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The Punjabi Muslim was considered to be the backbone of the British Indian Army


1914 – 1918 (British Indian Army)

Major Campaigns:
Western Front: France/Belgium
Mesopotamia: Present day Iraq
East Africa: Kenya, Rhodesia

Recruitment: Voluntary

Troop numbers: 1,300,000. It was a largely volunteer army but there are several accounts of coercion and forced conscription during the rule of Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab.

‘Recruitment by class, August 1914-November 1918
10 largest recruited groups

Punjabi Muslims 136,126
Sikhs 88,925
Gurkhas 55,589
Rajputs 49,086
Jats 40,272
Other Hindus 38,546
Hindustani Muslims 36,353
Pashtuns 27,857
Dogras 23,491
Brahmans 20,382’

Main areas of Muslim recruitment:
Rawalpindi, Pakistan
Jhelum, Pakistan
Attock, Pakistan
Peshawar, Pakistan
Rohtak, India

By the end of the Great War the Punjabi Muslim soldier was hailed as ‘the backbone of the British Indian Army', Lieutenant General Sir George Macmunn.

Accounts from the Western Front

By Armistice Day, 11th November 1918, 1.3 million Indian troops had volunteered to join the British Indian Army. They fought the Central Powers in every major battle arena from the Western Front to the Middle East. Most Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia and East Africa.

King George V’s rallying speech:

“You are the descendants of men who have been great rulers and great warriors... You will recall the glories of your race ... Hindu and Muslim will be fighting side by side with British soldiers and our gallant French allies ... You will be the first Indian soldiers of the King Emperor who will have the honour of showing that the sons of India have lost none of their ancient martial instincts.”

Fighting on the Western Front (Europe)

The German Army was undoubtedly the best in the world. The British Second Corps was on its last leg in the First Battle of Ypres, since there were no trained British units to relieve them, the Government of India had to intervene. In total, 140,000 Indians were sent, they were the first non-British troops to arrive in the Western theatre. They helped plug holes in the British defensive line across Belgium and France and halt the German advance. ‘Of the combatants, 8,557 were killed and 50,000 more wounded, many crippled for life. Five thousand of the dead were never found, or never identified. Drowned and lost in the mud, swallowed up by collapsing trenches, or simply blown to pieces by shells and mines, they have no resting place’. More than half the dead were from the province of Punjab. This province was of immense importance to Britain and home to a plethora of fighting classes – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. The Punjab was a predominantly Muslim province which explains the proportionally large number of Muslim soldiers in the Indian army.
India’s first Victoria Cross – Britain’s highest military decoration
Khudadad Khan was the first Indian recipient of the V.C, he was a Muslim sepoy from Jhleum, a city located in present Pakistan.

‘Khudadad was a machine gunner defending a position against a superior force of Germans who outnumbered the Baluchis five to one. The conditions were appalling with shallow waterlogged trenches with little cover, no hand grenades and little defensive barbed wire. When the Germans attacked most of the battalion were pushed back less Khudadad’s machine gun post which carried on firing and prevented the Germans from consolidating and making the final breakthrough. He himself was wounded, whilst others at his post were killed by bayonet or bullet. But he held on and carried on firing until British reinforcements arrived to strengthen the line. Thanks to his bravery and that of his fellow soldiers the Germans were prevented from punching a hole through the British lines and reaching the vital channel ports.’

In the trenches, a humorous story

‘…Jahan…Khan…was separated from [his] party and was close to the enemy’s lines when he was illuminated by the full glare of a German searchlight. He at once rose to his feet and walked towards the German trenches, salaaming profoundly. They dubiously let him into their trench with vigorous gestures he conveyed that he was a Muslim, that he hated the English, whose throats he would like to cut…. Several officers came to question him; eventually they feed him and sent him back, on the understanding clearly stated in signs that he would bring over his party of deserters the following night. He told the story to his British officers with peals of laughter, and gave them a good deal of useful information about the layout of the enemy trenches and the badges and numbers of the men who had questioned him. He was at once promoted to havildar but was killed before the end of 1914.’

Tragic accounts

Account by a British soldier:
‘About 8 am the German started bombing us and before I had one man killed and four wounded. The killed was Ashraf Khan, one of the nicest fellows…both his legs were blown off below the knee, and one arm, and half his face….poor Ashraf Khan, an only son, and his mother a widow. He lived for forty minutes….I had him carefully put on one side where he would not be flung about or trampled on, till I had time to bury him.’

Muslim soldier attends a wounded British soldier:

Hassan Shah (Jhelum) a Punjabi Muslim – France 1916

I came upon a wounded British soldier on the battlefield; ‘Well friend how are things going with you’. Quite alright he replied ‘I am proud I was of service in the fight, but I am thirsty.’ ‘I gave him water to drink and asked if he wanted anything else’. ‘I regret nothing’ he said, ‘except that I shall not meet my sweetheart again’. She wrote to me about 4 months ago and said that in the whole world she loved only me and begged me home. ‘My friend’ I said ‘may Allah satisfy the desires of your heart and unite you with your beloved but really my own condition is no different to yours’. ‘As he was carried away, he had not gone a hundred yards before he expired’.

British Officer’s testimony:

‘There seemed to be about a foot of muddy slush in the trench and what I thought were filled sandbags to give us a footing in the mire. I switched on my electric torch. To my horror I was standing on the corpse of a human being….I felt his pulse…I could see no trace of life, which is not extraordinary seeing that at least two hundred men had trampled over him. There he was, almost submerged in the mud and slush. His face had hardly been injured, and I could see he was a young Pathan ... Moving on, I tried to blot the hideous picture from my brain, but could not.’

The accounts and testimonies of Gurkha, Hindu and Sikh soldiers are no different to the Muslim stories.

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