White Rock councillor and Earl Marriott Secondary teacher Christopher Trevelyan in uniform for his cameo in Promises, a forthcoming film featuring scenes of the Italian campaign in the Second World War. Contributed photo

White Rock councillor and Earl Marriott Secondary teacher Christopher Trevelyan in uniform for his cameo in Promises, a forthcoming film featuring scenes of the Italian campaign in the Second World War. Contributed photo

Movie traces Punjabi soldiers’ role in battle during Second World War

Surrey director and White Rock councillor participate in film project

For Christopher Trevelyan, it’s a very different look indeed.

Dressed in authentic uniform – and riding as a gunner on a Second World War Lynx armoured scout car – the White Rock councillor and Earl Marriott Secondary teacher travelled back in time for a movie shoot in Aldergrove early in November.

Trevelyan was portraying a soldier in the 1st Canadian Division, attached to the British 8th Army, in the bitter, hard-fought battles at Monte Cassino and the Liri Valley, south of Rome, during the campaign against the deeply-entrenched forces of Nazi Germany in Italy during the spring of 1944.

The cameo role was for the film Promises – a forthcoming short docu-drama funded by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage.

It was also another way for Trevelyan to help a friend – Surrey historian and writer Steven Purewal, of the non-profit Indus Media Foundation – in his efforts to focus attention on a forgotten aspect of the war.

That was the distinguished – but under-celebrated – service of Sikh soldiers of the Red Eagles 4th Indian Division, also serving with the 8th Army at Monte Cassino.

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Like the service of many other soldiers from the Punjab in India during both the First and Second World Wars – when, like Canada, the region was still part of the British Empire – it has been overlooked and excluded from subsequent accounts, and has been missing from what Purewal terms a ‘Euro-centric’ narrative of both wars taught in Canadian schools.

In point of fact, Purewal told Peace Arch News, British, Canadian and Punjabi troops often fought and died side-by-side in both wars, and in those years, Sikh troops’ reputation as fearsome warriors – and commitment to the tradition of Izzat (honour), was legendary among friends and foes alike.

Due for an early-April release, with free screenings through museums and other educational platforms, Promises tells the story of a young Sikh soldier who serves at Monte Cassino, following him through later years in Canada, during which the veteran encounters racism, and is denied entry to a Legion hall, because he wears a turban.

Purewal said it’s important to remember – during these polarizing times – that “British subjects of many backgrounds, including Sikhs, contributed to the freedoms we enjoy today.

“Sikh and Canadian soldiers have a shared military heritage through their common service in the British military defending the Crown – for example in the Second World War during the Italian campaign, as depicted in Promises,” he said.

“In the First World War, the Punjabi Lahore Division reinforced the Canadians at Ypres in 1915 in Canada’s first battle on the western front – in fact, Punjabi troops were there five months before the Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived.”

Purewal said he has been heartened by the willingness of many to get involved in his latest project.

“The production process behind Promises has brought together Canadians from many different ethnicities and walks of life – by taking action we can move positive dialogues beyond slogans like unity and diversity,” he said.

Trevelyan’s involvement with the Indus Media Foundation dates back to 2014, but his interest in the story of Indian troops in both world wars began while he was still a student at UBC, he said.

“Towards the end of my undergrad, I stumbled upon some old dusty Indian Army regimental histories at UBC Library. This was a subject that no one was studying, no one was reading – based on the last time these books were signed out – and no one seemed to care about.”

Forgotten by Britain and India alike, it was a entire world of history “seemingly lost to the ages,” Trevelyan said.

“I was quickly drawn to the Great War (First World War) period in particular, and that was roughly 20 years ago. I’ve amassed a decent collection of books, photographs, and related materials since then, and even started a website (www.king-emperor.com).

“I met Steve nearly 10 years ago when he was starting his effort to tell this story to a broad audience. I helped as a consultant and with research in the early days, and more recently with editing. I’ve also spoken at several events and helped produce a teacher’s guide.”

Trevelyan noted that India contributed over a million men in each war, of which nearly half came from the Punjab.

“It was, twice-over, the largest volunteer army in history,” he said.

“In the Great War, Indian Army soldiers fought in France, Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, Gallipoli, the North War Frontier, Salonika, and the Black Sea. In the Second World War, the Indian Army served in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, Burma, Hong Kong, and Singapore.”

Judging by a short video preview released on Remembrance Day, Promises – also shot in the Kelowna area earlier this year to simulate the terrain of Monte Cassino – includes some impressive war scenes, featuring a sizable contingent of uniformed extras and authentic military vehicles and ordnance.

Promises is a first foray into movie direction for Purewal, whose book Duty, Honour and Izzat (an illustrated historical scrapbook of Punjabi service in the First World War) was recently used as the basis of a Remembrance display at the Museum of Surrey, and which has been adapted for use in the Surrey School District curriculum.

“I don’t have any background in the movie industry,” he said, with a chuckle.

“I’m just a parent who got involved in all this because he was angry that there was nothing about it in my children’s school textbooks.”

But he has been gratified, he said, at how his not-for-profit project captured the imagination of many B.C.-based movie industry regulars who came on board as crew members and in helping with the logistics of staging authentic battle scenes.

Uniformed extras were drawn from cadet squadrons, army reservists and law enforcement personnel, Purewal said.

“My request was that whoever was in uniform had to be weapons-trained,” he added.

“In the case of the South Asian troops, these are people who are actively serving in uniform, including law enforcement and Canadian Border Services agents. It was an opportunity for them to honour their forefathers – that’s why they stepped up to do it.”

Among those contributing to the project have been International Movie Services of Langley, who made an in-kind donation of some $70,000 in rental costs of British, Canadian, American and German uniforms.

Distinctively Canadian restored Second World War vintage vehicles, such as the Lynx scout car (which actually saw service in the European theatre) and a tracked Bren Gun Carrier, were provided through Harry Moon and Jeff Davis of the Coquitlam-based Western Command of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association.

That contribution might have amounted to at least $10,000 at commercial rental rates, Moon said, although he noted members of the association do not usually seek movie work.

“The opportunity to be as authentic as possible appealed to people like us who know the era,” he said.

“Some of us have never entrusted their vehicles to a movie project before. But we’re glad it all worked out and we managed to make the schedule work for everybody.”

Participating in a film reminding Canadians of the service of Sikh veterans was a natural for the association, Moon said.

“It’s sort of why we’re into this – it’s another segment of Canadian history. It’s a shared part of our heritage.”

And Purewal said he feels that introducing these stories of shared heritage into school curricula – as in the teaching resources designed by Trevelyan – is “an important way to combat racism and give diverse youth a more accurate depiction of their history.”

“These tools and the engagement they engender in the classroom will help youth build self-esteem, and motivate them to make positive life choices for their future,” he said.

“This will build a stronger community and a stronger Canada.”



alex.browne@peacearchnews.com

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