Buried History

The war efforts of thousands of allied Muslim soldiers in the two World Wars points to our shared heritage

Anyone worried about British Muslims being alienated or looking for a narrative that would involve them in British history should wander through some of the British and Commonwealth War cemeteries scattered around the world. 

There are many Muslim names among the 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres and many crescents on their gravestones. There are graves of Muslim soldiers in many parts of the Far East, such as Hong Kong. Brookwood military cemetery in Surrey contains two dozen graves of Muslim dead who died in Britain of their wounds and were originally buried in the Muslim Burial Ground at Horsell Common, before being transferred in 1968. One could go on and on with lists of British war cemeteries in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Everywhere lie Indian Army soldiers who fell in both world wars, and many of them were Muslims. 

In the First World War, the volunteer Indian Army played a huge part in Western Europe and the Middle East. It numbered 1.3 million, of whom about 400,000 were Muslim. More than 74,000 Indian soldiers died in the war and tens of thousands were wounded. The first VC awarded to an Indian soldier was to a Muslim, Khudadad Khan from the Punjab district of present-day Pakistan, for bravery at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. 

In the Second World War, the Indian Army grew to around 2.5 million by 1945, the largest volunteer army in history. This included more than 380,000 Punjabi Muslims, the largest single group within the force. More than 36,000 Indian servicemen were killed in Burma and elsewhere and 67,340 taken prisoner. Indian Army soldiers, a good many of them Muslims, won 38 VCs and GCs. 

The All India Muslim League’s sympathies were clearly with the Allies against the Axis powers from the very beginning of the war. Support for the pro-Japanese Indian National Army was considerably less than for the Allied war effort.

After 1942, the proportion of Muslim soldiers went down, not because of any paucity of volunteers but because of the growing political demand for Pakistan and Indian independence. 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. 

The role of Muslim soldiers 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 Muhammad being a feminist and conservationist). It is a narrative to be proud of. 

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