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Current Affairs ( 28 Oct 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Can the idea of martial races be dismissed: British Indian Army experiences in World War II

Britain’s Pakistani communities and their contribution to the Italian Campaign of World War II [1]

By Jahan Mahmood,

Visiting Lecturer, University of Birmingham, April 2009

Paper given at All Souls College, University of Oxford, 3 April 2009, (re-edited on 23rd April 2009)

Britain ‘couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t the Indian army’

Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck[2]


This paper explains the historical and political reasons behind Muslim recruitment during the Second World War.  It provides a breakdown of Muslim casualties in the Italian Campaign according to recruitment areas within British India and it highlights the contributions made by communities from these regions.  Most significantly, because of the pressing need to restore a sense of identity and self-esteem for young British Muslims today, an attempt is made to establish a link between contemporary British Pakistani communities and these very same regions of recruitment.

The statistics presented here are based on the casualty records of more than 5,000 soldiers who fell liberating Italy. These records were provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).[3]  Unfortunately, so far, it has not been possible to locate the files of British Indian servicemen serving in Europe.  However, it is hoped that this work will allow British Muslims and other British communities to celebrate a shared past, which would increase mutual understanding and provide a platform for dialogue and the development of a post-colonial British Muslim identity.  Therefore this work is part of the story of the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers from territories that are now part of modern-day Pakistan.


In September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, declared that India would join the war effort alongside Britain.  Mahatma Gandhi opposed any military support from Indians by advocating a non-violent approach to Hitler’s aggressive expansion.  Mohammed Ali Jinnah [4], on the other hand, supported involvement.  He was fully aware that Britain’s defeat could threaten the position of the minority Muslims by removing the constraint of British rule in a society where the majority voice was Hindu. Britain’s position was further strengthened with the addition of another Muslim politician, Sikander Hayat Khan, head of the Punjab Unionist Party.[5] The Muslim community in South Asia was important to Britain not just because of their political backing, since they also provided the bulk of the manpower for the Indian Army. In short, Britain could not afford to lose support of the Muslim population.

During the Second World War the Indian Army expanded from a force of 200,000 in 1939 to 2,500,000 in 1945.  The army was an entirely volunteer force and conscription was never imposed.[6]  According to Marston, the Indian Army ‘ended the war as the largest all-volunteer force the world had ever seen….’.[7]  Over a period of five years, 617,353 Muslims volunteered.[8]  The vast majority were recruited from modern day Pakistan, particularly the Punjab and the North West Frontier, home to some of the world’s most formidable martial traditions: the Pashtun, Rajput, Awan and Jat.[9]  Ian Sumner suggests that ‘Muslim regiments provided 65 per cent of Indian troops fighting in North Africa, Italy and Burma’. [10] Although it has been fashionable to some scholars to dismiss the idea of martial races, the key point here is that, for peoples of the sub-continent, these military values were not only real but deeply held. Indeed they went to the very heart of certain communities; for Pashtuns and Rajputs in particular, the martial tradition has been an intrinsic aspect of their life and sense of identity.


After the great successes of British Indian units in North Africa in 1940-42, three battle hardened Indian divisions were deployed to Italy where they fought some of the most determined Nazi troops. Paratroopers and Panzer Grenadiers, themselves bloodied by campaigns in the Mediterranean and northwest Europe, were just some of the specialist formations the Indians had to encounter. [11] The first Indian units arrived in Italy in the summer of 1943, but it was clear from the outset that this campaign would be the scene of some of the most intense fighting of World War II. Casualties were high and the terrain provided almost as great an obstacle to the allies as the Germans.  High peaks, hill-top positions and river crossings were fraught with danger; waters rose in a matter of minutes, soldiers drowned and others became sitting ducks for incessant spandau machine gun fire.  During the Italian campaign, the Eighth Indian division, confronted by the toughest conditions, became legendary as ‘the river crossing division’.  On 9 April 1945, a Pashtun soldier by the name of Ali Haidar, alongside his battalion, the 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles, attempted to cross the Senio River.

On their left 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles likewise carried the near slope in the first surge. But as they topped the bank, the trough of the river was lashed by a score of machine-guns, firing from portholes in both inner banks, and from enfilade positions on the left. The Frontiersmen dashed into the stream, where many fell dead and wounded...Sepoy Ali Haidar and two others were all of one platoon to reach the far bank. From thirty yards away a machine-gun nest spat death. Bidding his comrades give him covering fire, Ali Haidar lopped a grenade and followed in under it. Although wounded by a stick bomb he closed and destroyed the post. Without pause he charged the next weapon pit, from whence four machine-guns played on his comrades. He was struck twice and fell, but he crawled forward, pulled the pin of a Mills' bomb with his teeth, and hurled it into the spandau nest. Weak with loss of blood he pulled himself to his feet, staggered forward and threw himself upon the gunners. The two surviving Germans surrendered. [12]


After recovering from his wounds, Ali Haidar was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI for bravery in the field of battle.

There were three ‘great’ Indian divisions in Italy; the Fourth, Eighth and Tenth, all of which were able to refer proudly to similar acts of courage. However, these battles came with a dreadful cost. In total there were approximately 60,000 Indians present in Italy.  Over a period of 22 months, more than 20,000[13] were injured and 7,000 died. The CWGC holds the details of 5,500 personnel, but curiously some 1,500 remain unaccounted for. [14] What follows is a ground-breaking attempt to analyse the statistics on the ethnic and regional composition of British Indian casualties in Italy.  This is followed by a breakdown of the Muslim youth contribution.

Table 1 shows the ethnic composition of the 5,500 Indian casualties provided by the CWGC.

Table 1 Indian casualties from 1943 to 1945

Ethnicity       Casualties

British – Eng, Scots, Irish, Welsh          100

Hindus other Indian religions[15]


Muslims       1413

Nepalese      1500



Muslims recruited from what was to become Pakistan territory (namely Punjab, Azad Kashmir, North West Province, and Baluchistan): 1187; Muslims recruited from what became India 192; Muslims belonging to modern day regions of Bangladesh: 5; Muslims belonging to unknown territories: 29.  

The ratio of recruitment from India compared to those drawn from what was to become Pakistan is approximately 1: 6.  This indicates that Britain relied on the Muslim population from a particular region even though a larger number of Muslims resided within the boundaries of modern day India. 

Table 2 shows top six Pakistani territories responsible for the largest number of Muslim casualties.

Table 2 Muslim causalities from the Punjab and the N.W.F.P

Regions        Casualties

Attock (Punjab)     155

Hazara (NWFP)      98

Jhelum (Punjab)     153

Kohat (NWFP)       145

Peshawar (NWFP)  46

Rawalpindi (Punjab)         200

The cities of Attock, Hazara, Jhelum, Kohat, Peshawar and Rawalpindi[17] provided the bulk of volunteers.  These cities are located at strategic crossroads, constantly pressured by invasions these communities were forced to develop a martial culture. Attock, Kohat, Peshawar and Hazara are locations in north Pakistan with a large population of tribal and non-tribal Pashtuns. Jhelum and Rawalpindi[18] on the other hand was an ideal region to recruit ‘Punjabi Mussalmans’; mainly Rajputs and Jats.

Table 3 shows the ethnicity/religion of the youngest casualties of the Italian campaign

Table 3 Ethnicity/religion of casualties under the age of 18

Ethnicity       15yr olds                        16yr olds                        17yr old                Total

Indian (religion unsure)    1        3        4        7

Muslims       3        9        78      90

Nepalese               3        16      19

Sikhs           1        4        5

          4        16      102    Total

NB.  Ninety out of a possible 122 youth casualties were of Muslim origin. All of these with the exception of one (unrecorded) were from the territories of modern day Pakistan; Punjab, Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province.

Table 4, shows the exact regions of recruitment for these ninety young volunteers

Table 4. Youth casualties from cities (province) situated in modern day Pakistan

Regions        15 year olds 16 year olds 17 year olds Total

Attock (Punjab)     1        1        13      15

Gujrat (Punjab)                         2        2

Hazara (NWFP)                         1        1

Jhelum (Punjab)              2        5        7

Kohat (NWFP)       1        1        19      21

Khurram Agency                       1        1

Llyalpur (Punjab)                       1        1

Mianwali (Punjab)                      6        6

Mardan (NWFP)                        1        1

Mirpur (Kashmir)             1        1        2

Peshawar (NWFP)                     2        2

Poonch (Kashmir)                     1        1

Rawalpindi (Punjab)         1        4        18      23

Sargodha (Punjab)                    2        2

Shahpur (Punjab)                      2        2

Sheikhupura (Punjab)                         1        1

Sialkot (Punjab)                        1        1

Unknown                        1        1

Total  3        9        78      90

The proportion of youth casualties compared to the general population of Kohat and Attock are singularly greater than Rawalpindi; both are Pashtun regions of Pakistan. One explanation would be the martial traditions of the Pashtun.  More, than the other Muslim Martial cultures, Pashtuns have a very strong sense of identity, this is partly due to many years of internecine conflict amongst tribes or neighbouring tribes which has only served to create a stronger sense of ‘us and them’.  This sense of being Pashtun and the codes of Pashtunwali[19] are strongly ingrained in the Pashtun psyche from a very young age.

In addition to the Italian campaign, Muslim soldiers played a significant role in France and Greece.  Four mule companies stationed in Britain were part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.  These men played a worthy role in the battle around Dunkirk and had to be evacuated back to Britain when the Germans unleashed a ferocious offensive in May 1940. [20]  The majority of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps serving in mule companies buried in Britain and France are Muslim.  A small community claiming to be the descendents of Muslim servicemen belonging to these mule companies can also be found in Inverness, Scotland. [21] Besides serving in France, Muslim soldiers belonging to the Fourth Indian division were engaged in Greece. In the aftermath of the Nazi withdrawal, Greece descended into anarchy and the Fourth Indian were despatched from Italy to deal with the civil crisis. The Indians suffered almost two hundred fatalities during peace-keeping duties in Greece. [22]

Today, Britain contains large communities from Kohat, Attock, Peshawar, Jhelum and Rawalpindi.  Large proportions of these communities are located in larger towns and cities across England.  Migrant communities from Attock are resident in Birmingham, Bradford and Cardiff; Kohat and Peshawar in Birmingham, London, Manchester and Reading and those from Jhelum and Rawalpindi live in Birmingham, London, Manchester and other Lancashire towns. [23]  Besides a call for post-war economic labour, this paper suggests that there could be another explanation behind the migration of some of the Pakistani communities in Britain.  If the links between Pakistanis from certain regions and their migration to Britain can be established, it will throw considerable light on the development of the Pakistani communities in the UK after World War II.

Although this paper is based upon records of Muslim casualties rather than soldier’s service records and thus appears to some extent anecdotal, the thesis is supported by other historical research. As Brigadier Noor Husain states:

Almost 70 per cent of the wartime recruitment was from what became Pakistan had been from the undivided Punjab, 19.5 per cent from NWFP….The three semi-arid districts of Punjab-Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock …. And two districts of NWFP-Kohat and Mardan pre-dominated in supplying recruit volunteers in World War II.[24]

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock and Kohat provided the bulk of Muslim recruitment. The only point of contention would be the Brigadier’s choice of Mardan over the author’s Peshawar; however both are located in the NWFP.

With the surrender of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945, the war came to an abrupt end and Indian soldiers were shipped back to British India. There was little mention of these distant heroes after their departure from Europe. Many were shunned in India for serving the colonial power and many others were refused pensions by the Pakistani and Indian governments. Some died due to their injuries and some continued to proceed through life whilst never forgetting the trauma they had witnessed in the battles for North Africa and Europe. [25] The Indian Army Muslims had contributed to the Allied war effort and suffered heavy casualties just like soldiers from the UK and USA, but they have been largely neglected in Britain’s popular Second World War narrative.  Almost sixty years ago Muslims had stood shoulder to shoulder with UK and US troops. From the Far East to Europe they were part of a huge British effort to rid the world of the axis power. Today the same regions of Pakistan are on the edge of civil war, pushed on by drone activity and radical voices.

The great tragedy is that the history of the shared hardships and achievements of British and Muslim comrades in the Second World War, and the many other conflicts before 1939 has been overlooked, paradoxically by young British Muslims as well as the majority of the population. Perhaps, if more was known about the contribution of so many Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army, it would help to restore a sense of pride, cement the social bonds of different communities in British society, and turn the idea of a shared heritage into a meaningful weapon against prejudice.

The appendix below gives the details of three fifteen year old boys. They fought for Britain, thousands of miles away from their native home, never to return to their families. Amir, Mian and Gulab gave up their lives at an age when life begins to take shape. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that future generations in Britain, Europe and elsewhere could live in peace and security. Their story can now be told but there will be no way of ever knowing how many other young boys and men could have perished from among those who remain unaccounted for, so many decades ago. Clearly the action of men from the Punjab and North West Frontier Province of Pakistan illustrates the shared histories and sacrifices of all those forgotten heroes who fought to demolish fascism. Their contribution has yet to be acknowledged!


Appendix: Three young casualties of the Italian Campaign[26] 

AMIR KHAN, Naik (Corporal), 13289, 4th Bn., 13th Frontier Force Rifles. 14 October 1944. Age 15. Son of Sher Khan and Unisa, of Manja Ghundi, Injra, Attock, Pakistan; husband of Nur Bibi, of Manja Ghundi. Grave Ref. XV. C. 10.

GULAB KHAN, Naik (Corporal), 11087, 6th Royal Bn., 13th Frontier Force Rifles. 17 December 1943. Age 15. Son of Piari, of Lohsar, Saghri, Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Grave Ref. XVIII. B. 13.

MIAN KHAN, Sepoy, 16388, 1st Bn., 12th Frontier Force Regiment. 10 December 1943. Age 15. Son of Amin Khan and Gulzira, of Warasta, Hangu, Kohat, Pakistan. Grave Ref. XVIII. C. 7.



Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, G.H.Q. 1946. The Tiger Triumphs: The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy, His Majesty’s Stationery Office for the Government of India, p. 4.

Marston, D. P. ‘A Force Transformed: The Indian Army and the Second World War’ in Marston and Chandar S. Sundaram (eds.). 2007. A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, pp. 102-120. 

Prasad, B. (ed.). 1956. Official History of the Indian Armed Forces and Defence Organisations 1939-45: Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation, Combined Inter-Services Historical Section India & Pakistan, Appendix 13, p. 460. 

Sumner, I. 2001. The Indian Army 1914-1947, Botley, Oxford: Osprey, p. 25.

Visram, R. 2002. Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, London: Pluto Press, p. 345.

Yeats, F. 1945. Brown Martial India, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.



Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian Army in World War II’, on (accessed on 4th April 2009).

Adnkronos, Italy: Homage to Indian Soldiers killed in WWII (accessed on 6th April 2009).

'Copyright © Jahan Mahmood. All rights reserved



[1] This paper would not have been possible without the advice and support of Dr Malcolm Dick, Acting Director, Centre for Birmingham and Midlands History, University of Birmingham. The author would also like to thank the following for their help in preparing this paper: Dr Tahir Abbas, Director, Centre for Ethnicity and Culture, University of Birmingham; Major John Cotterill, Mercian Regiment, Birmingham; Birmingham; Dr Ashley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in War Studies, Kings College, London; Dr Laura Zahra Mcdonald, research fellow, University of Birmingham; Dr Steffen Prauser, Director, Centre for Second World War Studies, University of Birmingham; Patrick Wing, Neighbourhood Manager, Balsall Heath Forum, Birmingham; Waleed Bagadi, Tim Hicks, Zubeda Limbada, Parminder Jutla, Mike Taylor,

[2] Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck quoted in R.Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 345.

[3] I am grateful to the CWGC for providing this information to the author on CD.

[4] Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League, India’s largest Muslim political organisation.

[5] This party was a multi-ethnic political organisation in one of India’s largest and richest provinces.

[6] Daniel P. Marston, ‘A Force Transformed: The Indian Army and the Second World War’ in Marston and Chandar S. Sundaram (eds.), A Military History of India and South Asia: From the East India Company to the Nuclear Era (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 102, 120. 

[7] Ibid., p. 120.

[8] Figures are calculated by the author from Bisheshwar Prasad (ed.), Official History of the Indian Armed Forces and Defence Organisations 1939-45: Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation (Combined Inter-Services Historical Section India & Pakistan, 1956), Appendix 13, p. 460. 

[9] Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian Army in World War II’, on (accessed on 4th April 2009).

[10] Ian Sumner, The Indian Army 1914-1947 (Botley, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001), p. 25.

[11] Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, G.H.Q., The Tiger Triumphs: The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy (His Majesty’s Stationery Office for the Government of India, 1946), p. 4.

[12] The Tiger Triumphs…, op. cit.   

[13] adnKronos, ‘Italy: Homage to Indian soldiers killed in WWII’ on (accessed on 7 April 2009)

[14] Based on information supplied by CWGC and as a result of conversations with staff at the CWGC. The author has attempted to make sure the information presented is accurate, but it should be noted that the raw data are dependent on the accuracy of those responsible for recording details of the soldiers when they first signed up.

[15] Since it is difficult to differentiate between names of Hindus, Jains and some other Indian religions. Christian and Parsi names are also categorised under ‘Hindu and other religions’

[16] The Sikh population was smaller than the Hindus, Muslims and Nepalese; they were proportionally the largest contributors to the British Indian Army.

[17] Rawalpindi housed the largest British garrison in British India.

[18] In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny British recruitment shifted to the Punjab region especially Rawalpindi and Jhelum

[19] Pashtunwali translates to ‘way of the Pashtun’, it plays a dominant role in the lives of most tribal Pashtuns and stresses three major themes: revenge, honour, hospitality.

[20] Visram, op. cit., p. 343.

[21] Author’s visit to Inverness. The graves of nine Muslim soldiers who died in 1942 and 1943 are located in Kingussie Cemetery, Inverness-shire. Information supplied by CWGC.

[22] Information provided by CWGC.

[23] Information based on the personal research by the author.

[24] Brigadier Noor Husain, ‘The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian Army in World War II’, on (accessed on 4th April 2009).

[25] Author’s initial conversations with ex-servicemen in Pakistan.

[26] Based on information supplied by the CWGC.

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