Punjabi Musalman: the best soldier in British India

#1
Muslims are hardly flavour of the month - indeed, hardly flavour of the century. The "martial races" of India are well-known - Gurkha, Sikh, Rajput being some of the more glamorous.
I had an uncle who served in the Regular army (RHA) in India pre-war. He always said that the Punjabi Musalman was the best soldier in the Indian Army by far. He died in the late seventies. Shortly afterwards I went to work in Pakistan and met a British Army Brigadier who had served during WW2 and prior to partition with the Punjab Regiment. He said exactly the same thing i.e. the Punjabi Musalman was the best soldier of the Raj and was the "backbone of the Indian Army". It would be nice in these times of anti Muslim rhetoric if the bravery and loyalty of the Muslim Punjabi could be widely recognised.
 
#2
It is true that the British regarded the Punjabi muslims very highly. Many of the Indian Army names on the Menin Gate, Indian memorial at Neuve Chappele are disproportionately from the Northern Indian "Marial Races". Cemeteries from Singapore to Italy through El alemein tell a similar story.

The "martial race" theory prevalent in the British Empire of the C19-20th was that the more Northern Races were martial types and the Southern ones weren't. It was thought to be true in India as in Europe. Germans Brits dutch danes OR Punjabis/sikh/patans/Baluchi/Jat = good soldier. Italian, Spaniard, arab OR Tamils/ bengali/Madrasi = bad Its not a bad fit with the Indian Caste system. However, its doubtful whether this is true as this kind of thinking led the pakistanis to overestimate their ability and get a shoeing from the Indians in 1972.
 

RP578

LE
Book Reviewer
#3
Some interesting, and oft overlooked, stuff posted above. I admit to having a dog in this fight as my Granddad served in a PM unit during WWII and shortly after. As a result I've done a fair bit of research on them over the past 15 years. Although not as famous as the more colourful Sikh or Gurkha units, the PMs did make up much of the backbone of the then Indian Army and overwhelmingly dominate the modern Pakistani one.

The "martial race" theory prevalent in the British Empire of the C19-20th was that the more Northern Races were martial types and the Southern ones weren't. It was thought to be true in India as in Europe. Germans Brits dutch danes OR Punjabis/sikh/patans/Baluchi/Jat = good soldier. Italian, Spaniard, arab OR Tamils/ bengali/Madrasi = bad Its not a bad fit with the Indian Caste system.
As well as 'Dravidian' southerners, Bengalis were shunned. The whole Martial Race theory was an outgrowth of the Peel Commission which, amongst other things, decided on the comunal composition of Indian regiments after the Indian Mutiny. It was decided that regiments be composed of "class-companies" i.e. the 62nd Punjabis had companies of PM, Sikhs, Pathans, and Rajputs. Only the Gurkha and a few Sikh regiments remained completely homogeneous. It was this policy that led the British to study the attributes of the numerous communities in India, and to an extent, adopt local prejudices.

As the Poorbeahs of Eastern Bengal had mostly mutinied, they were no longer recruited. This dovetailed with Punjabi disdain for upper-caste Hindu educated "Babu" class, who they regarded (and really still do) as effeminate and scheming ("Bengal is a low lying country inhabited by low, lying people").

It didn't always follow that loyalty in the mutiny was rewarded by recruitment. The Armies of Madras and Bombay had remained loyal, but a cult of 'Grenardierism' had taken the Indian Amy and the taller, fairer North western Aryan peasant types were favoured of the short dark Southerners. The one unit to buck this trend was the fabled Madras Sappers and Miners who were so consistently outstanding that their superiority couldn't be denied even though it flew in the face of every tenet of the Martial Race theory.

The absurd thing about the whole Martial Race theory is that it if there's one military lesson the British Empire taught us, it is that you can make a competent soldier out of any nationality and ethnic group. The term was abolished in the Indian Army in the early mid 1970's and is not used in the present Pakistani Army either (although modern day Pakistan is effectively populated by 'martial races').

However, its doubtful whether this is true as this kind of thinking led the pakistanis to overestimate their ability and get a shoeing from the Indians in 1972.
The Bangladesh War was in 1971. I don't think that the Pakistanis thought that they were martially superior to the Indian forces, rather they were lulled by the unique experience of the 1965 War and figured that they could fend off any Indian attack. Moreover I wonder if they actually didn't really believe that the Indians would fight over Bangladesh?
 

rampant

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#4
I agree we owe much to the brave soldiers of the Indian Army that fought magnificently for the Empire, it is a great shame that not more is known about them amongst the general public. The BBC did a half hour documentary on Muslim soldiers during WW1 last year, and I posted several vids the other day on this thread, when I threw a bit of a net wobbly against the constant ignorant sniping at Muslims (see here: http://www.arrse.co.uk/naafi-bar/140371-last-time-jews-muslims-next.html#post3386338) We owe much to gentlemen such as this:

Shahamad Khan VC(July 1, 1879 – July 28, 1947) He was 36 years old, and a Naik in the 89th Punjabis during the in WW1 the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.
On 12/13 April 1916 near Beit Ayeesa, Mesopotamia, Naik Shahamad Khan was in charge of a machine-gun covering a gap in our new line within 150 yards of the entrenched enemy. He beat off three counter-attacks and worked his gun single-handed after all his men, except two belt-fillers, had become casualties. For three hours he held the gap under very heavy fire and when his gun was knocked out, he and his two belt-fillers held their ground with rifles until ordered to withdraw. With help he then brought back his gun, ammunition and one severely wounded man, and finally all remaining arms and equipment.[He later achieved the rank of Jemadar
Or this gentleman:

Sher Shah Awan VC (14 February 1917 - 20 January 1945) from the village of Chakrala about 30 km east from Mianwali, Punjab. He was 27 years old, son of Barkhurdar and Makda; husband of Mehr Bhari, of Chakrala, Mianwali, Pakistan, and a Lance Naik in the 7th Battalion of the 16th Punjabi Regiment in during WW2, when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.

On 19/20 January 1945 at Kyeyebin, Kaladan,Burma Lance Naik Sher Shah was commanding a left forward section of his platoon when it was attacked by overwhelming numbers of Japanese. He broke up two attacks by crawling right in among the enemy and shooting at point-blank range. On the second occasion he was hit and his leg shattered, but he maintained that his injury was only slight and when the third attack came, he again crawled forward engaging the enemy until he was shot through the head and killed.

Sher Shah's Battalion 7/16 Punjab Regiment, affectionately known as "Saat Solah Punjab" is now a part of the Pakistan Army, proudly known as the "Sher Shah Battalion".
Both shameless ripped from wiki, but there is a list of VC Winners by Nationality

List of Victoria Cross recipients by nationality - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 
#5
Mi old Pa India/Burma 43- end 45 always considered the Muslims the best.
Had a high respect for Jonny G and the Sikh and maintained that Jonny G save his life on one occasion.

"if there's one military lesson the British Empire taught us, it is that you can make a competent soldier out of any nationality and ethnic group"

Must agree, going back to the days when England made competent troops from The Welsh, Jocks and Paddys.

john
 

RP578

LE
Book Reviewer
#6
Just some more footage for those who are interested in the old Imperial Indian Army. The scene at 5:10 into this clip is pretty much identical to the numbering of potential recruits at Hill Selection in Nepal by the Bde of Gurkhas, with selection numbers being painted onto the bare chests of the men who go through the whole selection in their underpants.

[video=youtube;XPB1SWFnSZc]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPB1SWFnSZc&feature=related[/video]
 

rampant

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#7
#8
Mi old Pa India/Burma 43- end 45 always considered the Muslims the best.
Had a high respect for Jonny G and the Sikh and maintained that Jonny G save his life on one occasion.

"if there's one military lesson the British Empire taught us, it is that you can make a competent soldier out of any nationality and ethnic group"

Must agree, going back to the days when England made competent troops from The Welsh, Jocks and Paddys.

john
Just as the PM was the backbone of the Indian army, it must be said that the Irish formed the backbone of the British Army in the 19th century. I must say that I find "England made competent troops from the Welsh, Jocks and Paddys" is not only condescending and racist but factually incorrect. PMs are excellent soldiers. The Scots and Irish are excellent soldiers. England has nothing to do with these truisms. England - or to be correct GB particularly Slim - totally underrated some nationalities as soldiers (I refer to the African and Caribbean troops deployed in Burma)
 

rampant

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#9
Just as the PM was the backbone of the Indian army, it must be said that the Irish formed the backbone of the British Army in the 19th century. I must say that I find "England made competent troops from the Welsh, Jocks and Paddys" is not only condescending and racist but factually incorrect. PMs are excellent soldiers. The Scots and Irish are excellent soldiers. England has nothing to do with these truisms. England - or to be correct GB particularly Slim - totally underrated some nationalities as soldiers (I refer to the African and Caribbean troops deployed in Burma)
Excellent points; I think there needs to be an increased exposition of these soldiers, regiments and histories, they can be only positive in the way we increase our understanding of a particular time or conflict. I find your last point regarding the African and Caribbean troops very interesting as it it one area that has little been written of: Histories of these forces and men of a comparable quality to Richard Holmes' work are long overdue.
 
#10
Must agree, going back to the days when England made competent troops from The Welsh, Jocks and Paddys.
By that time, they realized they weren't going to do it with the English and so took advantage of the natural intelligence and fighting proclivities of the rest of the nation :)

(By 'fighting proclivities', I mean the ability to conduct combat in a military sense, rather than get bladdered and clumsily brawl in the streets. Mind you, even there the average Glaswegian can put any Essex chav to shame.)
 
#12
This is an extract from a letter received from a family friend regarding my Uncle's service in Burma. Uncle was with the KOSB, brigaded with 4/8 Gurkhas (89 Bde) in 7 Div from Sept 1943: -

"The Arakan: for two years I awoke for dawn stand-to piously thanking God that I was not in the Arakan, but in the Chin Hills sector.
The Arakan: 105 degrees in the shade and 99 degrees humidity and not a breath of wind. In February 1944 a Punjabi Battalion broke, the Japs, quick to exploit a weakness, poured through a mile wide gap to the Ngokedank Pass and Admin Box. After fighting for 18 days, dependent on air drops for ammunition, food and material, 7 Div and 5 Div beat back the Japs, our first success in Burma after 27 months of defeats."

I'm not sure which Punjabi Bn he refers to or the circumstances, but it must have been a hell of a push to break them.
 

RP578

LE
Book Reviewer
#13
This is an extract from a letter received from a family friend regarding my Uncle's service in Burma. Uncle was with the KOSB, brigaded with 4/8 Gurkhas (89 Bde) in 7 Div from Sept 1943: -

"The Arakan: for two years I awoke for dawn stand-to piously thanking God that I was not in the Arakan, but in the Chin Hills sector.
The Arakan: 105 degrees in the shade and 99 degrees humidity and not a breath of wind. In February 1944 a Punjabi Battalion broke, the Japs, quick to exploit a weakness, poured through a mile wide gap to the Ngokedank Pass and Admin Box. After fighting for 18 days, dependent on air drops for ammunition, food and material, 7 Div and 5 Div beat back the Japs, our first success in Burma after 27 months of defeats."

I'm not sure which Punjabi Bn he refers to or the circumstances, but it must have been a hell of a push to break them.

I have done a bit of digging and can't quite square the accounts I have of the Arakan with your uncle's notes, so it's hard to know who he was referring to. The Japanese did infiltrate through the 7 Div lines (which were pretty thin) and take Taung Bazaar in early 1944. As he served in the 89th Bde he may have meant the 7/2nd Punjab Regiment. The 7th Bn was a wartime Bn and was indeed at Ngakyedauk Pass (which is what I think he meant by "Ngokedank Pass"), though the 2nd Punjab was awarded 'Ngakyedauk Pass' as a battle honour, so if they did break they either did it at a very high cost or redeemed themselves there later.

Other Punjab Bns in the 7th Ind Div were the 4/14 Punjab Regt, the 4/15 Punjab Regt and there was also the 1/11th Sikh Regt who he may have been misidentified as Punjabis.
 

RP578

LE
Book Reviewer
#15
T_S,

PM RXed and ACKed. Further to the above account:

The 89th Bde changed units in its ORBAT throughout that period, but 2 KOSB and 4/8 GR were constant pretty throughout. At first they were joined by 7/16 Punjab, but they were replaced in Oct 1943 by the 7/2 Punjab who lasted until April of 1944 when they were removed from Orbat (wiped out perhaps?). In May of 1944 the 1/11th Sikhs filled the empty slot in 89 Bde alongside 2KOSB and 4/8GR right through till the closing months of the War. In July 1945 the 89 Bde consisted of 1/11Sikhs, 3/6GR, 4/8GR and 7th York & Lancs Regt.

All this supposes that 7/2 Punjab was wiped of the Allied ORBAT by the Japanese in Feb-Mar 1944 and was probably the unit referred to in the account as the Punjabi Bn which broke.
 
#16
Re the documentary - I've seen it twice on the TV and I agree that was a superb piece of film.

Re the Punjabis - 7/16th Punjab was moved to 406 Line-of-Communications Area Troops and was temporarily attached to 81 (West African) Div in the Kaladan and later 'Hubforce' during that period, so it wasn't them. 7/2nd Pubjab left 89 Bde to become the 7 Div Defence Bn in March 1944 and the Div Recce Bn in Nov 1944. As has been said, they were replaced in 89 Bde by 1(KGO)/11th Sikhs (The Ferozepore Sikhs). I've not heard of the breaking Punjabi unit in the Admin Box, but I'll have a rummage in the books. It does have to be said though that it was reasonably common for members of regiments to tell dark rumours of other regiments - particularly if they were of a different race or nationality; the unjustified criticism of the West Africans being one case in point.
 
#17
It's also worth mentioning that not all companies within a Punjab battalion were necessarily PMs. For example, the four companies of 7/16th Punjab were A - Dogra, B - Sikh, C - PM & D - Hindu.
 
#18
Just as the PM was the backbone of the Indian army, it must be said that the Irish formed the backbone of the British Army in the 19th century. I must say that I find "England made competent troops from the Welsh, Jocks and Paddys" is not only condescending and racist but factually incorrect. PMs are excellent soldiers. The Scots and Irish are excellent soldiers. England has nothing to do with these truisms. England - or to be correct GB particularly Slim - totally underrated some nationalities as soldiers (I refer to the African and Caribbean troops deployed in Burma)
Ref the Irish being the Armys backbone -

Genuine question here but how do we know that the Irish made up the backbone of the British Army? I have heard this a few times now but have always just put it down as a bit of a myth.

Was each recruits nationality indivdually recorded upon enlistment back then?

I can beleive that many troubled young Irishmen joined the Army to escape poverty and so perhaps were over represented amongst the ranks when compared to others but I just have some diffculty beleiving that they were the "backbone" of the Army. As I understand that phrase anyway.


Also, could the reason why many Brits underated the Indian and African troops just stem from the general slightly racist beliefs of the era? After all, the "Fuzzy Wuzzys" and "Wogs" etc had been conquered and ruled over with relative ease, so surely this leads to the Brits having a slightly high opinion of themselves in comparison?

The Brits werent the only people to hold such views either, For many people in Asia it was a great shock for them to learn that the "unbeatable" white British Soldiers could actually be sent packing by the supposedly inferior Japanese.
 
#19
Cheers Sigs - clarification PM sent. I don't want to cast aspertions on any unit and the implication of the word "broke" can be a very damning statement. There's clearly some doubt about the author's account, so any authentic and qualified accounts would be appreciated. In the meantime can we assume that the 7/2 Punjab record is unblemished...

Thanks, SLAG
 
#20
Well these stories also often arise from a misunderstanding - it happens. Clearly the original author's opinions were drawn from his own experience or perceptions or those of someone he'd spoken to. Those opinions simply might not have been correct. We've all been there and done that.

A very good example of this is 50 Indian Para Brigade's shameful treatment after their heroic stand at Sangshak (see Harry Seaman's 'The Battle at Sangshak'), after which Brigadier Hope-Thomson was sacked despite his brigade holding back the Japanese long enough to allow the defence of Kohima to be organised. The truth was only learned years later and by then it was too late for Hope-Thomson.

Back to the original topic - another heroic and tragic story of Muslim heroism in the service of Britain is that of the last stand of the 7/10th Baluch Regt at Kuzeik in 1942. Even more tragic is the last stand of 'C' Company, 152 (Indian) Para Bn at Point 7378, during the prelude to Sangshak. Nothing was known about the fate of John Fuller's 'C' Coy until this was found in a diary on the body of Colonel Utata Fukunaga (CO of 58th Imperial Japanese Infantry Regt) in the aftermath of Kohima:

‘By mid-morning the enemy’s fire slackened considerably. Suddenly, from the top of the hill, a small group of about twenty men charged down towards us, firing and shouting in a counter-attack. However, between us was a wide ravine which they had been unable to see, and of those who were still alive, some fell into it in their rush onwards while the rest had no choice but to surrender. A few escaped. At the very top of the position an officer appeared in sight, put a pistol to his head and shot himself in full view of everyone below. Our men fell silent, deeply impressed by such a brave act… At Point 7378 the 3rd Battalion suffered 160 casualties in the action, with one company and two platoon commanders killed and another four officers wounded… The enemy had resisted with courage and skill.’
 
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