British television brings ‘Muslim Tommies’ to light
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 14 September 2009
Each year during Ramadan, British TV carries some special programs to mark the holy month. A major contribution this Ramadan has been the fascinating and moving documentary “The Muslim Tommies” shown on BBC One. “Tommy” is slang for a British soldier, and the half-hour film reveals the extent to which Britain depended on troops from India, including many Muslims, to hold the front line in France and Belgium during World War One.
The pre-screening publicity for the film said that while much has been made of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist to the security of Britain, “what is often forgotten is that Muslims have fought on behalf of Britain for hundreds of years. Thousands have lost their lives in the process – a sacrifice that has rarely been acknowledged.”
Soldiers in the Indian corps experienced the full horror of trench warfare in Europe’s bloodiest of wars. Two divisions of infantry and cavalry of the Indian Army started to arrive in September 1914, a month after the outbreak of the war. The role of these sepoys in filling gaps in the British defensive line was crucial. Eventually, the Indians were stationed in their own sector, south of the Belgian town of Ypres, which accounted for around a third of the total 30-40 mile front line. The film brings the experiences of the Muslim soldiers powerfully to life through reconstruction of conditions in the trenches, and readings by actors from the soldiers’ letters back home. The letters were translated and typed up by military censors at the time so as to ensure they did not reveal sensitive military information.
The thousands of letters had lain undisturbed for nearly a century, and poignantly reveal the inner thoughts, hopes and beliefs of Muslim soldiers as they fought in “the war to end all wars.” Subadar Muhammad Agia of the 57th rifles 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.”
Many of the Muslim soldiers came from provinces which are now part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and North India. Recruitment from these areas was heavily influenced by the British idea of “martial races”. Jahan Mahmood, a community historian, says: “British martial theory was the idea that certain races were much more warlike and had much more stamina on the battlefield than others. Military historian Gordon Corrigan [pictured] says the role of the Indian soldiers was vital, and had they not been fighting on the front line the Germans might well have broken through and made it to the ports on the English channel. “The Punjabi Musselman, to give them their correct title, was regarded as the backbone of the old Indian army and was about a third of that army.”
Khudadad Khan was the first-ever Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, for his actions on Oct. 30, 1914. His grandson Abdul-Samad Khan explains that Khan was a machine gunner, and that all other members of his group had been killed by German shelling. “A shell hit him, but despite this, right to the end he kept trying to stop the Germans so they wouldn’t think everyone had died on the other side.” Khudadad survived, and lived until 1971.
The film begins in the recent past by recounting the July 2006 killing in Afghanistan of the first British Muslim to die during the “war on terror”. He was Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi who was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, and came to Britain at the age of 11. Hashmi’s death made headlines in Britain, and he was hailed as a Muslim hero. The film commented: “He wasn’t the first Muslim to be ready to risk his life for a British cause. Thousands of Muslims have fought and died on Britain’s behalf.”
The number of Muslims in the British armed forces has gradually been increasing, to reach about 400 today. Imam Asim Hafiz, the first-ever Muslim chaplain to the British armed forces, says: “Britain is a multicultural and multi-faith society, and it is important that the armed forces reflect the diverse nature of this country.” The film acknowledges, however, that for Muslims to join up at a time when there are wars against other Muslims raises “complex questions of national identity, personal loyalty and what it means to be British”.
Imam Asim Hafiz says: “At the moment because our current conflicts are in Islamic countries it could be more challenging for a Muslim to join the armed forces. What we have to understand is that everybody has a variety of identifies that makes them an individual – it could be their faith, it could be their culture, it could be their job: at different times one identity might take priority over another.”
During World War One some 12,000 injured Indian troops were sent for medical treatment to Brighton on the English south coast, where an army hospital was established in the famous Royal Pavilion. Muslim soldiers who died were buried in the Muslim Burial Ground at Woking’s Shah Jahan Mosque, constructed in 1889 as Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. Every summer a multi-faith ceremony is held at the Chattri Memorial in the countryside near Brighton, which was built to commemorate the Indian troops who died in hospitals in Brighton and Hove.