The Role of Muslims Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in British-Indian Army in World War-II*

Columnist Brig (Retd) NOOR A HUSAIN writes about the Muslims in the British Army during World War 2


The British Indian Army during World War II was the largest volunteer army the world has known with long martial traditions going back to the advent of the British in the subcontinent, even earlier. First raised as door keepers and trained bands to guard factories of early merchants, it grew into the army of John Company Bahadur, and subsequently grew into Presidency armies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay in 1795, after the fall of French Pondicherry in 1793. After 1857, the Crown abolished these Presidency Armies and took over their control and reorganisation. For almost 90 years thereafter, after various reorganisations, the British Indian Army distinguished itself in many wars, campaigns, expeditions in India, Asia, Africa, and Europe under the British flag.

The Political Scene in 1939-1940

Since the British Indian Army was a voluntary army, it would be pertinent to briefly recall the political scene in India. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and Viceroy Linlithgow announced that India was at war, there were two main political parties in India - the Indian National Congress, led by Mr Gandhi and the All India Muslim League headed by Mr. Jinnah. in 1940 when Great Britain braced herself to face a German invasion and General Weygand told Churchill that Britain’s neck would be wrung like a chicken in 15 days, Mr Gandhi published an “open letter” to every Britain” “urging cessation of hostilities”. He said:

“No cause, however just can warrant the indiscriminate slaughter that is going on minute to minute ... I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength ... I want you to fight Nazism without arms ... I want you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them ... I am telling His Excellency the Viceroy that my services are at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government, should they consider them of any practical use in enhancing my appeal....1

On the other hand the sympathies of the All India Muslim League were clearly on the side of the Allies as against the Axis powers.2 Mr. Jinnah had even said that if Britain lost, the Muslims were likely to suffer.3 L.S. Amery, Secretary of State for India in a confidential press briefing emphasized the fact that “to a large extent India’s fighting war effort was dependent on Muslim effort”4. Churchill emphasized that the British “must not on any account break with the Muslims who represented a hundred million people and represented the main army elements on which the British must rely for the immediate fighting”5.

The Army’s Expansion

The Indian Army expanded from about 189,000 in October 1939 to 2,500,000 by 1945. In 1939 there were 78 infantry battalions, 20 Gurkha battalions, 18 Cavalry units. The officer strength was 3,000 British; 1,115 Indian. By 1945 these were about 34,500 British, 15,740 Indian officers, of all classes.

The Army took part in campaigns in France, East Africa, North Africa, Syria, Tunisia, Malaya, Burma, Greece, Sicily and Italy. During the war it was organised under one Army Group, four armies, seven Indian Corps, four Armoured Divisions, one Air Borne Division, and twenty three Infantry Divisions. Some of these were lost in Malaya-Singapore, a few re-organised as Lines of Communication Commands in Middle East.

Even before September 1939 troops of the Indian Army were on station duty in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Aden, the Gulf, Burma, Malaya and Hong Kong. The first and only units of the Indian Army that took part in the war in France were four animal transport companies of Royal Indian Army Service Corps with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. While the personnel were evacuated, the gallant horses and mules were undoubtedly given resident status in France were four animal transport companies of Royal Indian Army Service Corps with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. While the personnel were evacuated the gallant horses and mules were undoubtedly given resident status in France.

The 14th Army in Burma was the single largest army in the world. Its battle front of 700 miles was approximately as long as the Russian front against Germany 6.

The Indian Army suffered the following casualties upto August 1945:

a. Killed        - 24,338
b. Wounded  - 64,354
c. Missing    - 11,754
d. POW        - 79,489
Total:            179,935

Writer’s Note: (In addition approximately 62,507 from b.c.d, above died). 160,000 of the total casualties are commemorated in war cemeteries in fifty countries extending from the Pacific Islands to UK, according to Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Indian Army won 31 Victoria Crosses and out of a total of 27 Victoria Crosses awarded for the Burma campaign 20 were personnel of the Indian Army. The total gallantry awards were 4028.8 Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers and units of present day Pakistan. For V.C. citation of Sepoy Ali Haider see Annexure A.

Composition of the Army - 1940-1947

Annexure B shows the composition of the British Indian Army. It will be noticed that the percentage of Muslims decreased after 1 January 1942 not because of paucity of volunteer recruits but because of Government of India policy, as the demand for Pakistan built up 1940 onwards. But these figures do not represent Muslim races of present day Pakistan only. On the eve of World War II almost 34,000 Punjabi Muslims were in the army (29 per cent) and during World War-II over 380,000 joined (about 14% of the total). No other class came close to these figures: Sikhs: 116,000, Gurkhas: 109,000, Muslims of other classes from UP, Deccan, Madras, Bengal, NWFP, etc 274,000, were recruited during 1939-1945. Muslims as a whole constituted a quarter of the Indian Army as of 1947 9....

Almost 70 per cent of the wartime recruitment was from what became Pakistan had been from the undivided Punjab, 19.5 per cent from NWFP, 2.2 per cent from Sindh, and 0.06 per cent from Baluchistan.10 The three semi-arid districts of Punjab-Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Attock (Campbellpur) and two districts of NWFP-Kohat and Mardan pre-dominated in supplying recruit volunteers in World War II. Today the recruitment base has enlarged. Now ethnic Baluchis, and Bruhis, who were recruited till the middle of the 19th century, and Sindhis are coming into the Pakistan army in large numbers for Baluch and Sind Regiments. Recruitment of Muslim personnel from Jammu and Kashmir were considered under Punjabi Muslims in World War II. Today they have their own Azad Kashmir Regiment.

Some sixty thousand or so Bengali Muslims (former East Pakistan) also served in World War II in pioneer construction roles.

Class Composition - Infantry

During World War II the increase in the combat arms specially infantry was from 96 units to 228 units, excluding Indian State Forces. In Cavalry from 18 to 19 armoured units and artillery from 7 to 61 units. An analysis of the class composition of infantry regiments would be useful. Please see Annexure C. Noteworthy is the fact that as a matter of policy there were no complete Muslim infantry units since 1857, although there were complete Hindu, Sikh, Gurkha infantry units. Based on the recruiting areas, five Punjab regiments (excluding 2 Punjab), the Baluch Regiment, the Frontier Force Regiment and the Frontier Force Rifles i.e, a total of 6 infantry regiments came to Pakistan Army’s share in 1947. Thereafter a Bengal Regiment (till 1971) an Azad Kashmir Regiment and a Sind Regiment have been raised.

Brigadier M. I. Qureshi has very ably covered the role of Pakistan’s Punjab Regiments in Second World War. I will refrain from tautology, and confine my analysis of the roles of the Baluch Regiment, The Frontier Force Regiment and the Frontier Force Rifles only. I regret I am unable to cover the roles of other arms and services that were organised on “all class” basis, except Guides Cavalry. That requires a major effort in sifting of data, not quite available to me.

The Baluch Regiment in World War II

The Baluch Regiment fielded some 16 battalions and 5 Garrison companies. Their awards and decorations collated from names of Muslims totalled: 289, including one Victoria Cross.11 Exact figures of their casualties are not available.

The Frontier Force Regiment in World War II

The Frontier Force Regiment fielded some 12 battalions, 1 Garrison battalion, and 3 Garrison companies. Their awards and decorations, were collated from names of Muslim elements, except those of Mention in Dispatches and Jangi Inams which were collated on 10% of officers and 50% for JCOs and ORs on class composition basis totalled: 458 approximately. Casualties - killed in action, wounded or died from wounds sustained totalled: 2,44312 approximately. These were calculated from total on basis of 10% for officers, 50% for JCOs and ORs on class composition basis.

The Frontier Force Rifles in World War II

The Frontier Force Rifles fielded 15 battalions and 3 Garrison companies.

Awards and decorations, collated by names of Muslim elements totalled 400 including one Victoria Cross, see citation at Annexure A.

Figures of Mention in Despatches and Jangi Inams were collated on basis of 10% for officers, 50% for JCOs and ORs respectively on class composition basis. Casualties - killed in action, wounded or died from wounds sustained totalled, 3,126 13 approximately. These were also collated on 10% for officers, 50% for JCOs and ORs on basis of class composition.


The achievements of the Muslim Martial Races of Today’s Pakistan in the British Indian Army in World War II are considerable. Awards and decorations are not always an accurate gauge of their supreme sacrifices. These units, as also Muslims of other arms and services took part in all campaigns in the various theatres in World War II from 1939-1945, and even after the surrender of Japan, in Java, Sumatra and Indo China.

What motivated these youngmen to volunteer, give their lives and suffer captivity and privation, in distant lands? The answer is military traditions, a sense of adventure, a livelihood for as long as they lived, loyalty to their oath and flag, fighting aggression and oppression.

Since 1947, their sons and grandsons have been deterring, defending and defeating aggression against Pakistan’s eastern, northern and western frontiers under the Pakistan flag.

Since the 1960s they have also been serving under the UNO flag in 16 different countries at different times in Asia, Europe, Africa and Central America in peacekeeping, peace-making and peace enforcing roles, keeping alive their glorious traditions of professionalism.

*Paper presented at the International Conference on The British Commonwealth and the Allied War Effort 1939-1945, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, U.K. 6-8 April 1998.


6th Royal Bn 13th Frontier Force Rifles

“In Italy, during the crossing of the River Senio, near Fusignano, in daylight on 9th April, 1945, a Company of the 13th Frontier Force Rifles were ordered to assault the enemy positions strongly dug in on the far bank. These positions had been prepared and improved over many months, and were mainly on the steep flood banks, some 25 feet high.

“Sepoy Ali Haider was a member of the left-hand Section of the left-hand Platoon. As soon as the Platoon started to cross, it came under heavy and accurate machine-gun like from two enemy posts strongly dug in about 60 yards away. Sepoy Ali Haider’s Section suffered casualties and only 3 men, including himself, managed to get across. The remainder of the Company was temporarily held up. Without orders, and on his own initiative, Sepoy Ali Haider, leaving the other two to cover him, charged the nearest post which was about 30 yards away. He threw a grenade and almost at the same time the enemy threw one at him, wounding him severely in the back. In spite of this he kept on and the enemy post was destroyed and four of the enemy surrendered. With utter disregard of his own wounds he continued and charged the next post in which the enemy had one Spandau and three automatics, which were still very active and preventing movement on both banks. He was again wounded, this time in the right leg and the right arm. Although weakened by loss of blood, with great determination Sepoy Ali Haider crawled closer and in a final effort raised himself from the ground, threw a grenade and charged into the second enemy post. Two of the enemy were wounded and the remaining two surrendered.

“Taking advantage of the outstanding success of Sepoy Ali Haider’s dauntless attacks, the rest of the Company charged across the river and carried out their task of making a bridgehead.

“Sepoy Ali Haider was picked up and brought back from the second position seriously wounded.

“The conspicuous gallantry, initiative and determination combined with a complete disregard for his own life shown by this very brave Sepoy in the face of heavy odds were an example to the whole Company. His heroism had saved an ugly situation which would - but for his personal bravery - have caused the Battalion a large number of casualties at a critical time and seriously delayed the crossing of the river and the building of a bridge. With the rapid advance which it was possible to make the Battalion captured 3 officers and 217 other ranks and gained their objectives.”

- London Gazette, 3rd July, 1945


    Jan.1, 1940  Jan.1, 1942  Jan.1, 1945  Feb.1, 1946 Jan. 1, 1947 April 1, 1947 June 1, 1947 July 1, 1947
Muslims Number   92,841 279,507 447,580 402,070 205,820 148,607 138,892 135,268
Percentage 37.518 37.626 32.016 32.405 31.762 32.653 36.189 36.210
Hindus Number 93,132 299,850 649,900 602,320 309,360 210,615 159,783 154,780
Percentage 37.635 40.364 46.488 48.546 47.741 46.278 41.632 41.433


Number 31,797 79,118 94,270 86,350 49,560 38,760 35,550 35,390
Percentage 12.850 10.650 6.740 6.960 7.648 8.517 9.263 9.473
Christians and others Number 2,494 19,715 141,830 68,710 31,700 17,157 17,025 16,382
Percentage 1.007 2.654 10.145 5.538 4.819 3.770 4.436 4.386
Gurkhas Number 27,196 64,681 103,260 81,280 51,560 40,110 32,555 31,750
Percentage 10.990 8.707 7.390 6.550 4.957 8.813 8.482 8.499
    247,460 742,871 1,436,840 1,240,730 648,000 455,249 383,805 373,570

Source: India, Annual Return showing the Class Composition of the Indian Army, Indian States Forces, Frontier Corps and Levies, Military Police, Assam Rifles, Burma Frontier Force and Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery on 1st January 1933 to 1940, pp. 126-29, IOR: L/Mil/14/236; Annual Return on 1st January 1942, pp. 186-9, IOR: L/Mil/14/236; GHQ India to War Office, letter, February 21, 1945, March 14, 1946, February 7, 1947, May 7, 1947, July 5, 1947, and July 30, 1947.



  Caste Hindus Mussalmans Sikhs Others (including Scheduled Caste
1 Punjab 1/2 1/2 - -
2 Punjab 1/3 1/3 1/3 -
Madras 1/2 1/4 - 1/4
Indian Grenadiers 1/2 1/2 - -
Mahratta Light Infantry 1 - - -
Rajput Rifle 2/3 1/3 - -
Rajput 1/2 1/2 - -
8 Punjab 1/2 1/2 - -
Jat 1/2 1/2 - -
Baluch 1/4 3/4 - -
Sikh - 1/4 3/4 -
Frontier Force Regiment 1/4 1/2 1/4 -
Frontier Force Rifle 1/4 1/2 1/4 -
14 Punjab 1/4 1/2 1/4  
15 Punjab 1/4 1/2 1/4 -
16 Punjab 1/3 1/3 1/3 -
Dogra 1 - - -
Ram Garh Rifle 1 - - -
Kumaon 1 - - -
Assam - - - 1
Sikh Light Infantry - - 1 -
Mahar - - - 1
Bihar - - - 1
  9 1/3 6 3/4 3 2/3 3 1/4

Source: Francis Tukker, While Memory Serves, London, 1950, p.653.

1. Walpert, S, Jinnah of Pakistan. Oxford University Press 1984. pp 187-188
2. Haq, Dr, Brig Noorul, Making of Pakistan The Military Perspective. National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, Islamabad. 1993 p 258
3. Ibid
4. Ibid p 51
5. Churchill, W, S, Second World War, Vol IV pp 185-187
6. Tuker, Lt Gen, Sir Francis, While Memory Serves, Cassell & Company Ltd 1950. pp 578-579
7. Ibid p. 579
8. Ibid p. 579
9. Cohen, Stephen P, The Pakistan Army, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984, pp 41-44
10. Ibid p. 42
11. Thatcher, W.S. The Baluch Regiment in Second World War, published by The Baluch Regimental Centre, Abbottabad, Pakistan 1980
12. London, Brig, W.E.H. The Frontier Force Regiment; Gale & Polden. Aldershot 1962  pp 573-586
13. London, Brig W. E. H; The Frontier Force Rifles; Gale & Pllden 1953 pp 451-456