Serving together in WW1
If you didn’t know that an estimated 2.5 – 4 million Muslims contributed to the Allied cause in World War I, you’re not alone. A study by think tank British Future found that just 22% of people in Britain know the vital role Muslims had performed in the First World War.
Having travelled thousands of miles from areas including Africa, India, the far and Middle East, Russia and even America, Muslim soldiers climbed into the cold Northern European trenches with imams whose duties included leading group prayers and reciting the call to prayer into the ears of the dying.
They ate hot halal food, which was prepared by the cooks that had accompanied them. Some of them used traditional herbal remedies to try and help their injured comrades, regardless of faith, when the meagre medical supplies ran out. In snatched moments of respite from the shelling, some taught their fellow soldiers’ traditional songs from back home.
Their compassion was noted and commented upon; Muslim soldiers shared food with hungry civilians. They treated German prisoners of war humanely – explaining that their actions were guided by the Qu’ran and the teachings of Muhammad on how enemy combatants should be dealt with. Official reports stated that this was “jaw dropping” for the officers of the time.
These amazing stories have been bought to light by a Belgian man, Luc Ferrier, 53, after he came across his great-grandfather’s First World war diaries in his attic. He wrote extensively about the “Mohammedans” he encountered in the trenches, but Ferrer could find little evidence in the history books. To make sure that these stories were heard, he founded ‘The Forgotten Heroes 2014-2019 Foundation.’ The Foundation’s researchers have spent more than eight years exploring military, diplomatic and private archives, including diaries, field reports and letters that didn’t make it home, across 19 countries, accessing more than 850,000 documents in French, English, Farsi, Urdu, Russian, German and Arabic, as well as hundreds of images. You can find out more about the foundation here.
A very poignant symbol of Muslim soldiers’ sacrifice can also be found in a corner of Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery. It contains the graves of 40,000 French soldiers who fell on the western front and is sited near the town of Arras, which witnessed some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. The numbers of Muslims that had fallen meant the authorities decided to dedicate a corner of the cemetery to them, and their headstones are distinguishable not just by their Islamic inscriptions but because they tilt eastwards towards Mecca.
Khudadad Khan, VC
Khudadad Khan was the first soldier of the British Indian Army to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military award for gallantry in the face of the enemy given to British and Commonwealth forces. On 31 October 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium, 26-year-old Khan, then serving in the British Indian Army, was the sole survivor of a team assigned to defend vital ports in France and Belgium from German forces. Khan managed to hold off the enemy advance long enough for British reinforcements to arrive.
A statue of Khan stands at the entrance of the Pakistan Army Museum in Rawalpindi.