Woking Burial Ground
The Woking Burial Ground, not too far from the Shah Jehan Mosque, was the first cemetery for Muslims who died in the war. It was built with a similar architecture to mosques, and preserved solely for Muslim soldiers. By the end of the Second World War, there were 27 soldiers buried there. The tombstones have since been moved to the large cemetery in the town, and the original burial ground is now open as a renovated ‘peace garden’ for the public.
Profile: Ahmad Khan
Regiment: 21st Company, 3rd Sappers and Miners
Ahmad Khan is the first Indian soldier to be buried in Britain. Khan was born in the town of Thutha-Rai-Bahadur in the Gujrat district of the Punjab and served with the Sappers and Miners, who were predominantly involved in military engineering duties. His unit’s war diary indicates that he was in Egypt in September 1914, before arriving in France. There, after marching to the right destinations, the soldiers constructed numerous trenches, sometimes while under fire. The unit diary notes that three sappers were injured while digging trenches.
On the 26th October, instructions were received for the regiment to go to a certain destination to ‘entrench and defend [the] French until relieved’, but the Germans attacked three times, leading to five more casualties. More significantly, on the 28th October, a general attack was to be carried out on Neuve Chappele, in which the 20th Company and the 47th Sikhs joined Khan’s 21st Company. As the troops advanced towards the village, they were met by heavy machine gun fire from the Germans, from both the front and the sides. Though they seized a farm 500 yards in front of the trench, when they emerged from the outer side of the farm, the machine gun fire intensified and they were forced to return. The casualties were numerous, with over fifty reported wounded or missing. It is likely that one of these was Ahmad Khan.
Examples of trench designs by the 3rd Field Company Sappers and Miners (National Archives) - pic
Indeed, Khan was scheduled to go to Netley Hospital in England in order to be treated for his wounds. However, on 4th November, while on the ship heading towards Southampton, he passed away. His body was taken to the Woking Mosque three days later, on Saturday 7th November. He was buried on Monday 9th November, five days after his death, making him the very first Muslim soldier to be buried on British soil
Source: NA, WO 95/3919/2
Profile: Mahrup Shah
Regiment: 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, Burma Military Police
Mahrup Shah was from Kandoo, Peshawar. He served with one of the Baluch regiments – the same regiment as the Victoria Cross winner Khudadad Khan. The Baluch regiments were known for their unique attire, which included a green turban and red trousers. Shah’s was also the first regiment of the Indian Army to attack the Germans during the war. He was a rifleman, who served in France and Belgium on the Western Front.
When Shah was wounded, he was taken to the Brighton Pavilion hospital, but died on the 16th September 1915. He was interred at the Muslim Burial Ground in Woking, before being moved to the Brookwood Military Cemetery where many of the Brighton causalities are buried.
When he died, a letter of condolence was sent to his family from King George V, accompanied by a plaque commemorating his death. Aside from his military details, his tombstone also has two Qur’anic verses inscribed in Arabic: in the centre, ‘He (God) is the forgiving’, and at the bottom, ‘We belong to Allah, and to Him we shall return’.
The Neuve-Chapelle Memorial, situated at the very north of France is the most significant cemetery for Indian soldiers of the First World War. It commemorates a total of 4,742 Indian soldiers from the First World War; many of these were Muslims. None of the soldiers commemorated here have a known grave.
Picture of pillar, Neuve-Chapelle Memorial (Anne-Sophie Flament)
The centrepiece of the circular memorial is a pillar, below which is a plaque with the words: ‘Their name liveth for everymore’, as well as the names of the main battles in which these soldiers fought. As well as two tigers on either side, the pillar itself has a lotus star at the top, and importantly, an inscription in four languages: English, Arabic, Hindi and Gurmukhi, reflecting the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths of the soldiers. The English states: ‘God is One: His is the Victory’, while the Arabic inscription is the very first verse of the Qur’an: ‘In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’.
In Ypres, Belgium, there is a similar commemoration called the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. As thousands of Muslim soldiers fought in Belgium, there is a monument to the Indian soldiers, as well as a Gurkha memorial. Menin Gate contains almost 55,000 burial memorials, 414 of which belong to soldiers from the British Indian Army.