Loyalty and dissent: the forgotten stories of the First World War
If you grew up on a diet of First World War films (or even just Blackadder’s final season), you could be forgiven for thinking the war was an entirely white affair.
The contribution of Indian soldiers was as immense as it is largely unknown. They fought for Britain on the Western and Eastern fronts. They were particularly vital in the early phase when Britain’s native army was inadequate to cope with the fast German advance.
Last summer, Iqbal Husain, an outreach officer at the National Archives, approached Fin Kennedy, the artistic director of Tamasha, to commision short plays that would be inspired by documents in the archive relating to the experiences of people from South Asia in and around the time of the First World War.
Tamasha commisioned five writers including myself. We had two days to browse through five sets of documents that Iqbal had selected to inspire us. They covered topics such as the experience of Indian soldiers on the Western Front, Pan-Islamism and Muslim networks in early 20th century Britain, immigrants unwilling or unable to serve in the war who headed to North America and issues relating to the burial of Muslim soldiers. The overall theme to focus our thinking about these documents was loyality and dissent.
When we arrived at the National Archives, the documents were laid out in neat stacks on a long table. It was exciting to undo the ribbon that bound each bundle, open the folder cover and delve into a treasure trove of primary historical documents.
The subject I settled on was the burial of Muslim soldiers. Two thick folders contained correspondence between the War Office and an imam named Maulana Sadr-ud-Din (pictured).
The imam was concerned about the lack of a dedicated burial ground for Muslim soldiers who died of their wounds in British hospitals. Over the course of 1914 and 1915, he battled with the authorities to get a cemetary close to Woking Mosque where he preached.
The record reveals a highly articulate man who knew what buttons to push in order to get what he wants. The British grew suspicious of him. He is described in one report as being an ‘agitator’.
The documents in the files range from handwritten letters to telegrams to typed up reports. This is ground zero of history. By reading the documents and putting them in chronological order you can get a blow by blow account of Sadr-ud-Din’s struggle (at least the early part of it). One of the most inspiring documents I found in the archive wasn’t a written text but a map of the land that was suggested for the burial ground.
In an excellent essay by Rachel Hasted that put the primary documents I was looking at into context, I read that the ground Sadr-ud-Din had finally been given was ‘waterlogged’ and not suitable for burial. I looked at the map above and pictured him standing on the muddy grounds, furious at the British officials who had short changed him and planning his next move. This helped to unlock much of the play.