World War 1 day celebrates many sides of war stories

Volunteer dressed as WW1 Sikh soldier talking to man in modern clothesThe arresting sight of Sikh soldiers striding through Brighton Museum greeted visitors at the War Stories Heritage Open day on Saturday.

With their spectacular uniforms, high turbans and handlebar moustaches and razor-sharp swords, it’s clear they would have been a terrifying sight for any enemy. Fortunately, these guys were simply re-enacting the look rather than the real thing.

As they strolled around the many activities in the museum, it was a little like a time-travellers convention as army majors in WW1 costume chatted to St John’s Ambulance volunteers in modern fleeces, while ladies in spectacular Edwardian hats and long hobble skirts wafted through.

Even though it was a busy day in Brighton on Saturday, with the Food Festival taking place in nearby New Road and penultimate leg of the Tour of Britain cycle race ending up at Madeira Drive, the museum was buzzing with lots of extra visitors.

The day was aimed at paying tribute to the people of the First World War, which began 100 years ago and to encourage more visitors to the War Stories exhibition  at the museum with a host of things for everyone to join in and learn about.

The Sikh re-enactors are a fascinating group of volunteers who have recreated the uniform and look of the 15th Ludhiana Sikh Regiment for a project with the National Army Museum called War and Sikhs: Road to the Trenches.  They are travelling the country to visit the many WW1 commemoration events to raise awareness of the contribution Indian soldiers made in the war. One of the volunteers has traced his ancestry and discovered his relative was once a patient at the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton.

Project officer Jasdeep Singh said; “This is living history which we’ve taken across the country but its really special to come here. We know one of our volunteers great great grandfather served in the war and was convalescent here. 20% of the British Indian Army were Sikhs and there were 130,000 in active service during the war.

“We’ve been amazed at the interest shown in our project this year and we really hope to carry on next year as well.”

Children were happy to join in with some great free craft activities such as making old-fashioned toys and a wire carrier pigeon.  The Haywards Heath U3A singing group performed some of the popular songs from that time such as Daisy Daisy and Keep the Home Fires Burning.Craft workshop at the Brighton Museum War Stories Open Day

There were interesting stalls exploring a range of aspects of the war. For example the Blind Veterans UK (known by most of us still as St Dunstan’s) showed some of the toys produced by their residents, and there were some fine specimens of actual WW1 prosthetic limbs to have a look at.

In the Dome, the Military Ancestry Roadshow panel were showing off their vast collective knowledge to help people discover more about the military histories of relatives.

I chatted to Bert Williams MBE from Brighton and Hove Black History at his stall which told of the work carried out by a whole range of different nationalities for the British government.

Man dressed as Sikh officer talking to a St John Ambulance officerI was fascinated to discover there were thousands of Chinese men brought over to Britain to work on the war effort, many of them based at Newhaven around the train-ferry to Dieppe. For some of them their job was to collect the bodies left on the war fields, a gruelling and, no doubt, deeply distressing role.

Over 95,000 people joined the Chinese Labour Corps and they would have been a very common site in Newhaven during the war years.

Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence

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