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HISTORY

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.   

 

The number of casualties sustained in the European theatre during World War I led to the formation of the Graves Registration Committee, later to become the Imperial War Graves Commission and even later still the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which still exists today.  It is responsible for the maintenance of Commonwealth war graves and cemeteries around the world. Go to www.cwgc.org for more information on this organisation.  Through its ‘Find Records’- hyperlink required you can go to the search engine for ‘Find War Dead’. 

 

One of its early core ideological principles, which still runs through the CWGC today, was that of equality of treatment in death, with a standard headstone showing the number, rank, name and regiment of the dead soldier, though the actual design varies in different parts of the world depending on the climate.  

In the case of the many Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose remains were cremated, and for those, including Muslims, missing in action and with no known grave, their names were collated and added to Memorials to the Missing and to common collective memorials such as the one to the Indian Army at Neuve Chapelle in France, or the India Gate in Delhi.  The war dead are commemorated in more than 60 countries around the world.  In the case of those buried in named graves with headstones, the design varies according to whether or not the soil is sufficiently firm to support an upright stone, or potentially unstable and therefore requiring a flat metal plate fixed to a small concrete block.

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Standard CWGC headstone – stable soil (source TMcC)

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CWGC headstone – unstable soil

(source TMcC)

From Unfortunately, that standardisation principle was not practised throughout the world for World War I casualties.  A decision of 1924 with regard to Indian Army, as well as African and other ethnic minority, units led to British and Indian officers and other ranks being commemorated by name on memorials in Europe, where it was thought they might be more frequently visited, but in other more distant theatres only the names of the regiments appeared, followed in each case by the names of the British officers (and British NCOs if any), the names of the Indian officers but only the number of Indian NCOs and men.  This inequality in commemoration was recognised in the report of a Special Committee appointed by the CWGC and which reported in 2021.    Both the CWGC and the British Government have apologised unreservedly for the historical wrongs found in the report and for failing to live up to the founding principle of “equality of treatment in death”.    Since the late 1990s the CWGC has done much to correct these inequalities with new memorials carrying names, though the position in Iraq, for understandable reasons, remains unchanged. 

There are in excess of 650 memorials and cemeteries scattered across 60 countries commemorating the Indian dead of the two world wars. Many of the cemeteries have just one or two burials in them whilst the more significant overseas memorials feature hundreds of names or commemorate many hundreds of casualties, even if not by name.  The most significant of these are:

Baku Memorial, Azerbaijan

Maynamati War Cemetery, Bangladesh

Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium       

Sai Wan, China (four separate memorials)

Alamein Cremation Memorial, Egypt

Alamein Memorial, Egypt

El Alamein War Cemetery, Egypt

Halfaya War Cemetery, Egypt

Heliopolis (Aden) Memorial   

Heliopolis (Port Tewfik) Memorial

Kantara Indian Cemetery Memorial, Egypt

Manara Indian Muhammadan Cemetery, Egypt

Suez War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt

Keren Cremation Memorial, Eritrea

La Chapelette British and Indian Cemetery,

Peronne, France

Mazargues War Cemetery, Marseilles, France

Meerut Military Cemetery,

St Martin-Les-Boulogne, France

Neuve Chapelle Memorial, France

St Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen, France

Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery, Germany

Bombay/Chittagong 1939-1945 War Memorial,

India

Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial, Mumbai, India

Delhi/Karachi 1939-1945 War Memorials, India

Delhi Memorial (India Gate), India

Gauhati War Cemetery, India

Imphal Cremation Memorial, India   

Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery, India

Imphal War Cemetery, India   

Kirkee 1914-1918 Memorial, India

Kirkee War Cemetery, India

Kohima Cremation Memorial, India

Kohima War Cemetery, India   

Jakarta War Cemetery, Indonesia

Tehran Memorial, Iran

Alwiya Indian War Cemetery, Iraq

Amara (Left Bank) Indian War Cemetery, Iraq

Amara War Cemetery, Iraq   

Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery, Iraq

Baghdad (North Gate) Khanaqin Memorial, Iraq

Basra Cremation Memorial, Iraq

Basra Indian Forces Cemetery, Iraq

Basra Memorial, Iraq

Basra War Cemetery, Iraq

Mosul War Cemetery, Iraq

Ramleh War Cemetery and Memorial (combined),

Israel & Palestine including Gaza)

Arezzo War Cemetery, Italy

Cassino Memorial, Italy

Cassino War Cemetery, Italy

Florence War Cemetery, Italy

Forli Cremation Memorial, Italy

Forli Indian Army War Cemetery, Italy

Ravenna War Cemetery, Italy

Rimini Cremation Memorial

Sangro River Cremation Memorial

Sangro River War Cemetery

Beirut Cremation Memorial, Lebanon

Beirut War Cemetery, Lebanon

Tobruk War Cemetery, Libya

Taiping War Cemetery, Malaysia

Rangoon Memorial, Myanmar

Rangoon War Cemetery, Myanmar

Taukkyan Cremation Memorial, Myanmar

Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

Karachi War Cemetery, Pakistan

Rawalpindi War Cemetery, Pakistan

Lae War Cemetery, Papua New Guinea

Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Cemetery,

Papua New Guinea

Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

Singapore (Unmaintainable Graves) Memorial,

Singapore

Singapore Cremation Memorial, Singapore

Singapore Memorial, Singapore

Colombo (Liveramentu) Memorial Tablets,

Sri Lanka

Khartoum Memorial, Sudan

Aleppo War Cemetery, Syria

Damascus Commonwealth War Cemetery,

Syria

Dar Es Salaam British and Indian Memorial,

Tanzania

Dar Es Salaam War Cemetery, Tanzania

Medjez-El-Bab Memorial, Tunisia

Helles Memorial, Turkey (including Gallipoli)

214

178

414

542

589

1802

198

156

577

3779

283

106

223

285

320

1003

313

 

4703

270

206

6469

2154

25838

12357

143

868

809

221

134

150

917

330

304

3380

451

5000

146

2614

104

1032

290

33310

510

259

600

378

1438

431

147

769

493

120

172

517

385

247

113

180

392

19643

463

981

1821

105

47

426

614

671

94

781

12105

111

514

146

100

1420

145

136

1516

You can research any of these memorials and cemeteries, and others, by going to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website www.cwgc.org.

Much closer to home, during World War I many Indian soldiers wounded in France and Flanders were brought to the UK to be treated at dedicated hospitals established in Brighton, Sussex, and in the area of Southampton, Hampshire, particularly the village of Brockenhurst which became a virtual hospital village with the Lady Hardinge Hospital for Wounded Indian Soldiers, and the Meerut Indian General Hospital.  Of those who died of their wounds or illness, Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated in accordance with their faiths and are commemorated at the Chattri on Patcham Down above Brighton.  Muslim soldiers who died in hospital at either Brighton or Brockenhurst were taken to Woking where they were buried in a garden close to the Shah Jahan Mosque.  At least a further 28 Muslim soldiers are buried in this country who have yet to feature on a memorial.  

Almost as soon as the Indian Army had arrived in Europe in 1914, discussions started on how to deal with those Muslim soldiers who died in England as a result of their wounds or illnesses.  Sir Mirza Abbas Ali Baig, the then Muslim member of the Secretary of State’s Council, was heavily involved in advising on, and participating in discussions about, religious sensitivities. In conjunction with Moulvi Sadrud Din, Imam of the Shah Jahan Mosque, a plot of land was identified close to the mosque and negotiations commenced with the Earl of Onslow to purchase it.  Although the negotiations were quickly concluded the clearance and preparation of the ground was to drag on for some considerable time.  

Meanwhile soldiers were already dying in English hospitals     and needed to be buried.  It was reported that the trustees of an existing Muslim burial ground within the confines of Brookwood Cemetery “…are prepared to sanction burial of Mahomedan sepoys etc. in their private cemetery on condition that the coffins are transferred as soon as possible to the new ground”.  

The War Office had taken on the task of clearing and marking out the new ground at Woking, handing the keys to the Moulvi on 17 March 1915, though it was acknowledged that the work was still not complete.  By the end of May 1915, 22 bodies had been buried at Brookwood and although Moulvi Sadrud Din repeatedly made the point to various authorities that his duties at the mosque did not allow for much time at Brookwood, nevertheless he continued to officiate there. In June 1915 responsibility for the general administration of the Woking ground was transferred from the War Office to the India Office and it was at about this time that it was taken into use, but as early as September 1915 it was found to be:

…unsuitable as owing to its low level and proximity to the canal the ground is waterlogged; and I am to say that Mr Chamberlain would be glad to be informed of the circumstances under which the site was acquired with a view to arranging for an exchange if possible.  

The War Office identified the Moulvi as having been involved in the selection of the site, and put the blame on him for having decided that trial holes need not be dug, as had been recommended by the War Office.    The War Office also pointed out that in addition to the £80 paid to Lord Onlsow for the land, £20 had been paid to the commoners of Horsell Common for the extinction of common rights.  By the end of October 1915 the India Office had concluded that the site at Woking should be abandoned, that a new site free from subsoil water be identified and that, until this was done, the existing site continue to be used but with a view to re-interring the bodies according to Muslim rites as soon as the ground was ready.    A site was identified at Pyrford Common but by this time the Indian Corps had been withdrawn from France, Indian hospitals in England had been closed and it was felt that there would be few, if any, further Muslim burials in England and so no need for a larger cemetery.      The plans for Pyrford were abandoned but it was decided that the existing site should be tidied up with the erection of a proper wall and entrance gate. Sir Walter Lawrence     suggested Sir Swinton Jacob KCSI to design the work but he died before this could happen and the work fell to T. Herbert Winny, surveyor to the India Office, though he may well have been influenced by Jacob’s work.  Contracts were awarded in July 1916 and photographs of the finished site were widely distributed by the Government in India.  In November 1919 the Imperial War Graves Commission      assumed responsibility for the site and in June 1921 that portion of the land not used for the cemetery was returned to Common land. 

In 1969 the decision was taken, partly because of vandalism at the site, to re-inter the bodies in the nearby Brookwood Military Cemetery, also under the care of the CWGC.      They were not interred in the same civilian Muslim section as their comrades in arms had been before the Woking site came into use, but in a space beyond the shadow of the Cross of Sacrifice in an area close to the UK 1914-18 Memorial.  Whereas care was taken to ensure their headstones faced towards Mecca, a 1929 letter from the Western Islamic Association identified that the earlier burials in the Muslim plot faced the wrong way.  Again, blame for this was placed at the door of Moulvi Sadrud Din.  

The original Woking walled area in which the later burials had been made, by now known as the Muslim Burial Ground, was made over to the Horsell Common Preservation Society but, despite being recognised by English Heritage and designated a Grade II listed building, it gradually fell into disrepair.  In 2011 thoughts turned to restoring the site as a Peace Garden to commemorate the 27 servicemen, 19 from World War I and the other 8 from later periods, who had been buried there.      Volunteers came from far and wide to help in the reconstruction work under a grant from Historic England, matched by funding from Woking Borough Council, and the newly-restored Peace Garden was unveiled by HRH The Earl of Wessex KG GCVO at a ceremony on 12 November 2015.  


The Peace Garden was restored to a very high standard and is a most tranquil and peaceful site with a central water feature.  The granite in which the memorial tablets are housed came from India; the tablets themselves are of Portland stone.

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Entrance to the Woking Peace Garden (source TMcC)

The Peace Garden viewed from the gate

(source TMcC)

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Commemorative Panel (source TMcC)

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Top Panel (source TMcC)

The Original Brookwood Burials

Twenty five men were originally interred in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood before the creation of the Woking Cemetery although there are three other headstones, two of which date from 1919.  The third is unidentified.  It seems likely that not only did the waterlogged nature of the Woking ground preclude the transfer of coffins from the civilian site, as originally intended, but it also precluded the burial of these later casualties at that place.  

The headstones in use in the civilian cemetery reflect a design submitted by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmed Khan      in 1918, though with some variations.  It is not clear from surviving records, however, whether the headstones now in place were those originally placed under the supervision of Moulvi Sadrud Din, or whether they are later replacements provided by IWGC/CWGC.  Certainly CWGC refer to them now as “private memorials”, though CWGC maintains the ground for these men.  There are, incidentally, a further five headstones nearby of the kind we now associate with CWGC, but these are of WW2 casualties.

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The Brookwood Muslim plot in the civilian cemetery

(source TMcC)

Dr Zafar Iqbal of Woking Borough Council, Project Lead on the restoration work of the Woking Peace Garden, said that they had given very careful thought as to whether to include in the Peace Garden commemorative tablets the names of the twenty five soldiers buried before the Woking ground came into use, and the three buried in 1919.  It had finally been decided to list only those who had actually been buried at the Woking site.  Nevertheless, work is now underway to design information boards that will be placed in the vicinity of the Peace Garden, explaining the background and identifying not only those buried in the nearby Muslim cemetery, but also referring to the Hindus and Sikhs who were cremated at Brighton, Brockenhurst and Netley.

Sources

   Acknowledgements are due to  Dr Glyn Prysor (formerly CWGC and now NAM), Michael Greet of CWGC, Dr Zafar Iqbal, Diana Holliday, Manager, and the staff of the Cemetery Office, Brookwood Cemetery.

17

   Muslim member of the Secretary of State’s Council and a member of the Indian Graves Committee

16

   In addition to the 27 who are commemorated on new tablets there was one other burial within the walled area – Ahmed Nogi, a merchant seaman, whose funeral was conducted by Moulvi Sadrud Din on 24 October 1916 under official authority.  This was later admitted to have been a mistake since he was a civilian and not a soldier and should not have been buried in the Woking site.

15

   BL/OIOC/L/MIL/7/17232. Letter from Sheikh Khalid Sheldraki of the Western Islamic Association to Secretary of State for India, dated 5 February 1929.

14

   The Brookwood Cemetery occupies a vast area, with the Military Cemetery separated from the civilian area by a demarcation fence.

13

   Now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

12

   Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, GCIE GCVO CB, British author, Indian Civil Service (Punjab), Private Secretary to Lord Curzon when Viceroy of India 1899-1903

11

   The inclusion of three headstones dating from 1919 at the Brookwood site suggests that the waterlogged nature of the ground at Woking precluded their being buried there

10

   Ibid., internal memo India Office to Secretary of State dated 28 October 1915

9

8

   Ibid., War Office 121/6369 (L.B.) to India Office dated 23 September 1915.

   Ibid., draft letter from Military Department, India Office to the Secretary of War dated 17 September 1915.

7

   BL/OIOC/L/MIL/7/17232, M 18023 dated 27 October 1914.  This sentiment seems at odds with later expressions of interest from the post-war Muslim member of the Secretary of State’s Council, Sahibzada Aftab Ahmed Khan, who said that there should be no exhumation of Muslim bodies unless there was any cause for apprehension that the grave would be disturbed at a later date, e.g., if it was thought that the land would eventually be returned to agricultural use and the graves might be ploughed up.  If it was certain that the graves could permanently remain as at present then there was no need for exhumation.

6

   The first recorded Muslim death was that of No 4151 Sepoy Ahmed Khan, 21st Company, 3rd Sappers and Miners, who died on 4 November 1914 – BL/OIOC/L/MIL/7/17232.

5

   Report of The Special Committee to Review Historical Inequalities In Commemoration.  Maidenhead: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. 2021.

1

   Gavin Rand.  Decolonising the immortal heritage: Empire, war and history in contemporary Britain. https://www.show.org.uk//post/decolonising-the-immortal-heritage-empire-war-and-history-in-contemporary-britain

2

   In addition to those listed here there is a reference in one document to four men being buried at Epsom.  .

3

   Lord Onslow had expressed an opinion that the ground was too waterlogged to be of any use but his concerns were brushed aside.  BL: L/MIL/7/17232 letter on behalf of Lord Onslow dated 11 October 1915

4

sources
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