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New Children's Book Features Sikh Soldiers in World War One

10/11/2015 11:39 GMT | Updated 10/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Flo Of the Somme, the latest picture book to help children engage with the World War 1 centenary commemorations and a bygone age, centres this time on the role of mercy dogs and other animals in the World War 1. 2016 marks the centenary of the battle of the Somme - the most costly engagement in the four year brutal war.

Intelligent, loyal and easy to train, man's best friend was an obvious ally for almost every nation which partook in the war. By 1918, it is estimated that Germany had employed 30,000 dogs with Britain, France and Belgium recruiting a further 20,000. That's not to mention the horses, mules, elephants, camels, cats, goats, canaries, bears, rabbits, chickens, glow-worms and even a baboon, fox and golden eagle, who were used on all sides during World War One.

From terriers acting as ratters in the trenches, to messenger dogs in the field, perhaps one of the most astounding canine roles was that of the mercy dog. Robinson and Impey's picturebook focuses on mercy dog Flo, a depiction of one of the many thousands of dogs who would find dying men on the battlefields and offer a glimmer of hope in the form of a first aid kit, or simply quiet company during their final moments. The capacity for intelligence and compassion in these animals, amidst bloody battlefields and the cacophony of gunfire, is a rare clause of optimism in the gruesome tale of The Great War.

Despite warfare changing dramatically in the past century, canine soldiers still pepper battlefields. Nowadays, military dogs may be laden with bulletproof vests and video cameras rather than vials and bandages, but they remain on the front line. No technology has surpassed the sensitivity of a dog's snout, and if it ever does, it won't have a smidgen of their loyalty.

Flo of the Somme has also been written to help broaden children's understanding that this was a truly global conflict and features a number of illustrations of Sikh soldiers in the trenches.

Over 130,000 Sikh troops fought in Belgium and France during the First World War and more than one quarter of those soldiers died. The Sikh community's contribution to the war effort has recently been marked in the unveiling of the UK's first national Sikh memorial at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Although Sikhs only made up two per cent of the population of India, they formed twenty per cent of the Indian Army and saw active service from the Somme to Gallipoli.

Illustrator Martin Impey said "by including Sikh soldiers in some of the illustrations I was keen to highlight the contribution their community made to the war effort, encouraging children to be aware of the sacrifices they and so many other soldiers from faraway lands made."

While Where The Poppies Now Grow focusses on two childhood friends who leave home to join the army, The Christmas Truce pays homage to that remarkable moment in history when, on Christmas Day 1914, peace found a place on No Man's Land. In addition to the brave dogs of the war effort, Flo of the Somme honours the role of pigeons and donkeys, among other courageous creatures who were recruited between 1914-1918.

Written in a gentle, lyrical style the rich illustrations give tremendous scope to incorporate detail that will engage children in a visual representation of the conflict. Robinson's lilting verse, including pertinent lines such as 'a field of bullets where once was clover', marries with Impey's intricacy-soaked illustrations to create an insightful induction to War Studies for students. Armed with this picturebook and their poppies, primary school students can feel a little more personally connected when paying their respects this centenary.

Eyes could swim for hours in the details of this book, but the maps in Flo of the Somme merit a special mention. Whilst this is a children's book, I defy any adult not to learn something from the crafted sketches of the war's iconic locations.

Of course it is Flo, and the loyal counterparts she stands for, who we come away remembering. "They had no choice", but we can comprehend the decision made for them.

Flo Of The Somme, The Christmas Truce and Where The Poppies Now Grow by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey are published by Strauss House Productions.