The personal letters of Indian Muslim soldiers who fought in World War I writing about Britain have been revealed for the first time.
The newly discovered letters, dating back to over 100 years ago, shine a light on the experience of Indian soldiers who share their impressions of Britain in comparison to their home country.
At least 885,000 Muslims were recruited by the allies, including from India and North Africa, according to Dr Islam Issa, lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, who has been trawling through thousands of personal letters, historic archives, regimental diaries and census reports.
One fifth of British Empire recruits of the war were of Islamic faith, with at least 89,000 Muslims recorded as having lost their lives for Britain.
In a letter penned by soldier A. Ali dated October 1915, he writes about a range of experiences – from visiting London department stores and using the London Underground.
Ali writes in his observation about the police:
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.
On his trip to a London department store, A. Ali writes:
We visited a shop where 2,000 men and women were working and everything can be bought. There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything.”
In the same letter, he goes onto share his experience of the London Underground, writing:
Then we went in the train that goes under the earth, it was for us a strange and wonderful experience – they call it the underground train.
In a letter from another soldier Abdul Said, also dated from 1914, the Indian soldier's opinions on shopping and British butchers are shared.
Every shop in this country is so arranged that one is delighted to look at them. Whether you buy much or little it is properly wrapped up, and if you tell the shop man to send it to your house you have only to give him your address and he delivers it.
Said goes onto note his thoughts on butchers and the difference between the shops in Britain and India, writing:
The butcher’s shops in Hindustan are very dirty, but here they are so clean and tidy that there is absolutely no smell.
Responding to the new findings, Dr Issa said: “When I decided to look at soldiers’ letters, I expected a very bleak outlook on the war. Of course, sometimes, that’s exactly what I found. But quite often, the letters were about individual experiences and very normal, human things."
He said anecdotes such as these had helped shape his narrative for the Stories of Sacrifice exhibition, currently showing at the British Muslim Heritage Centre, and is the the first long-term exhibition of its kind, devoted solely to exemplifying the Muslim community’s contribution and sacrifices during World War One.
"While there’s an important narrative about the war as a whole, the personal and human narrative was probably more striking. Whatever your ideology or stance, you end up realising that these Muslim soldiers were individual humans and as a result, they were making sacrifices at that individual, human level", Dr Issa said.
Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Aisha Gani at email@example.com.
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