The Forgotten Heroes – The Muslims Who Fought for Britain During Both World Wars

Growing up in 1970’s post-war Britain, a grandchild of the British Empire, accounts of World War I and II shaped my map of the world. A fan in early childhood of the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, it helped inspire and developed my current views on war and conflict.

“Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all.”

Poem: Futility by Wilfred Owen May 1918

Even as a child, I knew Wilfred Owen was questioning why as human being we must find the need to kill each other when life if so precious. At junior school in the 1970’s, my two earliest researched projects were the impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. I then went on to write a project about the Second World War. I read accounts of the Blitz, food rations; the 4 million women and children refugees displaced across the empire to find a safe place to live while war raged on in Europe. I even found a ration book at the local library and meticulously photocopied every page.

History books  – written by the winners

Throughout all books I read, the sources I consulted as the child, the two World Wars were presented as a very British/European phenomenon. My connection to its story was one message of our common humanity, our will to survive and the sanctity of human life. There seemed to be no obvious connection to my heritage, my culture or my faith. Then I grew up; the world became smaller; I decided to research and probed deeper.

While the history books are often written from the map of the world of the victors, many British second and third generation children of immigrants have been denied the truth about their ancestor’s place in the history books. We have suffered at the hands of the history makers, from a silence and omission of our rich and proud legacy that has shaped modern Britain today. There has been perhaps an unconscious cleansing of our ancestry and shared legacy wiped from history books. We live in a different age now, and while we now know the truth and unravel a thousand hidden stories from the past that shock, inspire and motivate us to build a better future, we must now and always ensure that we are part of the history books.

As Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs of the Indian Subcontinent, we must have been an integral part the history of the two World Wars – the wars to end all wars. From 1858 and 1947 India was part of the British Empire and helped Britain grow from a largely agrarian economy into the world’s first industrial economy.

Indian including Muslim, Hindu, and Sikhs troops were known to have fought with great bravery and expertise in both World Wars. India’s factories expanded producing war supplies for Britain and allies. India was to provide the war effort with coffee, jute, tea, textiles, and timber.

World War and the Empire

Here are some facts further facts; in the 1st world war there were 1.5 million volunteers from India out of a population of 315 million, 140,000 saw active service on the western front, 700,000 thousand died in the Middle East, Africa, and China. Furthermore, 13,000 medals were won, 12 Victoria Crosses, 48,000 died in battle, and 65,000 Indian soldiers from all faiths were wounded.

In the 2nd world war, there were 2.5 million volunteers in India out of a population of 384 million. Indians served in the North African against the Germans and in Eritrea and Abyssinia against the Italians; in the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq; in the Far East. There were 30,000 Indians who joined the Royal Indian Navy, and many thousands served as merchant seamen. There were 55,000 who joined the Royal Indian Air Force, and  Indian women took part as either as WRENS (Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service) or WACS (Women’s Auxiliary Corps: Indian).  Indian women also had roles as nurses, munitions workers and many other key roles in the in the war campaign.

In a fraught climate of war and confrontation in the Middle East and the rise of terror in all its forms, millions of Muslim around the world are forced to justify their shared humanity and values with the rest of the human race. It is important that we highlight the role played by almost half a million Muslims in Britain’s first world war. The 400,000 Muslim soldiers is a story that should be celebrated and recognized by Western historians. The role of Muslims in the war effort has yet to be recognized or talked about as part of our mainstream shared history and humanity.

Muslim war heroes

Khudadad Khan was the first Indian soldier to earn the Victoria Cross for his bravery. He was a Sepoy and is famous for single-handedly stopping a German attack during the Battle of Ypres October 31st, 1914. Left for dead, he still managed to crawl back to his regiment. As the Germans were held up by his act of heroism, reinforcements were able to arrive. He lived into old age a war hero and died in Pakistan in 1971.

Even away from the battlefield Muslim war heroes include Behiç Erkin, Turkish ambassador to Paris who provided thousands of Jews citizenship documents and passports and saved so many lives by providing safe passage. Necdet Kent, the Turkish consul-general in Marseille, worked alongside Behiç Erkin. He saved 80 Turkish Jews from being boarded onto a train and sent to concentration camps.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari, the Iranian Consul General to Paris, was forced to use German purity laws to save Iranian Jews from extermination stating they were Aryan. He issued passports to non-Iranian Jews and organized their safe passage.

Noor Inayat Khan was born to Indian royalty and raised in Britain and Paris. After fleeing Paris after the Nazi invasion, she was recruited to work in Paris as a wireless operator by Winston Churchill’s special operations due to her fluent French. While working for the French underground Noor was captured by the Gestapo with a group of other women resistance fighters. She refused to betray the allies, later being brutally beaten and murdered by a bullet in the back by the Nazis.

Remembrance Sunday is November 13th. The Poppy is being sold on every street corner. Let’s make sure that those who seek to close their eyes to history do not forget the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who served in the war effort of two global wars. The contribution of not only Muslims but Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and other faiths from India played a huge contribution to the freedoms, success, and power that Britain enjoys today. In the fight for freedom and peace, we share one belief – our common humanity.

Written by Sabera Ahsan

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Sabera Ahsan is a former Primary school teacher, police equality advisor and government policy officer. She currently dedicates her time to writing and reading about Moorish Spain.