Britain’s Muslim Soldiers of World War 1 find a voice in previously unreported letters

At least 885,000 Muslims fought with the Allies in World War I, At least 885,000 Muslims fought with the Allies in World War I, an estimated 400,000 of them with the 1.5 million-strong British Indian Army that served both on the Western Front and in the Middle East. For many of these young Muslims, the Great War was their first major encounter with Europe and Europeans, and indeed the home of that “great Empire over the sea” for which 89,000 of them would give their lives.

Dr Islam Issa, Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, has uncovered a wealth of letters written by British Indian soldiers which are on display as part of the Stories of Sacrifice exhibition at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester. Dr Issa explains what these stories can tell us about the young Muslim men who fought – and died – for the British Empire.

From the letters written by Indian soldiers do we get a sense of how they view their own identity?

The Indian soldiers were either writing letters to comrades fighting in other countries, or in most cases, to family back home. Their concerns are quite universal, discussing things like food, pastimes, and what the future might hold, but within these, I came across some more unique aspects of their identities, like missing their own cuisine or wondering whether they should still fast during Ramadan.

This is probably too big a question to ever by answered, but do we get a sense of new identity emerging as a result of their experiences and encounters?

I never really felt like there was a strong desire for what we’d now term something like integration. I don’t get the idea that the soldiers or their British superiors, including the censors, were either pushing a certain identity or trying to suppress it. That being said, the censors were on the lookout for sentimental feelings about fighting against Ottomans, and their reports show that they may have perceived the idea of a specifically Muslim identity to be a threat if it became ideological. Otherwise, things like prayers and food weren’t really an issue for the British so provisions were often made for the Muslim soldiers.

This postcard was sent to ‘LIEUT For Officer Commanding depot 33rd Punjabis’ by Sepoy Manga Khan, 33rd Punjabis, who was a prisoner of war at Halbmondlager in Zossen, Germany. Image courtesy of the British Muslim Heritage Centre (BMHC) in Manchester and the National Army Museum
This postcard was sent to ‘LIEUT For Officer Commanding depot 33rd Punjabis’ by Sepoy Manga Khan, 33rd Punjabis, who was a prisoner of war at Halbmondlager in Zossen, Germany. Image courtesy of the British Muslim Heritage Centre (BMHC) in Manchester and the National Army Museum

Is there a commonality in terms of what Muslim servicemen thought they were fighting for? A particular set of values or tangible physical goals?

At the start of the war, it seems like it was more of a job opportunity for many in India. I generally didn’t think that the letters were full of ideological ideas or goals. They were more anecdotal, conversational, and had the usual questions about how everyone back home was doing. The ones that stood out ideologically were perhaps those calling for defection to the Ottomans. These were only isolated letters, though, and were stopped by censors.

What do the accounts of their encounters with British civilians reveal? Did anything surprise you about these interactions?

On the whole, the Muslim soldiers respected Britain. One memorable letter describes meeting a Muslim convert at a mosque. They were more interested in the women, though, particularly in France, and their responses varied from admiring the physical beauty, to describing them as caring sisters.

World War II has a particularly pronounced role in Indian independence, in terms not just of the political realities that enabled it, but also in shattering perceptions of the British Empire and its rulers. Is there evidence of World War I having a similar impact in terms of demystifying the ‘heart’ of empire? Are there any flowers of nationalism in the letters?

On the one hand, the soldiers did have a sense of duty, though quite what that means isn’t always clear. Many do seem to think that they are fighting an evil force. At the same time, they weren’t getting paid enough, their families were struggling, and Indian noblemen were reaping the rewards. In some ways, then, this war made the missing sovereignty of nations like India clearer, but it also solidified the Empire, not only because of how the aftermath was planned geographically, but because it reasserted the extent of the imperial rule.

Dr Islam Issa at the Stories of Sacrifice exhibition, at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester
Dr Islam Issa at the Stories of Sacrifice exhibition, at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester

Were there any particular individuals or letters that really stuck with you?

One of the entries I did get excited about was from 1914, when a group of Muslim soldiers on a ship spotted a shark. I had spent days reading regimental diaries and they can be quite repetitive and mundane, so that kind of anecdote does stick with you.

What would like visitors to take away from Stories of Sacrifice above all else?

Stories of Sacrifice gives a general, chronological narrative of the war, but I peppered it throughout with individual stories about individual humans, including their names, so that we can see that the sacrifices were at an individual level. So visitors will hopefully find themselves immersed both in the global and the personal, though the exact emphases of these will obviously depend on the interests and identities of visitors. As for me, this project has confirmed the importance of reassessing history, hearing less documented and often neglected narratives, learning from both the good and bad of the past, and thinking closely about our responsibilities in a diverse and globalised society.

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Stories of Sacrifice is on now at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester.For more on World War I, pick up new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.