New World War I era details suggest Indian soldier played in army football team

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of the celebrated moments of World War I, and new research reveals Indian soldiers too were part of football matches during the day when enemies crossed No Man’s Land and exchanged gifts during a respite in hostilities.

The new details were brought to light on the day’s 102nd anniversary by Birmingham City University academic Islam Issa, who has been researching Muslim contributions to World War I, including by many Indians.

These include a previously unpublished Christmas letter from a soldier in France, explaining how he regularly trained for the football team, and a photograph showing French children watching a British cavalry regiment play a match against Indian soldiers of the 18th Lancers.

Issa’s research has shown how frequently football was played and that the Allies’ teams included soldiers from Commonwealth countries such as the Indian servicemen featured in an exhibition at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester.

Issa said: “The Christmas Truce match is a popular story because it reminds us that regular people were involved in the war and how political choices don’t always represent common people.

“What is for sure is that football was widespread during World War I and was played by soldiers all around the world. They weren’t always working or fighting – a lot of their time was spent behind the lines, so football was a key pastime.”

The material includes a previously unreported letter from Christmas 1917 (dated December 27) from soldier Nisar Muhammed Khan to his brother in Peshawar in colonial India. In the letter, he apologised for his lack of contact and explained he has little free time due to training every morning for the football team.

Khan wrote: “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.”

Issa said: “I spent days in archives reading letters so when I found one by an Indian soldier who was in an army football team, it did make me smile.

“I had three thoughts about it. The first is that 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.

“It also sounds like this particular soldier was scouted, because he doesn’t say that he chose to join. To me, the fact he may have been spotted while playing confirms that having a kick-about was more common than we think.

“On top of that, this is the only such reference I came across while researching Muslim soldiers in the war, suggesting the football teams would have been predominantly English or French, so it’s heartening to know soldiers from different backgrounds were playing on the same team.”

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