The role of Muslims during the First World War
Involvement in the First World War changed the lives of Muslims in many ways. Some were awarded certain privileges, including land rights or titles and roles of responsibility in their local areas. Those who served could also travel in ways otherwise impossible and many Muslims serving in the British Indian Army and Merchant Navy, like their Sikh and Hindu comrades, were granted the right to settle in Britain.
At the outbreak of the War in August 1914, the British Indian Army consisted of around 194,000 regular soldiers and 46,000 non-combatants, a total of 250,000 personnel. By the Armistice in November 1918, the force had grown to nearly 1.5 million, with a million serving as soldiers.
In total, the Indian Army sent around 1.5 million men and 173,000 animals from Indian ports to nearly all theatres of war across Europe, Africa and Asia. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent; its contribution was the equivalent of all the forces from the then dominions of the British Empire combined (namely Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).
Of these around 400,000 (about a third of the British Indian Army) were Muslims.
Care was taken to only recruit soldiers from peoples who were considered to have a proven track record of military prowess, the so-called “martial races”. The British also avoided relying too heavily on one particular type of soldier and deliberately mixed soldiers from different backgrounds.
© IWM (Q 33336)
Recruitment from city populations was also generally avoided partly because of the risk of introducing radical or nationalist sentiment in to the ranks of the Indian military.
As a result, Indian units were composed of soldiers from various ethnic groups or classes, mainly comprising Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Punjabi Hindus, Brahmins, Rajputs and Gurkhas (who hailed from the independent country of Nepal).
These soldiers fought in all the major theatres of war on land, air and sea, alongside British troops.
Indian soldiers were all recruited as volunteers. Some were members of families with a tradition of military service already, while others joined as the result of recruitment campaigns (towards the end of the war these campaigns were often run very ruthlessly).
Propaganda created expectations of a return and the war raised hopes of greater economic independence, self-assurance and standing with government.
Indian Army soldiers were in action on the Western Front within a month of the start of the war. A total of 140,000 men, comprising 90,000 combatants (those in the front-line) and 50,000 non-combatants (those in auxiliary battalions), saw active service on the Western Front in France and Belgium.
Nearly 700,000 Indian Army soldiers served in the Middle East, fighting with distinction against the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian theatre of war. Indian Army troops also served in Aden, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Italy, Salonica, Russia, East and West Africa, on the Gallipoli peninsula and even in China.
About 885,000 Muslims supported the whole Allied war effort, serving in places like Africa (North and East), the Middle East (Mesopotamia), the Mediterranean and Europe.
Nearly 75,000 soldiers from the British Indian Army were killed in action. Some, who were injured in Europe, were treated in Britain.
After a year of front-line duty, sickness, casualties and a loss of highly trained British officers who understood the cultures and religions of their men reduced the Indian Corps to the point where it had to be withdrawn (although Indian cavalry continued to serve on the Western Front).
Indian Army soldiers won 9,500 medals in the five main theatres of war; France and Belgium, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine, and Gallipoli, including 11 Victoria Crosses – the supreme award for valour.
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