Younes continues our series on Victoria Cross winners in the First World War, with this personal reflection on the experiences of Khudadad Khan, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in person by King George V on 26 January 1915.
“To die on the battlefield is glory.” These were the rousing words proclaimed by Khudadad Khan soon after he became the first Asian soldier to receive the highest military decoration; the Victoria Cross. Stationed near the village of Hollebeke in the north Belgian town Ypres, Khudadad earned his Victoria Cross in what was later named ‘the first battle of Ypres’. Khan was one of only nine WW1 soldiers from undivided India to receive the Victoria Cross, out of the 1.2 million Indian/Pakistani troops who fought in WW1.
Khan’s story is one of gallantry, grit and heroism, a fitting example for all soldiers. In the face of adversity, Khan showed no fear. Hailing from the village of Dab in the Chakwal district of the Punjab Province, Khudadad, like millions of other Indian soldiers, volunteered to fight for the British Empire, making up the largest volunteer army from any of the colonies, consisting of 1.5 million combatants and non-combatant soldiers, a force larger than the combined armies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Stationed around the area of Wallon Cappel and Lynde in northern France, the soldiers, Khan included, received an odd yet pleasant surprise when 36 red London double-decker buses arrived to take them to the front line. When they arrived in Ypres they were greeted by relentless rain which had turned the already shallow Allied trenches into bog, the first of many unpleasant experiences to come.
Khan’s battalion, the 129th Baluchis, along with another Indian battalion, the 57th Wildes Rifles, were brought in to fill the gaps in the British lines and so were split into smaller companies. This meant that they were often hurried from one trench to another, not realising or understanding the meaning of such movements. Furthermore, the relentless and merciless German artillery fire clearly made being on the Belgian front line for Khudadad and his fellow countrymen daunting to say the least. I, personally, could not even begin to imagine myself in such a dire predicament, let alone try and find the courage within to actually fight on.
I imagine that Khan probably did feel scared at this moment. However, in his hour of glory he faced fear head on; a sign of the purest courage. He did this, even when, three days into the fierce battle, the Germans brought in the heavy artillery in the form of howitzers and field guns and killed and injured 57 Allied soldiers. Even when every commander, officer and soldier in his trench were dead and he had to clamber over piles of his comrades just to move around the trench. Even when he stood alone manning his machine gun, bleeding profusely from his head and screaming out to God to bless him with strength; even then, Khan wasn’t daunted.
Eventually, Khan collapsed, numb from blood loss, joining the heap of bodies, but still very conscious to the Germans entering the trench and counting the dead. Khan at this time, at least to the German soldiers, was just another corpse to be counted. Fooling the Germans, Khan left the trench after the Germans had gone, rejoined another regiment and gave a recount of his ordeal, much to their amazement.
Khan’s single-handed efforts had held off the Germans long enough to let British and Indian reinforcements arrive in the vicinity. He was presented with the VC on 26 January 1915 by King George V at Buckingham Palace, and by the end of the war, he was a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO), with authority over the Indian troops in his regiment. Khudadad Khan, or ‘Baba-i-Baloch Regiment’, the ‘father of the Baloch Regiment’, is just one of many South Asian soldiers fought during WW1. Finding himself in an unknown land, fighting for a cause much less closer to home than the European soldiers, he still found the passion and courage to single-handedly take on the Germans. Khudadad Khan did more than earn the Victoria Cross; he’s earned my respect.