A British scholar has uncovered thousands of letters written by Indian Muslim soldiers during the First World War

Dark days.
Dark days.
Image: Wellcome Library, London, CC BY 4.0
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“We visited a shop where 2,000 men and women were working and everything can be bought,” wrote an Indian Muslim soldier posted in Brighton during World War I. “There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything!”

The letter, addressed to his family back in India, was penned by one A Ali while visiting London in October 1915.

In the letter he described the “strange and wonderful experience” of travelling “under the earth,” in an underground train, and the unquestionable authority that policemen have in English cities.

“The police indeed deserve praise. If one policeman raises his hand every single person in that direction, rich and poor alike, stands still where he is as long as his hand is raised. There is no need to talk.”

This letter, along with many others, was recently unearthed by Islam Issa, an English lecturer at the Birmingham City University. The letters are part of a permanent exhibit devoted to charting the role of Muslim soldiers in World War I (1914-1918) at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester. The exhibit is called Stories of Sacrifice.

The official website of the exhibit, curated by Issa, contains some translations of the letters sent by these soldiers to their loved ones.

Until recently, the recorded number of Muslim soldiers who fought in the war was around 4,00,000. But Issa’s research revealed the figure to be almost double that at around 8,85,000.

Earlier this year, while looking for material for the exhibit, Issa happened upon thousands of previously unseen letters written by Muslim soldiers. “The archival research proved just how much undocumented material is out there,” he said. “Some of the items I looked at were never really explored before, particularly in the army’s private archive, which isn’t accessible to the public. So I think we still have a lot to find out.”

Issa described the collection as “personal and unique”.

A postcard sent to ‘LIEUT For Officer Commanding depot 33rd Punjabis by Sepoy Manga Khan, 33rd Punjabis, who was a prisoner of war at Halbmondlager in Zossen, Germany.
Image: National Army Museum/British Muslim Heritage Centre

He spent days reading thousands of letters. While some reflected the personalities of the writers more clearly than the others, the ones that the British scholar found most interesting included unexpected or unusual comments in which the soldier took note of the little things that reflected the life of Londoners.

In one such letter, a soldier named SAS Abdul Said wrote home about the standards of cleanliness followed in England.

“Every shop in this country is so arranged that one is delighted to look at them… Every shopkeeper tries especially to keep his shop spick and span and everything is in perfect order. Whether you buy much or little it is properly wrapped up, and if you tell the shopman to send it to your house you have only to give him your address and he delivers it.”

Said was also much taken by the butcher shops he saw. “The butcher’s shops in Hindustan are very dirty,” he wrote. “But here they are so clean and tidy that there is absolutely no smell.”

“For me, the sacrifice I was searching for was less about ideology or politics, because many of the soldiers weren’t aware of what they were fighting for,” Issa said over email. “I wanted to find the sacrifices they made at a normal, human level—leaving their families behind, going to a country far away, and so on. These letters were a heartening confirmation of the personal element of the war and confirmed how the soldiers were normal, often simple, human beings whose sacrifices were at an individual level.”

The more Issa read, the more he realised the different roles that the Indian Muslim soldiers had played in World War I as trench builders, camel riders, and doctors.

A picture circulated in 1915 shows the Brighton Pavilion converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to the exhibit, millions of letters were sent back and forth each week and almost 3,75,000 of those letters went through a careful process of censorship. Detailed reports and translated extracts of letters would be compiled by the chief censor every month to be analysed. These reports were categorised by faith and ethnicity instead of by regiment.

The exhibit also focuses on the self-censorship practiced by some Indian soldiers to avoid causing worry among their families or to avoid being caught revealing gory details that could hurt popular support for the war at home. Code words, like black pepper for Indians, red pepper for Englishmen and wedding for battle, were commonly used.

The website tells the story of one such soldier:

“One Pathan soldier, named Shahab Khan, of the Meerut Division Signalling Coy, was serving in France when he wrote a long letter to his brother Abdulla Khan of the 112th Infantry. The letter was full of names–first he describes a village quarrel, and then the litigation that follows it. But it aroused the censor’s suspicion because Khan kept mentioning that he ‘cannot write about the war’, and was blocked with the comment: ‘This letter is really a clever piece of work’. The censor reveals that the code ‘lies in the first letters of the names given’, so ‘Jullal Khan’ meant ‘Germany’, ‘Ahmad Din’ was ‘Austria’, ‘Rahmat Khan’ was ‘Russia’, ‘Baraket Ali’ was ‘Belgium’, ‘Sarwar Khan’ was ‘Serbia’, and so on. The censor concludes: ‘If the story be re-read in the light of this interpretation it will be seen to be a very fair account of the war up to date’.”

Indian soldiers outside the Brighton Pavilion hospital.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the research for the exhibit has been collated and curated by Issa after reading letters, regimental diaries, and reports, as well as studying maps and award lists. The visual material takes the form of rare photographs, maps, and other artifacts, which range from genuine memorabilia to, say, a replica of a football the soldiers would have played with.

However, according to Issa, “Nostalgia for war and its sacrifices is decreasing because now, for the global citizen, war isn’t a sustainable answer. The notion of a ‘common enemy’ isn’t quite as straightforward as it used to be.”

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com

Feature image by Wellcome Library, London, on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC-BY-4.0.