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  • After Remembrance Day: the contribution of the British Indian army

    by guest
    13th November, 2010 at 6:53 pm    

    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[1].

    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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    1. Owain — on 13th November, 2010 at 8:20 pm  

      They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.
      Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
      At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
      We will remember them.

    2. muslim — on 13th November, 2010 at 9:07 pm  

      excellent post

    3. douglas clark — on 13th November, 2010 at 9:53 pm  


      Excellent article. People, generally, don’t know this stuff.

      Here is something known as the Kohima Epitaph. Kohima being otherwise known as the Stalingrad of the East in which the Japanese invasion force aimed at India was comprehensively defeated:

      When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,

      For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today

    4. mostly harmless — on 14th November, 2010 at 1:23 am  

      This is how we treat our commonwealth veterans

      ‘The last major fundraising campaign was held in 2002 as The Jubilee Appeal for Commonwealth Veterans. This raised £3 million. The majority of the help given is for basic food and shelter. In some areas RCEL struggles to provide even a minimum level of subsistence being only 20 meals a month. In addition, where possible, it helps with healthcare.’

      That’s £3 million for 5 million vets, less than a pound each. I think it’s high time some money raised by the Royal Legion is used for commonwealth vets.

    5. don — on 14th November, 2010 at 2:48 am  

      Forgotten Heroes - The Muslim Contribution

      “1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces died during the two World Wars. There are 23,000 cemeteries, memorials and other locations worldwide where they are commemorated. When you search the name Muhammad on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, it states, “There are too many results, and the top 1001 is displayed.”

    6. iqbal — on 14th November, 2010 at 2:50 am  

      Forgotten Heroes - The Muslim Contribution

      “1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces died during the two World Wars. There are 23,000 cemeteries, memorials and other locations worldwide where they are commemorated. When you search the name Muhammad on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, it states, “There are too many results, and the top 1001 is displayed.”

    7. Golam Murtaza — on 14th November, 2010 at 9:10 am  

      I think the South Asian contribution to Britain in the First and Second World Wars IS now relatively well known. It’s just that some people prefer to deliberately ignore it. A bit like the way certain sections of France’s population shrug off the wartime sacrifice of their former North African colonial subjects.

    8. douglas clark — on 14th November, 2010 at 9:11 am  

      mostly harmless,

      Good point.

    9. douglas clark — on 14th November, 2010 at 9:26 am  

      Golam Murtaza,

      Well, it is to people that read PP! Jai, and others, have done an excellent job of highlighting it over the years. Not so sure about your man on the clapham omnibus though.

    10. damon — on 14th November, 2010 at 11:42 am  

      I’ve got the BBC1 ceremony from Whitehall on the TV right now.
      The whole affair is pretty Anglocentric.
      Apart from the High Commissioners from the commonwealth laying wreaths and some BME soldiers, there is hardly a black face on the TV screen.

      David Dimbleby - Church of England vicars, It’s a long way to Tipperary, talking to wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, tales of The Blitz .. I’m watching this and thinking that it’s not really appealing to a lot of black and minority ethnic people.

      I don’t care for the way that Dimbleby does it.
      Now it’s the Paras marching to there’ll There’ll always be an England.

    11. Refresh — on 14th November, 2010 at 12:05 pm  

      A timely article Jahan. Thanks. Its only a week ago I and a friend were discussing the contribution of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian soldiers to both First and Second World Wars. Although, he like you, seemed to be keen on focussing on those from the Punjab than anything else. And, he being a SIkh, had more to offer wrt the turbanned contingent. Although the turban is probably also more likely to be a regional tradition as well.

      My thoughts are that, we need a dignified civilian presence at next year’s ceremony, in large numbers from all the contributing communities. By that I do mean in large numbers.

      It appears up until paritition Indian soldiers featured in quite a few British war films and nothing after.

      Perhaps there was a film which could be revivied, that had the same cachet as The Dambusters - or better still maybe we need a joint production from across the sub-continent for a world premiere at Leicester sq.

    12. earwicga — on 14th November, 2010 at 12:23 pm  

      Refresh - you’ve not seen The English Patient?

      Thanks for this post Jahan.

      damon - pretty much the same thing last night at the RBL concert.

    13. damon — on 14th November, 2010 at 3:54 pm  

      During the Second World War 2.5m Indians volunteered for military service.

      Is that really something to be proud of though?
      I would guess that many did not even know where exactly Germany or Japan were and what the reasons for this world war was.
      Were their motovations not more like that of the Gurkhas or just people joining up for either the adventure of it or for ‘material advantage’?

      On an Irish website that I also read, this Remembrance Day subject is bitterly acrimonious, with some taking the view that is is right to remember those who fought so selflessly against fascism, and others are bringing up British Imperialism and the brutality of the British in Ireland (up until recently) and the folly of those Irish people who joined the British army, particularly for WW1. There is even this song about ”The Wild Geese” (Irish soldiers who died in WW1 in the British army, when they could have died for Ireland instead).

      ‘Twas Britannia bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free
      But their lonely graves are by Sulva’s waves or the shore of the Great North Sea
      Oh, had they died by Pearse’s side or fought with Cathal Brugha
      Their names we will keep where the fenians sleep ‘neath the shroud of the foggy dew

    14. Refresh — on 14th November, 2010 at 3:56 pm  


      ‘you’ve not seen The English Patient?’

      No, maybe I will. I was thinking of something where the theme tune could be hummed by all the football fans in the terraces up and down the land.

    15. earwicga — on 14th November, 2010 at 3:57 pm  

      Ah, you’re not going to get that from that film.

    16. Refresh — on 14th November, 2010 at 4:38 pm  

      ‘Ah, you’re not going to get that from that film.’

      A bollywood/lollywood/banglawood production is long overdue.

      I am hoping Larry (from the Y A-B thread) would take his grizzly-mama to see it.

    17. Papa Foxtrot Tango — on 14th November, 2010 at 5:44 pm  

      An important point to note is that the Indian soldiers who participated in both world wars were, like the Irish but unlike the English, all volunteers. There was no compulsion for them to join up.

      It’s also important to place the contribution into its proper perspective. The Indian Army had at most 4 divisions on the Western front in WW I (the British had 69), and its two infantry divisions were withdrawn in 1915. The two remaining (cavalry) divisions were held in reserve throughout the war and rarely saw combat after 1914.

      Although we read about enormous numbers joining the Indian Army in both world wars, the plain fact is that relatively few of them came in harm’s way. In WW I 10 infantry divisions saw combat (most in Mesopotamia, and not all at the same time), as did three cavalry divisions including the two on the Western Front. Indian troops were also deployed on garrison duty around the Empire although the overwhelming majority never left India.

      Similar remarks apply for WW II.

      Those who are leading calls for a more ‘inclusive’ Remembrance Day observation should bear in mind that, individual heroics notwithstanding, the Indian contribution to winning both world wars was rather nominal.

    18. Vikrant — on 14th November, 2010 at 6:31 pm  

      You guys want want to check out this little documentary of sorts commemorating Indian army’s contributions at Monte Cassino.


      This is a completely random post to post this, but since I drop by here once in a blue moon, I’d like you to read this post:

    19. Rashid — on 14th November, 2010 at 9:31 pm  

      See also this from the Muslim Council of Britain

      ‘Remembering the Brave’ acknowledges that the operations which the Armed Forces are engaged in today are deeply controversial. But that is not simply a concern amongst Muslims; it is shared by other British people also.

    20. Refresh — on 14th November, 2010 at 9:51 pm  


      Thanks - but why?

    21. joe90 — on 14th November, 2010 at 10:29 pm  

      Its good to see people remember people who sacrificed so much during the world wars.

      even though the people who fought and suffered get treated like crap in this country.

      But my problem is the cynical and opportunist politicians, who give eloquent speeches and stand at memorials but in the next day are plotting which country to exploit and invade next.

      Do they really learn the lessons of war i have my doubts.

    22. deemz — on 15th November, 2010 at 2:22 am  

      My great grandfather and grandfather, among other relatives, fought in the world wars for the British Indian army. I know that my grandfather received a military cross for his efforts in Burma, while my great-grandfather saw action in France. I wish they were still around so I could ask them about their experiences. I remember my grandfather when he came to Canada, always mentioning it, but I was too young and my command of our mother tongue, pothwari, was too weak to understand him. A shame really and since much of that generation has passed on, and those that came after them did not seem very interest in keeping records, I think their stories are sadly lost.

    23. AsifB — on 15th November, 2010 at 2:28 am  

      Refresh asks if there is an old film that can be revivied with the same cachet as the Dambusters that features British Indian soldiers? - that would be the film which ends with the squadron leader greeting his loyal pet black dog with the not so immortal moniker that is now renamed in dubbed tv versions as “Trigger”……

      I’d suggest although india is not a theme (though identity and britain’s role in the world are discussed) british indian soldiers do feature in Powell and Pressburgers 1946 A matter of Life and Death - one of the truly timeless all time greats of UK cinema - the presence of non-whire faces (albeit in the sort of supporting reserve capacity favoured by Papa Foxtrot)would please Damon above.

      Truth is stranger than fiction - the British Indian Army helped the Empire police China (not just in the 19thC opium wars or in Hong Kong - but in Shanghai and protecting privatised Revenue collection operations - well into the 1930s…)

      During this post WW1 period, colonial admistrators (which used British India soldiers now Iraq) considered settling Indians in Mespotamia - a policy to some extent carried out in some of the Emirates that only got independence in the late 60s/early70s - and of course many Muslim soldiers from the Indian subcontinent will have helped Britain fight the Ottomans as pointed out in the MCB booklet mentioned.

      I do think the original article overreaches itself from simply surveying history to trying to explain contemporary problems for people of IndoPakistani origin - the legacy of (divide and rule/racially based) martial race theories espoused by the Empire no more readily explains Bradford bombers today than they do Nepali Maoists…

      It also raises more questions than it answers - no doubt especially in WW11 (which India like the USA ended as a major net sterling creditor)- British Indians did contribute the largest all volunteer army in history and this deserves greater recognition, but do also consider the following historical questions- as soon as WWII was over - the relatively small numbers of INA Bose supporters who deserted to fight with the Japanese , were lionised throughout the sub continent as freedom fighters…And come Partition, the famed discipline of the British Indian Army, could do little to stop the shameful ethnic cleansing and slaughter …
      And the martial race theory as absorbed by Pakistani Punjabis - is also documented as factor underlying crimes committed against ‘lesser’ races/religions in East Pakistan during the Bangladesh War of Independence..And thanks to Kashmir and the nuclear arms race, India and Pakistan have bloated military establishements 60 years on…

      As Slash once wrote, What’s so civil about war anyway?

    24. Boyo — on 15th November, 2010 at 7:47 am  

      A very good article. My grandad fought with the Indian Army in WW1 as it happens.

      But I was left wondering if its not the “British” who need to be reminded of our shared history but the British Asian community? There does appear to be a UK bad oppressors (what just because we were running India?)/ nothing good came out of it narrative - and it is this that feeds in to Muslim (at any rate - my “Indian” friends seem perfectly happy) discontent?

      Even Gandhi was an enthusiast for Empire at one point, signing up for the Boer War and enthusiastically recruiting on behalf of the Empire in WW1. Sure he changed his mind, but it can’t have been unmitigated misery….

    25. boyo — on 15th November, 2010 at 8:52 am  

      “even though the people who fought and suffered get treated like crap in this country.”

      By which you presumably mean the working class as a whole?

    26. joe90 — on 16th November, 2010 at 10:53 am  

      post #24

      I was speaking mostly about the older generation who helped fight and lived during wwII, i think many who still alive don’t get enough help or respect.

      when you hear stories of them freezing in their homes, or being mugged by teenagers is real sad state of affairs.

    27. kELvi — on 20th November, 2010 at 5:17 am  

      My wife’s greatgrandad fought in WW I. My greatgrandad was a medic in WWI in Mesopotamia. My wife is Bengali and I am a Madrasi. There were many other communities than the martial races that set their shoulder to the wheel.

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