contribution by Jahan Mahmood, cross-posted from The Samosa
In Britain’s hour of need, when she faced the might of the German Army, it was not America that came to her aid but the fighting men of the Indian subcontinent. They came from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and most of all the province of Punjab.
These men were in effect allied to the British Raj, a state that had subjected their land to more than 50 years of colonial repression. Yet they participated in both major wars and performed outstanding acts of gallantry.
The Great War 1914-18
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 Gallipoli. Most Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia and Africa. This allowed British and dominion forces to concentrate on the Western Front.
However, Indians were also the first non-British troops to arrive in the Western theatre. They helped plug holes in the British defensive line in Belgium and France and halt the German advance. More than 60,000 Indians were killed or died from injuries sustained during the Great War.
They suffered more losses than any other British colony or dominion. More than half the dead were from the province of Punjab. This province was of immense importance to Britain and home to the largest number of fighting classes – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, although most recruits were of Muslim origin.
Martial race theory had developed in the post Mutiny years and enshrined the belief that some races were more warlike than others. It was a British system of classification partly influenced by indigenous beliefs. The martial races included Awans, Gakkars, Jats, Mughals, Pashtuns and Rajputs who formed the backbone of the British Indian Army. In total, Punjabi Muslims (136,126) represented approximately a third of the overall Muslim contribution and were singularly greater than both the Sikh (88,925) and Gurkha (55,589) representations.
Their willingness to fight may explain why the largest sources of recruitment to British forces from British India were the Punjabi cities of Jhelum, Rawalpindi and Attock. They are located in present day Pakistan and home to a number of martial traditions. The first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s most prestigious military decoration, was a Punjabi Muslim from Chakwal (between Rawalpindi and Jhelum) called Khudadad Khan. Born into the Minhas branch of the Rajputs he performed an outstanding act of gallantry in Belgium on 31st October 1914:
Khudadad was a machine gunner defending a position against a superior force of Germans … The conditions were appalling with shallow waterlogged trenches with little cover … 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 … making the final breakthrough. He himself was wounded, whilst others at his post were killed … But he held on and carried on firing until British reinforcements arrived to strengthen the line. Thanks to his bravery … the Germans were prevented from punching a hole through the British lines and reaching the vital channel ports.
Second World War 1939-45
During the Second World War 2.5m Indians volunteered for military service. The Punjabis constituted a quarter of the Indian army. Indians fought in three continents and played a decisive role in Britain’s first major land victory against Nazi Germany in North Africa. The final battle for North Africa ended with the annihilation of the Italian and German army in Tunisia on 11th May 1943. Consequently, the 4th Indian Division emerged as Britain’s best fighting unit and went on to face the cream of the German army in Italy.
While the war raged on against Nazi Germany, the Far East Campaign was in full flow. It had got off to a disastrous start. Improved Allied air support, better jungle training and a constant flow of manpower and equipment helped reverse the earlier losses. What began as a disaster culminated in the conclusive defeat of the Japanese army. By the end of the Second World War the Indians were considered to be among the best soldiers in the world.
Britain’s communities today
Today Britain houses large communities from these regions of Pakistan, but there has been very little mention of their contribution to the UK. Many members of this community have strong military ties to this nation and continue to take great pride in their martial history. Indeed history is witness to the spirit of some of these warrior peoples; physically they are not distinct, but centuries of confrontation, intertribal skirmishes and invasions have succeeded in producing a fiery and tenacious character. Their martial culture continues to flourish in many segregated inner-city regions of Britain, where legacies of the past are compounded by the harsh realities of everyday life, to ensure the survival of a proud and ancient tradition.
Moreover, inter-clan conflict is not only reserved for the old country but can occasionally translate onto the streets of Britain where clan loyalties are put to the test. There is no doubt that these communities harbour strong characteristics of loyalty and izzat, and if nurtured and properly understood they could once again mirror the loyal actions of their predecessors.
Presently this community is viewed with suspicion and mistrust but is as much a target of terrorism as any western group. In recent years there has been an upsurge in terrorist related violence in Pakistan which has claimed more than 30,000 lives. Many more have been maimed and injured. These facts remain largely unnoticed. Their forebears were involved in the defence of this nation, not in its destruction.
Jahan Mahmood is a researcher and historian with expertise in martial traditions. He has just completed a groundbreaking exhibition about the British Indian Army with a section dedicated to the Gurkha, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh warrior classes. It will be displayed in the Ministry of Defence and Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
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