Armistice Day: Centenary

Posted by Lord Sheikh

My Lords, we all know that this year marks the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The centenary reminds us of the pivotal role that our Armed Forces have played in shaping our country’s history. This was a conflict that resulted in suffering on an unprecedented scale.

I pay tribute to the contribution of Muslims during the First World War. The significant part played in the First World War by Muslims is not widely acknowledged and has been historically undervalued. Efforts must be made to redress that. I hope that today’s debate will inform others and help to address this imbalance.

At least 2.5 million Muslim soldiers and labourers from all over the world fought with the allied forces with dignity and honour. They came from many different countries, including Algeria, Canada, China, Egypt, France, India, Morocco, Russia, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia and the United States. A million soldiers and labourers came from Egypt, 80,000 soldiers came from Tunisia, 63,000 soldiers came from Morocco, 173,000 soldiers came from Algeria and 5,000 soldiers ?came from the United States. In fact, 10% of the Russian army’s total strength was Muslim, about 1.5 million soldiers.

Muslims were recognised with decorations for their bravery and valour in combat during the First World War. The Légion d’honneur was awarded to the Moroccan Division. During the Battle of the Marne, these brave soldiers were successful in halting the German troops’ advance on Paris. This incredible feat was called the miracle on the Marne. However, only 800 of the 4,000 Moroccan soldiers survived the battle. Furthermore, in British West Africa, 30% of African Distinguished Conduct Medals awarded to those who served were given to Nigerian Muslims who fought in Cameroon.

Muslim contributions were not only confined to military activities. Muslims also served in army nursing units, and in fact the Hui—the Chinese Muslims— were a substantial part of the Chinese labour force in Europe, on the eastern front, in Africa and in Mesopotamia.

Muslim soldiers shared their food with locals who were suffering from the famine in Europe. Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—and Caliph Abu Bakr laid down clear rules of engagement in warfare. One of the tenets in Islam is that Muslims should treat enemy soldiers with respect and look after them. In view of this belief, Muslim soldiers asked their officers to ensure that captured prisoners of war be taken to a place that had been prepared for them, and that they be properly fed and not harmed or tortured. Muslim soldiers felt that prisoners of war should be treated with mercy and kindness. Furthermore, Muslims shared their native traditional medical knowledge with nurses and doctors who had run out of medical supplies at the battlefront.

I turn now to Muslims from India. Although I was born in east Africa, I have Indian heritage. My grandfather joined the British Indian Army and fought in Palestine. This subject, therefore, is of personal interest to me. India raised the world’s largest volunteer army, with a total of 1.5 million soldiers during the First World War. This was greater than the combined total of all volunteers from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. There were 400,000 Muslims from India who were part of the British Volunteer Army. They fought out of love and loyalty to the King-Emperor and the Empire. They felt honour in fighting for their King, and it was this sense of loyalty and dedication that endeared them to many of their British comrades.

The First World War marked the first time that Muslim soldiers ever fought on European ground. They were originally called upon for help when British forces were suffering heavy casualties. This demonstrates just how historically important their role was. There were seven Indian Expeditionary Forces that included Muslims and they provided crucial support, fighting directly alongside British forces in Europe. In fact, at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, they provided half the attacking force. A British general described them as a magnificent body that performed the most useful and valuable service.

The Indian forces also saw action in east Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli and Palestine. More than 74,000 Indian troops, including Muslims, were ?killed or declared missing in action during the First World War, a number that is testament to the level of sacrifice and loyalty shown by the Indians in supporting the allied forces. Indian troops were awarded 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 11 Victoria Crosses. Sepoy Khudadad Khan was the first non-white person to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the face of overwhelming numbers. He was a Muslim who came from a place called Chakwal in present-day Pakistan. He served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis regiment. He fought in Belgium in 1914 and single-handedly kept German forces at bay in the Battle of Ypres after all his comrades had been killed, right up to the point where his position was overrun. It is thought that his actions helped to ensure that two vital ports used to supply British troops remained in allied hands. Two other Muslims were awarded the Victoria Cross: Mir Dast and Shahamad Khan. Such stories are significant as they personalise the efforts of Muslims in the armed forces, allowing us to see beyond statistics and into the hearts of these brave soldiers.

A number of Muslims who died as a result of injuries sustained in action in the First World War were buried on Horsell Common in Woking. The Muslim soldiers were able to prove that it was possible to be loyal both to their faith and to a country simultaneously. For many Muslims, religious observances were crucial for coping with the hardships and challenges on the battlefront.

I also pay tribute to other Indian soldiers in the British Army who were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and from other religions. As mentioned earlier, there were 1.5 million soldiers from undivided India. We should never forget their contribution. The union jack meant a lot to them and a number of them paid the ultimate price. Will the Minister comment on the contribution of Muslims during the First World War? Last week I arranged a meeting in the House of Lords to discuss that contribution, which was attended by several parliamentarians, including my noble friend Lord Lexden. The event created a great deal of interest and was very much oversubscribed.

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