Tuesday, 5 January 2016

A Woking Woodland hides the most wonderful tribute to Fallen Muslim soldiers

This  one-off documentary could not  have been timed any better in a period of current unrest where the word Muslim brings an unsettling amount of negativity, this programme follows the story of the restoration of a forgotten and dilapidated burial ground in a woodland in Woking which is the resting place for 27 Muslim soldiers who gave their lives fighting for Britain in two world wars. 

In a three year battle, Zafar Iqbal, a Muslim member of Woking Borough Council, and Elizabeth Cuttle, a history enthusiast - fought to get this small plot of land restored and recognised as a symbol of an important and largely unknown part of British history. 

In November of 2015 with members of the armed forces, Muslim Clerics  watching on a Royal Prince dedicate Woking's Peace Garden  to the memory of those twenty seven men.

Zafar  Iqbal had played in those same woods as a child, playing hide and seek at the site which had fallen into disrepair since the 1960s with structural damage  and graffiti making the place a sad place to be, but not for the right reasons. Teenage drinking parties, theft of the Portland stone and defacing of brickwork had all had it's effect. Zafar though was determined to preserve and restore the shared heritage the site has. He felt it infinitely important to ensure Muslims and the wider community were reminded of the sacrifice those men made for King and Country. 

With a Centenary of the Great War Approaching, Zafar chanced his arm and applied for a restoration grant from English Heritage of 80% of costs with the council covering the shortfall. With Elizabeth's help they began the restoration

This informative film tells the story of Muslims from Rural India who were to become soldiers for the British Empire, fighting for and in the name of a country that almost all of them had never even set a foot on.

In 1917 this particular plot of Surrey common was designated as a  Muslim cemetery. 19 of the men buried here were killed in the First World War and a memorial stone, now recut and carved is the central focal point of the garden. Research has enabled at least some of them to be given a back story, so we know where they came  from and  some of their family history.  Humanising those stark letters engraved in stone.

Marup Shah -  129 Baluchis

Six weeks after the British Declared war on Germany in 1914  the first contingent of  British Indian soldiers arrived in the Port of Marseilles. Drawn from a dozen different religions arrived these soldiers were to become a desperately important resource for the war effort as those in command had wholly underestimated the firepower and number of men on the enemy side. Britain just could not recruit fast enough, so in the end 1.45 million men from British India came to fill that void.

The Baluchis were one of the first regiments into France and their arrival was to create quite the stir. The local people lined the streets and cheered them as they landed. Arrival at the front line would have been a rude awakening. Modern warfare would have been highly mechanised and these Indian soldiers were woefully underprepared.  Fighting from shallow ditches the German artillery would just mow them down, churning bodies up from the earth as ordinance exploded

Four and a half thousand 129th Baluchis were killed during the conflict

Sarmast - 57th Wilde Rifles 22/07/1915

First Indian Unit on the Western Front and were involved in one of the most horrific battles of the war the second battle of Ypres where the Germans unleashed their newest and most destructive weapon - Gas.

Masks were poorly constructed and many soldiers were not even issued them so men resorted to removing their turbans and urinating on them and holding them to their faces  to combat the effects of mustard gas. 560 soldiers were involved and over half were killed or injured in the meeting. Blindness, lung tissue destruction would have been common and would have totally incapacitated them. Hospitals for wounded British Indians were set up on the the South coast of England. One of the most famous was the Royal Pavillion  in Brighton. Three taps  for water were provided for the three religious communities  and nine kitchens were sourced to cater to caste distinctions.

Death provisions for each faith also needed to be observed for all on British ground so suitable burial sites on consecrated ground needed to be found for the fallen Muslim soldiers whilst Hindu and Sikhs would be cremated as per their death rites. Woking was used as one of these sites because it was home to the first purpose built Mosque in Britain with facility for correct Muslim Burial.

Returning the architecture to it's former glory is complex from finding skilled coppersmiths to fashion a Finial made in the traditional manner, to hoisting it into place and the the planting of the garden itself with plants that have meaning in the Muslim Faith or associated with memorials. 27 Himalayan Silver Birches from the area of South India these men came from are planted. Getting the Army and local schools in to help with the planting grounds the new Garden in the past and a renewed future where we can acknowledge the horrors of war but still celebrate sacrifice and bravery.

The memorial stone was sourced from Indian Granite and the family of one name placed on it was contacted in Pakistan to give an insight into Sikander Khan's Contribution. 

The Official Military records show that his regiment was stationed in India and then  Mesopotamia, so how did he end up in France and eventually die after succumbing to his long term injuries months after sustaining them?

The answer could be that soldiers were drafted in to plug gaps on the Frontline and it is thought Khan may well have been involved in the battle of Neuve Chappelle one of the bloodiest of the whole conflict. 13,000 soldiers were killed in that one single battle. The sad truth that in giving his life in this particular battle, Sikandar ends his lineage, a father lost a son, but also the family line that would have continued.

The opening ceremony is a proud day for all involved.

This Garden, so beautiful and tranquil is a timely symbol of cooperation between nations, tolerance, sacrifice and doing what is right no matter wha the personal cost might be. Something that should be applauded and emulated as often as possible.