Monumental Musings - Asghar Ali grave at Ashbourne Cemetery

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 July 2018

The lone grave of Indian soldier Asghar Ali in a quiet corner of Ashbourne Cemetery

The lone grave of Indian soldier Asghar Ali in a quiet corner of Ashbourne Cemetery

as supplied

Peter Seddon unearths a little-known interlude in Derbyshire history

Mule ahoy! Unloading at Marseille in December 1940 prior to service in FranceMule ahoy! Unloading at Marseille in December 1940 prior to service in France

Monuments come in many sizes. The biggest may be the most visible but are not always the most interesting – yet the smallest can harbour the most remarkable stories.

In a tranquil corner of Ashbourne Cemetery on Mayfield Road a solitary gravestone stands noticeably apart from others. It is a small monument to a single life – yet what a narrative it encapsulates.

Even at first glance this stark white gravestone appears rather singular. It is a Commonwealth War Grave – that sparks interest and perhaps a promise of intrigue but is not in itself remarkable. Ashbourne Cemetery has 22 others which commemorate the fallen from both the First and Second World Wars – few Derbyshire cemeteries are without examples.

It is the text which prompts the curious to ponder: ‘65635 Farrier, Asghar Ali, Royal Indian Army Service Corps 13th September 1940, age 37.’ Additional Indian script says something akin to ‘Rest in Peace’.

Summer 1940 at Shirley Camp - shoeing a mule. This could even be Asghar AliSummer 1940 at Shirley Camp - shoeing a mule. This could even be Asghar Ali

It has sometimes been wrongly stated that Asghar Ali was a Sikh. In fact he was a Muslim – his gravestone distinguished from others in facing Mecca. He was born in 1903 in a rural part of the Punjab then in India – but after the 1947 partition present-day Pakistan. The grave was sited in a quiet corner out of respect for Ali’s faith and good character – he enjoys space and privacy even in death. Sadly it seems probable that his widow Katto never travelled from India to gaze upon her husband’s final resting place.

So there he is – an Indian soldier of the 32nd Mule Company, thousands of miles from his home, an official ‘war casualty’, yet remote from the main arena of conflict, quietly reposed in a Derbyshire market town famous for gingerbread and Royal Shrovetide Football. Who but the least enquiring could not ask ‘How’ and ‘Why’?

The story begins in 1939 in the build-up to the Second World War. Although the First World War had ended only 21 years previously, much had changed in the ‘modus operandi’ of battle. Advancements in motorised transport had rendered the ‘War Horse’ days all but obsolete – it seemed unlikely that animals would significantly feature in the upcoming conflict.

But the ‘powers that be’ resolved on a late change. Concerned about muddy terrain in France, they decided to employ teams of mules to convey supplies to ‘forward positions’ in the old-fashioned way.

The scene around Shirley today - little changed since 1940 when the Indian troops arrived from war-ravaged FranceThe scene around Shirley today - little changed since 1940 when the Indian troops arrived from war-ravaged France

Britain had an insufficient supply of these ‘beasts of burden’ – likewise the farriery skills to shoe and handle them. The solution lay in British India where traditional ways still endured. Four Animal Transport Companies or ‘mule companies’ were raised under the command of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps – almost all the men came from the Punjab. Over 90 per cent were Muslim, a few Sikhs and Hindus completing the ranks. The RIASC was a non-combative force which cared for and fed both animals and men, and moved supplies.

Soldiers and animals sailed from Bombay on 8th December 1939. They arrived in Marseille on 26th December, where 2,700 mules were unloaded without a single loss. The four main Animal Transport Companies – collectively labelled Force K6 – were to facilitate the British Expeditionary Force. Asghar Ali was a farrier in Mule Company 32 – comprising some 315 men, it was sent straight to Lille in Northern France to join the BEF defending the French-Belgian border as far as the Maginot Line.

By all accounts the Punjabi soldiers gave impeccable service – likewise the mules.

But the immediate outcome was grim. German forces made sweeping advances and trapped the BEF and other Allied forces hard against the French coast. Only the historic evacuation from the Dunkirk beaches in May and June 1940 prevented a complete catastrophe.

The urgency of that escape made it impossible to take the mules and horses – where possible the Indian handlers gave them ‘with heavy hearts’ to French villagers. Mule Company 22 was captured by the Germans and detained in a PoW camp. The three remaining mule companies made it safely to Britain courtesy of the Royal Navy.

Of the 338,000 soldiers successfully evacuated, an estimated 500 or so were survivors from the Indian mule companies. For soldiers of the BEF it was ‘back home’ – but for the Punjabi ranks the beginning of a British interlude they had scarcely contemplated.

In the event their stay proved something of a respite from the much greater hardships of France. Although far from home it was generally held that the men enjoyed comradeship and even a measure of happiness in pleasant and safer surroundings. All the Force K6 survivors were initially settled at Shirley Common Camp on the Osmaston Estate near Ashbourne.

The choice was probably influenced by the fact that Osmaston Manor had already been requisitioned as a Red Cross military hospital. In time the numbers at Shirley Camp were thinned out as the Punjabi soldiers were transferred to similar facilities in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.

In truth this unplanned presence presented the authorities with rather a conundrum. How to occupy the stranded mule companies? To maintain a semblance of continuity fresh animals were brought in from overseas – some horses from Finland and many mules from America – and the men were sent on sundry training exercises to ‘keep their hand in’.

But work apart, a press visitor painted a cheery picture: ‘The camp presented a very pretty sight. Tents and huts scattered in Shirley Woods were surrounded with sand colourfully decorated with patterns of stones and bits of pottery. They overlook a wide expanse of verdant pasture amidst the picturesque Derbyshire countryside.’ This was indubitably better than the mud and horror of France.

The company was given its own supply of live sheep to slaughter for food – the Derby Evening Telegraph observed: ‘Ample provisions are made available and the men enjoy two good meals a day, their staple being mutton curry and chapatis. They are watchful, bright-eyed, cheerful and impeccably courteous. Their senior Indian officer Risaldar Major Mohamed Ashraf has a force to be proud of.’

Many were employed helping local farmers at harvest or maintaining hedgerows – some casually, others full-time. In the evenings they sang Punjabi folk songs, played music, and enjoyed games of draughts. A rudimentary mosque – surely Derbyshire’s first – was constructed for daily prayer. And an ‘open-mosque’ was created in a woodland clearing. Here was a small corner of India in rolling Derbyshire countryside – with cheerfulness and ingenuity they made the very best of it.

Both the authorities and locals extended a warm welcome. On 29th June 1940 the camp was visited by the Mayor of Derby and his secretary bearing much-appreciated gifts – 30,000 Indian cigarettes. And on 8th August the ultimate dignitaries toured the camp and inspected the company.

The ‘King-Emperor’ His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth – ‘resplendent in periwinkle blue’ – were said to be ‘delighted’ with what they saw and praised the men’s ‘uplifting spirit and courage and unending cordiality’. The Queen left clutching two paper bags each containing a chapati – gifts for the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Despite the rosy rhetoric there is always a danger of over-romanticism. After all, here were men far from home and family – yet on the balance of reports the unscheduled Derbyshire sojourn was as pleasant at it could be under the trying circumstances. Derbyshire carved an unlikely place in the hearts of the men from the Punjab. What a great film-script it would make.

Evidence suggests the Derbyshire camp endured for around two years – by 1942 the companies had been dispersed to other parts of Britain. Force K6 was finally disbanded on 25th April 1944, most of the men re-deployed to Burma.

Only one remained in Derbyshire. Early in September 1940, soon after the King’s visit, Asghar Ali had been kicked while shoeing a horse. Complications ensued and he died a few days later of pneumonia – on Friday the thirteenth.

It is tempting to conjecture some faint possibilities. Might vestiges of the camp remain? A perfect challenge for the BBC ‘Time Team’ – had it not disbanded. It is just possible too that the youngest members of the ‘Derbyshire Muleteers’ might yet be living – likewise Derbyshire children of the 1940s might well in their senior years have distant memories of their unexpected wartime guests.

As it is, apart from some evocative photographs of camp life and brief newsreel footage of the King’s visit, the most visible reminder of this little-documented episode in Derbyshire and military history is the solitary grave of Asghar Ali.

Some consider cemeteries depressing places – and that ‘dead men tell no tales’. But the headstone of Asghar Ali surely belies that view. His own ‘passage from India’ ended tragically, but his modest monument embraces a bigger picture – a lasting tribute to men whose loyalty, courage and suffering is plainly evident.

But in their ‘Little Punjab’ at Shirley Camp they also found true comradeship – and perhaps even fond memories of their unlikely stay in Derbyshire almost 80 years ago. RIP Asghar Ali 1903-1940.

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