Buckam Singh, Once Forgotten Sikh Canadian war hero

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WWI medal belonging to Private Buckam Singh

World War I Medal discovery reveals story of Canadian Sikh war hero based on article at sikhmuseum.com

The story of one of the first Sikh Canadian WWI soldiers has been uncovered with the discovery of his Victory medal.

Sandeep Singh Brar an avid Sikh historian purchased the medal from a dealer in England and quickly realized its historical significance. The medal revealed a fascinating story of heroism and tragedy.

"Buckam Singh (who signed his name Bukkan, which also appears on his tombstone) came to B.C. from Punjab in 1907 at age 14 and eventually moved to Toronto in 1912/1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915. He's one of the earliest known Sikhs living in Ontario at the time as well as one of only 9 Sikhs that we know of that served with Canadian troops in WWI", says Singh Brar.

Private Buckam Singh served with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the battlefields of Flanders during 1916. He's a genuine Canadian hero because not only did he serve, but he was wounded twice in two separate battles says Singh Brar. One of the interesting discoveries included the fact that after being shot Private Buckam Singh received treatment at a hospital run by one of Canada's most famous soldier poets the Doctor Lt. Colonel John McCrae.

While recovering from his wounds in England Private Buckam Singh contracted tuberculosis and spent his final days in a Kitchener Ontario military hospital, dying at age 25 in 1919. His grave in Kitchener Ontario is the only known WWI Sikh Canadian Soldier’s grave in Canada. It's sad that he never got to see his family again and died forgotten, but it is exciting that his heroic story is now being reclaimed and celebrated.

While his attestation papers show his signature to be Bukam or Bukkam, his name at the top of the page is listed as Buk Am Singh, which would account for the initials B. A. on the medal. His home on that page was listed as Makilpur, Hishiar and his mother was listed only as Chandi. His tomb stone, unusual for a fallen Sikh warrior, lists his home in Punjab as Mahilpur.

PTE. BUKUM SINGH, the first Sikh to enlist with an Ontario battalion has been twice wounded since he went to the front. He was engaged as a farm hand for W. H. Moore, of Rosebank Ont., when the call came for active service. He was reported injured for the first time two months ago. His name appears among the wounded in to-day's list. Bukum Singh came to Canada from Punjab in 1907. After mining in British Columbia he came to Toronto about two years ago. He went overseas with a Kingston battalion. The Toronto Daily Star Aug 9, 1916

In the news

Buckam Singh's grave in Kitchener

Veteran's story inspires Sikh community Philip Walker, Record staff - November 10, 2008

In a quiet corner of a Kitchener, Ontario graveyard rests the headstone of Pte. Buckam Singh, one of the first Sikhs to live in Ontario, and one of nine who served with Canadian forces in the First World War.

But it wasn't until a Toronto Sikh war historian found his Victory medal that Singh's tale was discovered.

"He's a genuine hero," said Sandeep Singh Brar, who bought the medal from a dealer in England about a year ago.

At first he thought the medal was for a soldier from India -- like others he collects.

But his stomach twisted with excitement when he read the inscription along the bottom.

Singh was part of the 20th Canadian Infantry.

The medal listed his name, rank and registration number.

"Using that, I went to Ottawa and tracked down his military records," Brar said. "And it opened up a whole can of worms."

He discovered Singh served alongside other Canadians in Flanders Fields in 1916 and was injured twice: once by shrapnel in the head, and again by a gunshot in the leg.

He was treated in the hospital run by Guelph's Lt. Col. John McCrae.

While recovering, Singh contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Freeport Hospital in Kitchener -- then run by the Canadian army. He died a year later, at the age of 25, in 1919.

"He had no family, or no one to come visit him," Brar said.

Singh was buried in Kitchener's Mount Hope Cemetery.

Brar believes his grave is the only one in Canada belonging to a Sikh-Canadian who fought in the First World War.

There is no way to know if Singh experienced racism as one of the only Sikhs in the infantry. But his records noted only "good conduct," and the fact the military noted his religion and birthplace on his gravestone is a sign of respect, Brar said.

His family -- in a remote village in the Punjab province of India -- knew nothing about his time at war. They just received a notice when he died.

But they hadn't seen Singh since he left home at 14, when he voyaged across the ocean to British Columbia. Four years later, he moved to Ontario. Brar only knows of one other Sikh who lived in the province at that time.

After living in Toronto for two years, he worked as a labourer on a farm near Pickering.

His story has become an obsession for Brar, who's an internet marketing consultant by day. He's created a website, sikhmuseum.com, to showcase his findings.

"I've spent so much time researching him, it's like chasing a shadow, or a ghost," he said. "You get glimpses of his personality."

To accomplish all he did, Singh must have been bursting with adventure, strength and intrigue, Brar said.

And he's amazed that nearly a century later, the story has come full circle, landing in the hands of the Sikh community.

"As Sikhs, we can feel we're no longer outsiders," Brar said. "We helped form Canada's history."

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