We Were Here: Remembering Private Buckham Singh, WWI Veteran

On the rainy Sunday of November 5th, 2017 many Canadians stood side-by-side at Mount Hope Cemetary in Kitchener. All in attendance were present to honour the late Private Buckam Singh, a Sikh-Canadian World-War 1 Veteran. This is his story.

In 2008, the esteemed Sikh Historian, Sandeep Singh Brar made a discovery that would alter the history of Sikhs in Canada as it was known then. Mr. Brar discovered the grave of one Private Buckam Singh in the secluded Mount Hope Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. It was from this discovery that he would continue his research with great passion, to share the story of Private Buckam Singh with the world through an annual Remembrance Day Ceremony held at his gravesite.

Mr. Brar has shared the story of Private Buckam Singh from the beginning, before he became the Veteran that we remember him as today. On December 5th, 1893 Buckam Singh was born in the land of five rivers, formally known as the State of Punjab. Buckam Singh was born to Father Badan Singh Bains and Mother Candi Kaur in the village of Mahilpur, District of Hoshiarpur. In 1903, at the tender age of 10-Years-Old, young Buckam Singh was married to Pritam Kaur. This was tradition at the time, however such arranged marriages would not have been solidified until the children obtained adulthood, at which point they would perform a ceremony known as Muklawa in the Sikh Religon, formally consummating the marriage.

A mere four years later, Buckam Singh arrived in Canada. Between the nearly two-decade time period spanning 1904 and 1920, almost all of the Sikhs who immigrated to Canada were exclusively men. This was due to the fact that the government of Canada at the time had hoped that if Sikh men could not bring their families along with them, they would change their mind about Canada and return home to Punjab. Similar laws governed the work that Sikhs were allowed to take on, further segregating them from the average “desirable” Canadian. As a result of this, Buckam Singh found work in the mines of British Columbia. After attaining the age of twenty, Buckam Singh made the decision to move to Ontario, where he would become one of the very first documented Sikhs to live in the Province, the first being Dr. Sundar Singh who was an avid advocate of Sikh-Canadian rights.

In 1914, World War I had broken out, and Canada was only recruiting White-Canadian Soldiers. Only a year later, in 1915, The Canadian Armed Forces opened up recruitment to minority men, including those who were Black, East Asian and Native Canadian. Buckam Singh would go on to carry the title “Private”, one of just nine Sikhs to serve with Canada during World War I. The young Soldier departed Canada for Europe through the port of Montreal, Quebec on August 27th, 1915, aboard the S. S Scandinavian 2. Once he arrived in England, Private Buckam Singh was placed in the 39th Reserve Battalion, however in January 1916, he was transferred to the 20th Battalion on the Ypres Salient. Private Buckam Singh was given duties such as nightly patrol of No Man’s Land, repairing wire fencing; and the ongoing enemy shelling. Private Buckam Singh and all of his fellow Soldiers at duty had to face many of the complications that arise in the trenches, among them lice, trench foot and various disease. On June 2, 1916 at the Battle of Sorrel, Private Buckam Singh was hit in the head with shrapnel. He was then transferred to the No. 8 Stationary Hospital in Wimereux, here his wound was dressed and he was subsequently sent to the No. 5 Convalescent Depot at Boulogne to obtain a full recovery. By June 29th, 1916, Private Buckam Singh’s health was replenished, and he rejoined his battalion for battle. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter Private Buckam Singh was wounded yet again. On July 20th, 1916 in St. Eloi, he was hit in the knee with a bullet which had destroyed shattering his lower leg. His injuries were tended to at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. Incidentally, this same hospital was run by the famous Soldier and Physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, author of the famous poem ‘In Flander’s Fields’.

By July 24th, 1916 Private Buckam Singh was admitted to a new hospital to achieve a full recovery, the 2nd Western General Hospital in Manchester. After spending two months in Manchester, Private Buckam Singh was sent off to the King’s Canadian Red Cross Convalescent Hospital, Bushy Park at Hampton Hills. Private Buckam Singh was in good enough shape to be sent to a recovery hospital, and on November 4th, 1916 he was transferred to the Canadian Military Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park at Epsom. Private Buckam Singh was discharged from the Woodcote hospital March 11, 1917 and stationed at West Sandling Camp, north of Maidstone, Kent, where he would await his journey back to France.

Despite all of his determination, Private Buckam Singh began developing a serious cough around Christmas 1916, which continued to gradually become more severe. As a result, on March 19th, 1917 he was admitted to the Canadian Military Hospital at Hastings. By March 28th, Private Buckam Singh had to have surgery to remove fluid in his right lung. The following week on March 28 Private Buckam Singh tested positive for Tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a severe bacterial infection of the lungs that occurs when an individual inhales particles that become airborne when an already infected individual coughs, sneezes or even speaks. Among just a few of the symptoms experienced during advanced cases of Tuberculosis include fatigue, fever and night sweats.

On May 11, 1917, after battling tuberculosis for months, Private Buckam Singh voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean, carried there by HMHS Letitia, entering through the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. From Nova Scotia Private Buckam Singh travelled by train Ontario. On August 1st, 1918 in Guelph, Ontario Private Buckam Singh was deemed “medically unfit”, and was officially discharged from active military service, having served 3 years and 100 days. Private Buckam Singh’s case was judged by the medical board, who decided that he would require at least one year of additional treatment, to be provided at the Freeport Sanatorium Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario.

Approximately a little over a year in Freeport hospital, Private Buckam Singh had finally succumbed to the Tuberculosis, and passed on at age 25 on August 27, 1919. Private Buckam Singh died a Sikh-Canadian hero, and serves as a reminder of true perseverance in the face of hardship. With no family or Sikhs to support him, he continued to fight with honour and dignity, both on the front lines and against Tuberculosis. He was buried by the Canadian military, with a soldiers grave Mount, and Private Buckam Singh’s grave to this day remains the documented grave of a Sikh-Canadian WWI soldier in all of Canada.

Private Buckam Singh’s legacy adds a proud story to both Canadian and Sikh history, he shows us how important adaptability can be in a foreign environment, and that one can flourish if they use that adaptability to be present and involved in helping with matters that affect someone other than ourselves. Private Buckam Singh did not have to fight a “White Man’s War”, but he knew that the common enemy was simply wrongdoing, so he joined forces with his fellow Canadians to fight and risk his life to defend the innocent lives affected by the forces which began WW1, because War affects all.

Today, we honour the late Private Buckam Singh, the late Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, and all those who have given, and are currently their service in the military. It is truly a pittance of time to remember and honour them on this Rememberance Day.

For more information on Private Buckam Singh’s story, please visit Sandeep Singh Brar’s detailed timeline at:

http://www.sikhmuseum.com/buckam/index.html

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