up by creating the first Sikh regiment. The 45th Sikh Regiment was thus raised in 1856 by Captain Thomas Rattray. It had earned glory with its courage and loyalty to the British at the relief of Lucknow, during the Indian uprising of 1857. The Sikhs won their first 2 battle honors at that time. The Regiment served in the Fourth Infantry Brigade, part of the Peshawar Valley Field Force, during the Second Afghan War. This is a peculiar trait of Sikh soldiers who cannot escape the tag of being mercenaries. At a time when India was in flames during the 1857 mutiny, the Sikhs sided with the British and this was a big factor in the collapse of the Mutiny and capture of Delhi.

In Malaysia

In Malaysia

In service of the Raj

In service of the Raj

Part of Hitlers India legion

Part of Hitlers India legion

For the Raj

The Martial Race Tag

The British believed in the concept of the Martial class. After their battles with the Sikhs, they were convinced of the warlike qualities of the Sikhs. They had also fought the Mughals for 100 years and had formed the Sikh empire,

The tag of a martial race was now added to them by the English who realized their potential and embarked on a vast recruitment campaign in Punjab. Thus the Sikhs with a population of 1.8% of entire India had a representation of 30% in the British Indian army. In addition, after 1857 Sikh soldiers were given one extra promotion over other sepoys of the Indian army.

The Sikhs were part of the plans to counter the Russian influence in Central Asia. The Anglo-Russian rivalry often referred to as ‘the Great Game’ led to the Second Afghan War. The British considered Afghanistan of great strategic importance for the defense of their Indian Empire. Looking for a way to exert influence in Afghanistan the British took the pretext of a Russian Mission to Amir Sher Ali and started their military campaign.

The Sikhs were also utilized during the Opium Wars with China and the Boxer rebellion. The Siege of Peking was lifted by British Indian Sikh soldiers. This role of the Sikhs is now downplayed as the Chinese feel incensed that the Indian army fought an imperialist war. During the days of Hindi-China Bhai- Bhai, Lt gen BM Kaul has reported in his biography that during a cocktail party for the Chinese generals visiting India in 1956 at Ambala, one of the Chinese Generals lost his shirt at the conduct of the Indian army in China at the behest of the British.

The Sikhs were also utilized for the campaign in Tibet in 1903/04 under General Younghusband. Lhasa was captured and the Dalai Lama fled to Sinkiang.

Sikh Soldiers in Wars for Great Britain

.Along with the campaigns in the NW Frontier and Afghanistan the Sikhs were the lynchpin of the British Indian Army. The Sikhs distinguished themselves in the First World War and followed this up in the Second World War.

Sikh regiments fought for the empire with great loyalty and bravery. It is worth noting that over 83000 Sikhs wearing turban died during the two world wars fighting for the British.

Scroll to Continue

The second world war brought out chinks in the British- Sikh relationship. Many Sikh soldiers who were taken POW joined the Axis-Hitler's Indian Legion as well as the Indian National Army fighting along with the Imperial army. The British were non-plussed that their main supporters had forgotten their oath to the king. However, a majority of Sikh soldiers remained loyal to the Raj.

For the glory of the Raj

For the glory of the Raj

In China

In China

Last word

The English have always had high regard for the fighting qualities of the Sikhs. Even as late as the early twenty-first century the United Kingdom had toyed with a proposal to incorporate a Sikh regiment for the British army. Prince Charles was in favor, but the plans fell through.

Much water has flown down the river and the Raj is now history. But the role of the Sikhs in the service of the British Indian army will live forever. India is independent and the Sikh regiments are now part of the Indian army. But what can never be erased is the role, bravery, and loyalty of the Sikh soldiers which is a golden page in the military history of India.

It will not be wrong to say that for close to 100 years the British relied to a great extent on the Sikhs to police and fight wars all over the world from Europe to China and also keep the peace in India. It is on record that the Sikh regiment of the Indian army has the highest number of gallantry awards and is the most decorated regiment. But the tag of a mercenary cannot also be dismissed out of hand, perhaps it goes with bravery and is part of the game.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2021:

E Randall, glad you liked the article.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2021:

Thank you, Ann, so nice of you to comment. I have been to England so many times with half of my extended family settled there and what you say is true.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 19, 2021:

The Sikhs have much respect in Britain, for their loyalty and their bravery, seen as strong and determined warriors. In more peaceful times, they are respected members of our communities, as all should be, but seem to command more due to their history here.

Lots of detail in this educational article.


E Randall from United States on February 19, 2021:

I am a history nut, great information. Thanks for writing this.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2021:

Thank you, Bill, for sparing time and commenting.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 19, 2021:

I enjoy your history lessons as you fill in the gaps of my education. Thank you Sir!

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2021:

Chitra, thank you for commenting.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 19, 2021:

Great article to highlight the contributions of the Sikhs. Thank you for sharing the historical part, with rare pictures.

Well written and informative.

Thank you.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2021:

Tom, in one paragraph you have written more than what I have written in an entire article. I am impressed with your knowledge. The Sikh army of Ranjit Singh was the most professional force and trained by generals who had worked with Napoleon. There is also no doubt that the Sikhs were betrayed by the Congress party and mass killing of Sikhs was done in 1984 at the behest of the Congress party. Thank you for commenting.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 18, 2021:

Ravi, it's nice of you to have spared time and commented.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on February 18, 2021:

Great article MG.the role of Sikhs as a fighting force has been very unique with them participating on both sides of the fence; in the British Indian army and also as part of the Indian national army under Subhash Chandra Bose. In fact, the battle of Kohima was the only battle in which Sikhs( under British) fought against Sikhs( under INA).

Thanks for sharing.

Related Articles