Sepoys who served Britain

When we think of the First World War, most of us think of green or blue clad, white-skinned Europeans in overcrowded trenches somewhere in Belgium or France. We forget the impact of The Great War on other nations and continents. We forget for example the huge contribution made to the allied war effort by the British Indian Army. The 1.3 million Sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command), including around 400,000 muslims fought on diverse battlefields and were among the first to reinforce the Western front, arriving in the trenches along the Somme as early as September 1914.

The war memorial at the Menin Gate lists thousands of sepoys, among the dead, many of whose bodies were never recovered. At Ypres these brave commonwealth troops held a stretch of the line covering almost one third of the front and suffered heavy losses as a result. Rifleman Subadar Muhammad Agia wrote in May 1915…

“It is just like the grinding of corn in a mill; there is no counting the number of lives lost. Not a single British or native officer of the old regiment is left, and not one sepoy.”

Acknowledging the vital contribution of the sepoys the British Army expected officers leading them to accommodate their cultural and religious needs, even to learn the language of their men. It must have been bewildering for young British officers, detailed to a sepoy regiment and suddenly realising they were expected to communicate in Urdu and understand the needs of Ramadan or Eid.

French Muslim ww1 war cemetery war graveAnd yet that is exactly what happened. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu troops evidently appreciated the respect and accommodation afforded them by the British (an accommodation the French army failed to imitate with disastrous impact upon morale and fighting effectiveness). Many Muslim soldiers continued to observe religious practices including daily prayers and fasting during Ramadan. In July 1917, as Eid was drawing to a close around 1,500 Muslim sepoys gathered together just behind the line to pray. Included in their prayers was a request to Allah for the victory of the King over the forces of the Kaiser. Abdul Ali Khan recorded the event in his diary…

“All of the Muslims of the Division had their prayers together and the assembly was close to our regiment. We, as far as possible, gave them food and tea. About 1,500 men assembled and prayers were offered for the victory of our King.”

Around 12,000 sepoys, many of them Muslim found their way to the military hospital in the Brighton Pavilion. The bodies of those who died were disposed of according to the traditions of their respective religion. Muslims who died of their wounds were buried initially close to the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking before being transferred to a military cemetery where they lie alongside other fallen soldiers, comrades in life and neighbours in death.

When you buy your poppy this year, wear it with pride in honour of the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim sepoys who fought for Britain. It’s their poppy too.

Download the full collection of today’s blog posts  EBF They fought for us



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