Picture this: a group of battle hardened soldiers putting down their weapons and playing football in no-man’s land on the Western Front, during World War 1 (WW-1). As they pass the ball to each other, some of the players shout out instructions to each other in Hindi or Urdu. Yes, that’s right. They are men from pre-Partition India, both Hindus and Muslims, fighting with the Allied forces in Europe, far away from their homeland, taking a break to play ball for a change.
New stories, photographs and letters of soldiers from the subcontinent who fought in World War-1 emerged recently, just ahead of the 102nd anniversary of 1914’s iconic Christmas Truce. This was when French, German and British soldiers had crossed borders and greeted each other on Christmas and played football.
Dr Islam Issa, lecturer in English literature at Birmingham City University (not to be confused with Birmingham University), found the material while doing research for a Stories of Sacrifices project, an exhibition for the British Muslim Heritage Centre, to give an overview of the Muslim contribution to WW-1. The pieces include a previously unpublished Christmas letter from a Muslim soldier based in France explaining how regularly he trained for the football team, and a photograph of French children watching a British cavalry regiment play a match against Indian soldiers of the 18th Lancers.
Dr Issa went through thousands of archives, personal letters and documents as part of his research. Some of the material was discovered in the archives at the British Library.
Though historians have questioned the accuracy of the Christmas Truce match, Issa believes football was frequently played during WW-1. The Allies’ football teams included soldiers from Commonwealth countries such as the Muslim and other Indian servicemen featured in the exhibition.
“It was nice to make some little but telling findings about the role of sport for the soldiers, particularly in the middle of all the other difficulties they were facing,” he says. On why the Christmas Truce match story is popular, Issa adds that it serves as a reminder of how “regular people were involved in the war and how political choices did not always represent common people.”
They weren’t always working or fighting – a lot of their time was spent behind the lines, so football was a key pastime. Officers encouraged the soldiers to play football in order to increase morale and perhaps to keep their fitness levels up too. In fact, in England, the Football Association and some football clubs would put posters up to help with the initial (war) recruitment effort, Issa says.
One of the most interesting things Issa stumbled upon was a previously unreported letter from Christmas 1914 (dated December 27) from soldier Nisar Muhammed Khan to his brother in Peshawar, located at the time in British India and now part of present-day Pakistan.
In the letter Khan apologises for his lack of contact and explains that he has little free time due to training every morning for the football team. He says: “I have received many letters from you, but have been unable to answer them for lack of time, because, my dear brother… I have been put into the football team.
“Every day, we have to go to the office at 10 or 12 am (sic) for football, and the office is about two miles away. So I get no time at all.”
After days spent in archives reading letters, finding the letter by an Indian soldier who was in an army football team made Issa smile.“I thought he’s complaining about being in the team because of the commitment, since training every morning means he can’t write home as often. That touched me as really human because it’s not exactly what you expect soldiers at war to be complaining about,” he says
This letter was the only reference which suggested to Issa that the football teams would have been predominantly English or French, “so it’s heartening to know that soldiers from different backgrounds were playing on the same team”, he adds.