‘We visited a shop where 2,000 men and women were working and everything can be bought. There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything…Then we went in the train that goes under the earth, it was for us a strange and wonderful experience – they call it the underground train.’
These words, addressed to his family, were written by a Mr A Ali, one of the 400,000 Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain during World War I. Many of these men came from pre partition India – present-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – and almost all of them had never been to Europe before.
As this letter, unearthed by Islam Issa, a lecturer at Birmingham City University, shows, daily life on the streets of London was a novel experience for Indian soldiers like Mr Ali. What it doesn’t reveal is the horror that awaited them on the battlefields and in the trenches across the channel. They saw action in France and Belgium; in Salonika and Gallipoli; in East Africa; in Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia. At war’s end, 47,000 soldiers from Mr Ali’s home country had been killed, with 65,000 more wounded.
During World War I, one in every six soldiers of the British Empire was drawn from the Indian sub-continent. Its contribution was equal to the combined forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – the then dominions of Britain’s Empire.
The bravery of their sacrifice did not go unnoticed. Wounded Muslim soldiers who had fought in France were treated in special hospitals on the south coast in Brockenhurst, Bournemouth and Brighton. Those who died were buried in accordance with the rites of their religion. For the Muslim soldiers on the front line, events like Ramadan and Eid were accommodated for by their commanding officers. They were loyal to their regiments and respected by their fellow men.
Even more Muslim soldiers fought for Britain in World War II. Over 2.5 million men and women from the Indian sub-continent comprised the largest volunteer force in history, ensuring that a substantial number of Muslims made tremendous contributions to the allied war effort. Many of them served in the merchant navy, meaning they undertook the crucial task of importing enough supplies to lead the Allies to victory.
As in World War I, their sacrifice was matched only by their gallantry. 24,000 were killed and 65,000 more were wounded. The Indian army received hundreds of medals during World War II, including 30 Victoria Crosses, the highest award for bravery. Ultimately, all of these men and women fought, and often died, defending the British rights and liberties we all hold so dear.
This commitment continues to this day. There are currently over 650 Muslims in the British armed forces, serving in operations and countries all over the world. Unlike Mr Ali and his contemporaries, who travelled to unfamiliar lands to fight alongside foreign soldiers, the vast majority of today’s Muslim servicemen and women are British-born.
Yet whether from Britain or abroad, they are all part of a lineage that represents over 100 years of distinguished service and tradition. For more than a century, Muslims have played a vital role in serving our country. Long may it continue.