Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.

Misconception 4: Indian troops were not up to scratch

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, that if the Indians had really performed poorly in Africa they would have been withdrawn sooner rather than later?  The record of the Indian service in East Africa speaks for itself, and should not be compared with their experiences in Europe as the conditions and circumstances under which they served were different.

The Indian forces received a bad press for their perceived performance at Tanga as they were an easy scapegoat. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect. As JM ‘Jimmy’ Stewart who commanded IEF C (which fought at Longido) recorded about the attack on Tanga when he heard about it:

“Many of us who knew India had anticipated that the troops detailed were not good enough, but this was further complicated by a want of secrecy about their intentions, undue confidence and a lack of determination.” (Jimmie Stewart: Frontiersman, p69)

The Indian troops rapidly expelled all concerns in their abilities when they held their ground and showed the raw South Africans how to fight the Germans at the Battle for Salaita Hill on 12 February 1916.

The Indian forces served through most of the campaign, only being replaced in late 1917. Harry Fecitt has written short articles on a number of the Indian contingents involved. Apart from troops, India supplied sappers and miners (for example the Faridkots) and medical forces (incuding 250 Indian stretcher-bearers from South Africa). Doctors who have written about their work with the Indian Medical Services include Temple Harris in Seventeen Letters to Tatham, NP Jewell and the author Francis Brett Young in Marching on Tanga. Andrew Kerr has written about Jammu and Kashmir involvement.

In addition to the Indians who came over from India, there were Indians resident in East Africa who played their part. Mention has already been made of the South African Stretcher Bearers. Those from British East Africa served on the railways whilst others served in a military capacity (Uganda Railway Corps). The diversity of role of the East African Goans during the War is explored by Clifford Pereira.

The centenary of the war and the focus on India has given impetus to students of the war to find out more. Watch this space as there are sure to be more accounts of Indian bravery and steadfastness. A summary of Sikh involvement has recently been published and work is being done on the Muslim contribution. India and the Great War has a few articles which mention East Africa. The most definitive publication to date, The Indian Army in East Africa by SD Pradhan (1991) is unfortunately no longer in print although limited copies can be found in the second-hand market.

Indians had served in Africa before, particularly during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), for which their services are commemorated with a memorial in Observatory, Johannesburg.