The real narrative

[A modified version of this article was published in the September issue of the British monthly magazine Standpoint. For reasons of space it had to be shortened. This is the original version.]

Not so long ago I was taking part in one of those interminable discussions on a forum about the situation to do with Islam in Britain where people who have not set foot here or know anything about this country assure those of us who live here that we do not understand at all what is happening. At one point somebody asked me scornfully how many of the British Muslims’ ancestors had “come to England’s aid during the war”. After I finished explaining that it was the wrong way of phrasing the question and the country is Britain I added: “Quite a few, as it happens, especially from the Indian Empire. Have a look at the gravestones in British war cemeteries.”

There are many Muslim names among those 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres and many Muslim names together with the Sickle on the gravestones; there are war graves of Muslim soldiers in many parts of the Far East, such as Hong Kong; the Brookwood Military cemetery contains two dozen graves of Muslim dead who died in Britain of their wounds, had been buried in the Muslim Burial Ground in Horsell and were transferred in 1968. One could go on and on with lists of British war cemeteries in Europe, in North Africa, in the Middle East and in the Far East. Everywhere there are fallen soldiers from the Indian Army in both world wars and many of them are Muslims.

In World War I the volunteer Indian army played a huge part in Western Europe and the Middle East. It numbered 1.3 million and about 400,000 of them were Muslim. 74,187 Indian soldiers died in the war and tens of thousands were wounded. It is hard to distinguish exactly how many were Muslims except by the signs on the gravestones as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had all volunteered, all fought and all suffered casualties. We do know, however, that the first VC awarded to an Indian soldier was to a Muslim, Khudadad Khan from the Punjab district of present day Pakistan. He had distinguished himself at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914.

Between the two wars the Indian army was reduced in numbers and was down to 200,000 men in 1939. By August 1945 it numbered around 2.5 million, the largest volunteer army in history. It fought on all fronts but distinguished itself particularly in the Far East. Over 36,000 Indian servicemen were killed in the ferocious Burmese and other campaigns and 34,354 wounded; 67,340 were taken prisoner; 4,000 decorations were given to members of the Indian Army, including 38 VCs and GCs. A good many of these went to Muslim soldiers and NCOs.

According to an article in the Defence Journal in September 1999 by Brigadier (Retired) Noor A. Husain the All India Muslim League’s sympathies from the very beginning of the war were clearly with the Allies against the Axis powers. (On the whole, this can be said for most political groupings in India. Despite later explanations, support for the pro-Japanese Indian National Army was considerably smaller than for the Allied war effort.)

The Brigadier also points out that after 1942 the proportion of Muslim soldiers went down not because of any paucity of volunteers but because of the growing political demands for Pakistan and Indian government policy. But, of course, not all Muslim soldiers came from what is now Pakistan, whose own army after 1947 had a close working relationship with the British military establishment. Over 380,000 Punjabi Muslims joined during the war, which makes it the largest single group.

The role of the British Indian Army in the two world wars, the fact that in both it constituted the largest volunteer forces to take part in the fighting, the soldiers’ bravery and the huge number of casualties tend to be forgotten at times. The role of the Muslim soldiers, while the equivalent to that of the Hindus, Sikhs and Gurkhas, needs to be emphasised for a very good reason: the real narrative of British Muslim history includes those glorious and courageous episodes. It is a narrative that cannot be disputed (unlike the rather dubious assertions of Mohammed being a feminist and conservationist); it is a narrative to be proud of.

7 thoughts on “The real narrative”

  1. Very nice Helen.

    The American Interest had an article about just this topic some time ago. I’ll have to try and dig it up. The numbers that served are staggering and, yes, it seems to be a forgotten part of the war.

    – Madhu

  2. Not to toot my own horn, as it were, but I actually wrote a thesis comparing colonial British and French soldiers from 1815 up until the end of World War I. I’ve since converted it into a series of blog posts, which you can read starting here.

    Perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole colonial ‘native troop’ phenomenon, though, is not so much that they were Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs (though that certainly is worthy of exploration), but rather, that they were almost to a man volunteers, fighting for France and Britain by their own choice. I won’t pretend to draw parallels myself, but there’s definitely something to be said about that.

  3. What has the West come to? From a past in which Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs volunteered to save the West from the Kaisers to:

    I think it would be a good idea.
    Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization

    Were the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs fair-weather friends, who fought for the West only because it was strong? Will their successors tear the West to pieces, like vultures feeding on carrion?

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