Voices

Let us not forget about the thousands of Indian soldiers who fought for us in WWI

Almost 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought for the Commonwealth
(Getty)

Today marks the centenary of the First World War and thousands across the country will remember the heroism and bravery of those who have served and continue to serve today.

Particularly, as a nation, we will reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of Britain.

But many will be unaware of the contribution of those from the Commonwealth, including the largest contribution of almost 1.5 million soldiers from what was, at the time, undivided India.

The scale and significance of the British Indian Army cannot be underestimated.

Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force, which was the largest of the British Empire’s Armed Forces besides the British Army itself. Indian troops were awarded over 13,000 medals for their brave service. Among them was Khudadad Khan, who was the first Indian and Muslim recipient of the Victoria Cross in 1914.

Many British Indian Army troops travelled thousands of miles to fight in northern France and Belgium where they faced a stark and alien landscape.

Those from diverse regions of India, of different faiths, overcame the logistical and cultural challenges to band together and gallantly fight with the Allied Forces.

Troops from across continents stood shoulder-to-shoulder in service. Their sacrifice helped sow the seeds for a peace and harmony that we enjoy today and must uphold and celebrate together.

The shared values they gave their life for – freedom, respect for others, and justice – values that people of all faiths and none believe in, and which shape the ethos of today’s British Armed Forces.

Just outside the small town of Neuve-Chapelle stands one of the European monuments devoted to those Indian combatants who lost their lives in the First World War. It commemorates over 4,700 Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front and have no known grave.

Their contribution, alongside those of many other countries from across the Commonwealth, gives us a powerful reason to pause on this Remembrance Sunday, as we reflect.

It’s a timely and powerful moment, where we thank those who lay down their lives for us, to better understand our own shared values across different communities today

According to recent research from British Future, mainstream awareness of the contribution of Indian soldiers has increased from roughly 40 to 70 per cent since the marking of the centenary began in 2014. However, the contribution of the Commonwealth nations during the First World War is still not as well-known as it should be.

Sending a powerful message of the importance of the Indian contribution, the prime minister recently announced her plans to wear a Khadi Poppy in the lead-up to Remembrance Sunday.

The Royal British Legion created the red Khadi cotton poppy this year to specifically thank those Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War, which included almost 400,000 Muslims. It’s identical to the traditional poppy but made from a hand-spun traditional Indian cloth.

There is more we can do to raise awareness of soldiers of different backgrounds who have fought for this nation in the First World War and beyond.

Members of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, as well as their colleagues from other Armed Forces Employee Support Networks, are regularly involved in outreach and we would like to see even more organisations engage with schools and communities to share their own history of service.

Communities of different faiths, backgrounds and religions will pay their respects at events across the country on Armistice Day. It’s a timely and powerful moment, where we thank those who lay down their lives for us, to better understand our own shared values across different communities today.

Those beliefs which hold us together, united against those who seek to create divisions in our society. Ultimately, remembrance is a national responsibility that we all have a stake in.

Major Naveed Muhammad MBE is the chairman of the Armed Forces Muslim Association