Sunday 12 November 2017

The forgotten Muslim heroes who fought for Britain in World War 1

Algerian soldiers on the way to the western front arrive in Paris in 1914. Photograph: Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images

Good piece in The Guardian today about the Muslim Soldiers in WW1 that fought for the British Empire.
A biting wind whips across the rolling countryside, cutting through the crowd gathered on a hillside overlooking Notre Dame de Lorette, France’s national war cemetery. Huddled amid what remains of the 440 miles of trenches that made up the western front, they shudder out of shock and surprise rather than cold while listening about life for the men who endured the horrors of the first world war.
More than 1.5 billion artillery shells fell in this part of northern France, close to the town of Arras, prompting soldiers to nickname the farmland in which they fought “the hell of the north”, or poignantly, “the cemetery”. It is the experiences of some of their Muslim comrades, however, that particularly capture the crowd’s imagination, drawing looks of disbelief at a history that has never been fully told.
Having travelled thousands of miles from hotter climes, these soldiers went into the trenches with imams whose duties included leading group prayers and reciting the call to prayer into the ears of the dying. Special orders had been issued on when and how to pray. “If the war is intense and the Muslim does not have a moment of peace to fulfil his prayer he can just move his head and torso,” said a declaration from French high command. “In the case where there are moments of calm, one can complete the prayer together.”
Hot halal food was routinely served, prepared by cooks who had accompanied the men. When medical supplies ran out, some of these soldiers used traditional herbal medicines from their homelands to help treat injured comrades, whatever their faith. Others taught their folk songs to those serving alongside them, whatever their language, in between the brutal onslaughts of trench warfare.
The evidence of their sacrifice is on display in a corner of Notre Dame de Lorette, which contains the graves of 40,000 French soldiers who fell on the western front. The Muslim headstones are distinguishable not just by their Islamic inscriptions but because they also tilt eastwards towards Mecca. They were designed by the French painter Etienne Dinet, who converted to Islam in 1908.
The crowd of mainly British Muslims, who were at Notre Dame de Lorette before this weekend’s Armistice Day commemorations, ended their visit by praying over the graves of the north African soldiers who shared their faith. Their visit formed part of a groundbreaking project by an organisation called the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation, which has, for the first time, documented the contribution of all the Muslims who fought and worked for the allied forces during the first world war. The 19 in its name refers to the conflict that was caused by the French military presence in Syria in 1919 after the first world war ended.
They were drawn from across Africa, India, the far and middle east, Russia and even America, but it is their heart-touching stories of living and dying alongside European Christian or Jewish counterparts that have resonated the most with Ferrier and his team. Knowing this history, they say, could help overcome some problems in the Europe of today.
Documents uncovered have shown instances of imams, priests and rabbis learning each other’s burial ceremonies and prayers to lay the dead to rest on the battlefront. There are reports of Muslim soldiers sharing food with hungry civilians, while French, Belgian and Canadian officers expressed surprise at their humane treatment of German prisoners of war. When asked to explain their conduct, the soldiers quoted the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad on how enemy combatants should be dealt with.
Ferrier, who is not a Muslim, said: “The far-right and Islamophobia is on the rise throughout Europe. Our project is about making all people across the continent understand that we have a shared history. This is not about politics or colonialism. We are simply presenting the facts because this is a story that the whole of Europe needs to know.
“Muslims are portrayed as the enemy within, that they are recent arrivals who have never made a valuable contribution to Europe. But we can show that they have sacrificed their lives for a free Europe, have helped to make it what it is and that they have a right to be here.”
Central to the foundation’s ethos is spreading knowledge of its findings to young Britons and Europeans in particular, with the aim that this will help future generations better understand the Muslim communities living among them. The battlefield tours, entitled The Muslim Experience in World War One, are organised in partnership with Anglia Tours, a company that specialises in battlefield visits for British schoolchildren.
In addition to visiting the trenches, memorials and graves, and hearing the human stories behind them, the tour also includes a visit to the El Badr mosque in Amiens for a presentation on the foundation’s research, followed by a traditional north-African meal. Non-Muslim visitors are also encouraged to witness evening prayers.
The foundation’s work has already caught the eye of first world war experts. Last month, Ferrier addressed historians at Harvard University and he has also presented a paper to the UN. Plans are under way for a book next year that will contain extracts of the documents and images that have been uncovered, and an exhibition is to tour Europe. As the research continues, he estimates that the current figure of 2.5 million Muslims helping the allies during the first world war could increase.


400,000 Indians (British Indian army)
200,000 Algerians , 100,000 Tunisians, 40,000 Moroccans, 100,000 West Africans, 5,000 Somalis and Libyans (French army)
5,000 American Muslims
1.3 million Russian Muslims
100,000 Egyptians
35,000 Chinese Muslims
130,000 North Africans
200,000 Sub Saharan Africans
40,000 Indians

No comments:

Post a Comment