Punjabi Musalman: the best soldier in British India

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by johno2499, Sep 2, 2010.

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  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.
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  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.
  3. RP578

    RP578 LE Book Reviewer

    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.

    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').

    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?
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  4. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    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:

    Or this gentleman:

    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.

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  6. RP578

    RP578 LE Book Reviewer

    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.

  7. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

  8. 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)
  9. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    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.
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  10. 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.)
  11. Didn't manage to nurture much of a sense of humour either, then.
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  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.
  13. RP578

    RP578 LE Book Reviewer

    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.
  14. RP - clarification PM'd...
  15. RP578

    RP578 LE Book Reviewer


    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.