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Why were Indian troops involved in the two World Wars?

When the British Government declared war on Germany, both in August 1914 and in September 1939, it was not just the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British Isles that they were committing to war but all military troops of what was then known as the British Empire.  This included the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, and the many British territories scattered across the globe including, of course, India from where many of the Muslim soldiers were recruited.

1 - A soldier of 15th Punjab Regiment - portrait by Harry Sheldon.jpg

A soldier of 15th Punjab Regiment by Harry Sheldon, war artist


How many Indian troops were fighting for Britain and its Allies in the two World Wars?

The total number of Indian Army troops who served in World War I was 1,440,437.  Of these, some 238,000 were Muslims.  Precise figures for the Royal Indian Marine are more difficult to determine but they crewed 13 principal vessels, some 40 smaller vessels and a sizeable number of shallow-draught rivercraft for use in Mesopotamia.  All were volunteers, though there are stories of pressure being brought to bear to enlist.

During World War 2 the size of the Army swelled from 195,000 in 1939 to over 2.5 million men by the end of the war.  All were volunteers.  

Out of a total recruitable Muslim population of 2.9 million, 44,100 were already serving in the Army when war started.  A further 551,619 were recruited during the war years, giving a final total for the war of 595,719.

The Royal Indian Marine had become the Royal Indian Navy on 2 October 1934.  Prior to the war it had numbered a total of 1,846 officers and ratings.  This was increased to 30,478 officers and ratings by the end of the war. 


The Indian Air Force was not formed until 1 April 1933 so did not exist at the time of World War I.  In October 1939 it numbered just 285 officers and airmen.  On 12 March 1945 the IAF was granted the prefix Royal and by the end of the war it numbered 42,782 officers, men and enrolled followers     but this figure excludes civilians and temporary followers.

2 - unidentified Muslim soldier by Harry Sheldon.  Shoulder flash shows North-Western Army

An unidentified Muslim soldier wearing the formation badge of North-Western Army (India), a castle gateway symbolic of the Khyber Pass gateway into India and featuring a white castle against three equal bands of red/black/red.’ Painting by Harry Sheldon, war artist.


Where did the Muslims come from?

The principal area of recruitment was the then undivided Punjab, now formed of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and that part of Western Punjab now in Pakistan. The principal groups or classes recruited included Punjabi and other Muslims as shown in the table below, as well as Sikhs, Jats, Pathans, Rajputs, Dogras, Garhwalis and Gurkhas.

3 - unidentified soldier - 15th Punjab Regiment - portrait by Harry Sheldon.jpg

A soldier of 15th Punjab Regiment by Harry Sheldon, war artist


Were any concerns ever raised about Muslims fighting their co-religionists from the Ottoman Empire?

Yes, and there were some mutinies among and desertions of Muslim soldiers, as there were of other classes, but on the whole the concerns were largely unfounded.


What is meant by ‘Class’?

This is difficult to define but essentially was used by British authorities in India to define those they considered suitable for recruitment into the Indian Army. 


How was the Indian Army organised?

As with the British Army it was organised into divisions, brigades, cavalry regiments and infantry battalions and supporting arms and services such as artillery, engineers, medical and veterinary.


What about the Navy?

Although the East India Company had originally maintained an armed naval capability, responsibility for warlike duties was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1863, leaving the Indian Marine to man dockyards and transport vessels.  In 1892 it became the Royal Indian Marine and, while continuing to convey troops and stores between Indian ports and further afield, it also provided station vessels for Aden, Port Blair and Rangoon.  Its vessels were usually unarmed, though the Troopships “Hardinge” and “Dufferin” had been constructed for their use as Auxiliary Cruisers should the need arise, although in the event of war they would be transferred to the Royal Navy.


What about the Air Force?

The Indian Air Force expanded from an October 1939 position of One Army Co-operation Squadron numbering 285 officers and airmen to a July 1945 strength (by which time it was the Royal Indian Air Force) of 3 Fighter Recce Squadrons, 2 Ground Attack Squadrons, 2 Light Bomber Squadrons and 2 Fighter Squadrons with a total of 43,750 officers, men, enrolled followers and technical non-combatants. By August 1947, when India and Pakistan gained their independence and by which time the 1945 wartime strengths had been considerably reduced, 224 officers, 2189 airmen and 407 technical non-combatants, all of whom were obviously Muslim, transferred to the fledgling Pakistan Air Force.


What about other units apart from infantry and cavalry?

Artillery, Engineers and Sappers & Miners have already been referred to previously. The Indian Army, however, deployed vast numbers of support personnel, many of whom were classed as non-combatants though in effect they saw as much action as those of the ‘teeth’ arms. A reference to just two of these will demonstrate their front line service as well as their essential rear echelon support roles.


What was the rank structure in the Indian Armed Forces?

It was not until World War I that Indians became eligible for King’s commissions – see Did any Indians receive commissions and serve as officers? so the following table applies to the majority of Indian troops.

Rissaldar Major
Daffadar Major
Lance Daffadar
Unpaid Lance Daffadar

Subedar Major
Havildar Major
Naik Lance
Sepoy/Rifleman/ *

British equivalent
Sergeant Major
Lance Corporal

* For Artillery and Engineers the equivalent junior rank of Gunner or Sapper


Did any Indians receive commissions and serve as officers?

Indians received commissions from the Honourable East India Company as Native Officers, and after 1857 from the Viceroy as Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers, though the date on which this designation was introduced is subject to debate (see READ MORE below).

Throughout the nineteenth century the British held the misplaced view that Indians could not command other Indians in war and they certainly could not hold command over white British troops.  Regiments were therefore officered by British officers trained at the East India Company’s officer training establishment at Addiscombe, and later at either the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (for infantry and cavalry), or the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (for artillery and engineers). 

It was not until 1920 that places were made available at Sandhurst to train Indian officers who then received King’s Commissions, though a few medical officers had been commissioned during World War I.

It was a slow process.  A decline in numbers opting for Sandhurst led to the opening in December 1932 of the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, but a perception of inequality between Indian Commissioned Officers and King’s Commissioned Officers led to a decline in numbers so that by the time of the outbreak of World War 2 there were fewer than 500 Indian commissioned officers in the Indian Army.  The situation changed dramatically during the war so that by March 1947 the total number of Indian Army officers was 22,000 of which 13,500 were British and the remaining 8,500 Indian.


How many casualties were there?

World War I - Of the total number who served, including followers, 58,379 were killed or died of wounds or disease,  65,208 were wounded while 1,238 were recorded as missing or prisoners, a grand total of 124,825.

World War 2 - 87,031 named on memorials, and a further 2,350 unknown, a total of 89,381. These numbers include the Royal Indian Navy and Royal Indian Air Force. 


How have Muslims been commemorated up to now?

From an historical perspective, for over two hundred years tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers served the British Empire in her armies, and particularly in the British Indian Army.  Their service and sacrifice often merits little more than a footnote in military histories of the period although their names are commemorated on other memorials in different parts of the world.  Various events focussing on the centenary of the end of World War I and the seventy fifth anniversary of the end of World War 2 served to highlight the contribution of many Empire and Colonial forces.  Other communities, such as the Sikhs and the Gurkhas, have erected memorials to their participation.  This one focusses on the contribution of the Muslim soldier.

Most of the information on this web site focusses on those Muslims who served in the British Indian Army. There was in addition a large number of Muslims who served in the Royal Indian Marine, later to become the Royal Indian Navy, and the Royal Indian Air Force, and there were also large numbers of seamen and lascars who served in the Merchant Navy. In remembering them, we should recognise that at this time we are talking about pre-independence undivided India.  The division between India and Pakistan did not occur until 1947.  

We should also remember the more than three hundred thousand Berber and Arab men from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as Muslims from the former French territories within India, who served in the French Army.

This memorial also commemorates those Muslims who continue to serve in the British Armed Forces and who have made the ultimate sacrifice in conflicts since the end of World War 2.   


Gallantry awards

Indian soldiers only became eligible for the Victoria Cross in 1911.  Until that time they had their own distinctive reward for gallantry known as the Indian Order of Merit.  

World War I

During World War I a total of 11 were awarded to Indian soldiers, three of whom were Muslims, while a further seven were awarded to British Officers of the Indian Army.  

World War 2

31 Victoria Crosses and 9 George Crosses were awarded to the Indian Army or those attached to it, and of the 29 VCs awarded for the Burma campaign, or on India’s north-east frontier, 20 were won by the Indian Army.  Nearly 6,300 awards were earned by the Indian Army for gallantry and meritorious service during World War 2; awards for gallantry alone totalled about 4,800.


What happened to the Armed Forces when India and Pakistan became independent?

On 20th February 1947 the new Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, announced in the House of Commons that Lord Mountbatten had been appointed to replace Lord Wavell as Viceroy, that the British would withdraw from India and power would be transferred to the Indians by June 1948 at the latest.     Mountbatten arrived in India on 22nd March 1947 and, following initial discussions with the various Indian leaders, concluded that a plan for a united India drawn up a year earlier was going nowhere.  He was still hopeful that a united India would emerge after the British withdrawal.  On 17th May 1947, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, C in C India, broadcast over the radio to the Indian Armed Forces, informing them that no agreement had been reached, that the British Government had looked carefully at the proposals for separate independent States but concluded that “…they, therefore, cannot agree to divide India into separate States, though they do think that some way must be found for the predominantly Muslim areas to govern themselves if they wish to do so.”    Despite this, on 3rd June 1947 Mountbatten announced that a plan had been drawn up for the partition of the subcontinent and set the date for independence as 15th August, just 73 days hence.


Are Muslims serving in the British Armed Forces today?

Yes, though numbers are difficult to determine since declaration of religion is not mandatory for Armed Forces personnel.  From those who have declared a religion as at 1 October 2021 (the latest available information), Muslims account for 0.4 per cent of UK Regular Armed Forces.

Have any Muslims died while on active duty with the Armed Forces since the end of WW2?

Yes.  From 1 August 1945 to 31 December 2021 (the latest data available), there were 45 deaths among UK armed forces personnel where their religion was recorded as either Muslim or Mohammedan on the Armed Forces Memorial database.


The First World War History of Dulmial Village and its British Cannon

Dr Irfan Malik

An iron cannon cast in Scotland two centuries ago stands proudly in the centre of the Pakistani village of Dulmial – a testament to the community’s remarkable military tradition and its old ties with Britain. Its fame is such that Dulmial is known across Pakistan as the “village with the gun”.




   Rana Chhina. The Eagle Strikes.  The Royal Indian Air Force 1932-1950. Delhi: Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, United Service Institution of India (2006), p.xii

   Chhina. The Eagle Strikes. Appendix C, p.314

   Major General Shahid Hamid. Disastrous Twilight – A Personal Record of the Partition of India.  London: Leo Cooper/Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1986, p.141

   India’s Contribution to the Great War, op.cit., p.177.  These numbers do not include British officers of the Indian Army or British ranks serving on the permanent   Indian Establishment.  The number given for prisoners does not include those who were repatriated

   Rana Chhina,  Last Post. Indian War Memorials Around the World. Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, United Service Institution of India (2014), pp.48-49

   Nicholas Mansergh  Constitutional Relations Between Britain and India. The Transfer of Power, 1942-1947 (12 volumes).  London: HMSO, Vol IX, Number 438. (hereafter  TOP, Volume Number, item number)

   Major-General Shahid Hamid, Disastrous Twilight (London: Leo Cooper, 1986) pp63-64 and IOLR/L/WS/1/742.








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