How were Indian soldiers treated?

The British were very careful to cater for the different backgrounds of their Indian soldiers. It helped to encourage loyalty and gratitude if their cultural expectations were met and also served to keep distinctions between Indian soldiers clear, reducing the likelihood of conspiracies against British rule.   Diet was a sensitive issue for Indian soldiers. Muslim soldiers for example were typically meat-eaters. They ate most animals such as beef, lamb, chicken or mutton, but not pork. For religious reasons, the animal had to be slaughtered in the correct fashion for it to be considered halal (permissible).

As a result of their involvement in the fighting on the Western Front there was a need for thousands of wounded and sick Indian troops to be treated in Europe. Military hospitals were set up in Brighton (including in George IV`s Royal Pavilion) where careful provision were made to ensure that soldiers had little cause for offence.

Royal Pavilion Brighton

Royal Pavilion Brighton © Wikipedia Commons

In the town, a butcher had set up a halal slaughterhouse and supplied wagon-loads of goats for the Muslim convalescents.

British military authorities were careful not to let white women nurses treat Indians. This was mainly due to the fear of sexual liaisons taking place that were seen as harmful to the reputation of white women.

As their letters suggest, though complimentary about the care they received, soldiers were critical of the restrictions placed on their movement. Chaperoned at every occasion, with every outing carefully stage-managed, many felt like prisoners.

Not all hospitals were equally well run either. In the Kitchener Military Hospital in Brighton Col Bruce Seton`s draconian regime (housed in a workhouse tipped with barbed wire and patrolled by military police) provoked one of his patients to attempt his murder. Fraternisation with local British women was also regarded as scandalous.

In general, Indian troops had complete religious freedom during the war. They were free to hold religious rites and festivals except when they were actually engaged in military operations. Religious artefacts and ritual occasions, such as the end of the fast of Ramadan (for Muslims), perhaps took on greater significance because the men were so far from home.

Burial rights were also observed according to the respective religions of the fallen. Traditionally, Sikhs and Hindus (including Gurkhas) cremate their dead and scatter their ashes in flowing waters. Muslims buried their dead. This practice was followed for the 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in Brighton hospitals during the War. Each was given an open-air cremation at a specially built funeral platform on the South Downs overlooking Brighton.

The burial ground near the Woking Mosque received the bodies of 21 Muslim soldiers.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the cohesion of the British Indian Army came from religion, in particular after the Ottoman Empire in Turkey entered the conflict; it meant that the British Empire was now at war with a Muslim power.

Most Muslim soldiers concluded that the war was still lawful; but there were some desertions from Muslim units on the Western Front, as elsewhere.

There were also at least three mutinies of Muslim troops in other theatres of war, usually when the troops in question suspected that they were going to be sent to fight against the Turks.

Some of the British thought it wrong that Asians (and Africans) should fight in a ‘white-man’s war’ on European soil. German propaganda in particular highlighted the risk to the future of the colonial system and supremacy of the ‘white race’ (effectively implying Britain, France and Germany), if Asian (and African) soldiers were trained in the handling of modern arms and brought to Europe. It was argued that they would lose all respect for the white man if they were allowed to participate as equals and experience their vulnerability.

German propaganda was also distributed in prisoner-of-war camps designed mainly for South Asian troops. In the Half-moon camp at Wünsdorf near Berlin, a mosque was even constructed in an effort to convince Muslims to switch their allegiance away from the British Empire.

Woking Mosque

Woking Mosque © Daniel McLoughlin

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The project is a collaboration between think-tank British Future and the organisation New Horizons for British Islam. British Future is an independent, non-partisan thinktank seeking to involve people in an open conversation, which addresses people’s hopes and fears about identity and integration, migration and opportunity, so that we feel confident about Britain’s Future. New Horizons is a forward-looking organisation that will work for reform in Muslim thought and practise. It is inspired by Islamic values and speaks from within the Islamic tradition for the benefit of all.