Profile: Khudadad Khan
Rank: Sepoy, later Subedar
Regiment: 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, Burma Military Police
Khudadad Khan, born in October 1888 in the village of Dab in the Chakwal district of what is now Pakistan, was a Baluchi Muslim, now famous as the first ever Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration.
In 1914, aged 25, he was sent with his regiment from Egypt to the Western Front, first to France, then to northern Belgium. He took part in the First Battle of Ypres, in western Belgium, which lasted over a month. Khan was a machine-gunner, and his team was attacked heavily, suffering significant casualties. On 31st October 1914, Khan did not stop firing for an entire day, in order to prevent the Germans from breaking through. At one stage, the German fire had become too heavy and every single one of Khan’s comrades was killed. He remained alone, and heavily wounded, but kept firing. Eventually, when night came, he managed to crawl back to his regiment. His lone firing was enough to prevent the Germans from overcoming the area, and gave enough time for Indian and British forces to arrive in the area to stop the advancement. The official entry – in the 7th December 1914 London Gazette – reads:
050, Sepoy Khudadad, 129th Duke of Counaught’s Own Baluchis.
On 31st October, 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium,the British Officer in charge of the detachment having been wounded, and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.
Khan was admitted to the Indian Hospital at the Brighton Pavilion, before being moved to the Indian Hospital in New Milton. While there, on the 26th January 1915, King George V visited him so that he may be decorated with the Victoria Cross. The King’s visit received wide media attention, and the Daily Mirror published a full length portrait of Khan.
Khan would continue in the army for a few more years, taking part in numerous battles in France in 1915, and joining the East Africa Brigade at Mombasa, Kenya, from 1916 to 1918. He returned to India in 1918.
To mark the Centenary of his award, he took part in a parade with the Victoria Cross winner Ali Khan, held by the current queen, Elizabeth II, in Hyde Park, in June 1956.
This is the only time he is believed to have re-visited Britain, and he generally kept a low profile. In 1963, the Military Adviser at the Office of the High Commissioner for Pakistan wrote to confirm that he is still alive: ‘Sub. KHUDADAD KHAN, V. C. is surviving’, the letter stated. The Chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association wrote back: ‘We had always been under the impression that he was no longer alive’. Khan died in 1971, aged 82 years and 7 months.
Khan used the heavy weighing Vickers-Maxim .303 machine gun, which would require six people to carry it and its ammunition beforehand. You can see a replica of this machine gun at the Weapons display.
‘War poetry’ is an important aspect of the heritage of war. The First World War saw the literary birth of a particularly high number of ‘war poets’, such as Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. These were often written in the trenches, but were also published in newspapers, and eventually, in anthologies.
There are not many English poems specifically about Muslims in the war, so General Sir James Willcocks’ poem in With the Indians in France is a unique appreciation of the services of the Muslims. He singles out the Victoria Cross winner Khudadad Khan with special praise.
Profile: Mir Dast
Rank: Jemadar, later Subedar
Regiment: 55th Coke’s Rifles (frontier force), British Indian Army
Mir Dast was born on the 3rd December 1874 in Maidan, Tirah, a mountainous North-West province of India, to an Afridi tribe of Pathans. On his twentieth birthday, Dast entlisted in the 1st Punjab infrantry.
Shortly after the outbreak of the War, Indian armies were sent to Belgium and France to halt the German advances. Dast arrived in France in March 1915 and took part in the battle of Neuve Chapelle. But it was at the second battle of Ypres, in April 1915, that Dast would merit himself a Victoria Cross.
As the allied troops approached a ridge from which to attack the Germans, they were met by heavy fire. The Germans then tried to break the line by releasing deadly chlorine gas towards Dast and his comrades, with the help of the wind. The Germans were waiting to attack heavily as soon as the line of troops was disintegrated.
The men had no gas masks, so wet the ends of their turbans, dipped them into tins of lime chloride, and covered their mouths and noses with them. This was not entirely effective, and chaos ensued. Mir Dast, though, was one of just a few soldiers who tried to hold his ground. Although slightly wounded, he rallied all the men he could find who were either lightly gassed or recovering, and with them, he held onto the position they had reached until nightfall, when he was ordered to retire. As he did so, he helped to bring eight wounded soldiers into safety before they died of their wounds, and in the process, was himself wounded for a second time.
These actions led to him being promoted to Subedar (lieutenant), and he was also recommended for the Victoria Cross, making him the fourth Indian to win this award. In a letter to a friend, he writes that he has ‘been twice wounded, once in the left hand, of which two finders are powerless. The other injury is from gas’. He adds: ‘I want your congratulations. I have got the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me’.
Indeed, Dast never fully recovered from the gas injures, and they led to his removal from the army in 1917. But before this, he was decorated with the Victoria Cross, and in the process, met the King. He requested from the King that wounded soldiers not return to battle, something that was eventually granted for the Indian Army. Writing to a Naik from hospital four months after the battle, Dast expresses dramatic joy at receiving the award from the King:
By the great, great, great kindness of God, the King with his royal hand has given me the decoration of the Victoria Cross. God has been very gracious, very gracious, very gracious, very gracious, very, very, very, very, very [gracious] to me. Now I do not care … The desire of my heart is accomplished.
Before leaving the army, Dast was also awarded the Order of British India, second class, allowing him to assume the title of bahadur (Hero). He died in 1945 in the village of Shagi Landi Kyan in Peshawar, and is remembered as one of India’s most-decorated soldiers.
Profile: Shahamad Khan
Rank: Naik (corporal), later Subedar
Regiment: 89th Punjabs, British Indian Army
Shahamad Khan, born in the village of Takhti on the 1st July 1879, was a Punjabi Muslim. Enlisted shortly before his 25th birthday, he was chosen to fight alongside many Punjabis on the basis that they were more ‘warlike’ than other Indian groups, and his district of Rawalpandi was perceived to be an important military source for the British government many decades before the war. He was a member of the 89th Punjabis unit, originally a battalion regiment belonging to the Madras Native Infantry that ended up serving in more areas than any other regiment during the First World War. Just before the war broke, the regiment was moved southeast to Dinapur, before fighting in what are now known as Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, France, Iraq, India, Greece and Russia.
Shahamad Khan, a Naik (corporal), fought in the Mesopotamian campaign, but it was April 1916 that would see 36-year-old Shahamad Khan make his most significant contribution to the British war effort. Manning a machine gun section on the Tigris Front, Khan continued to fight alone while all but two of his comrades were injured. He managed to hold his ground with rifle fire for three hours, and at the end, came to the rescue of one wounded man. Khan used the heavy weighing Vickers-Maxim .303 machine gun, which would require six people to carry it and its ammunition beforehand. While manning such a machine gun, Khan earned himself the highest military decoration possible for this gallantry: the Victoria Cross. The entry on his award in the 26th September 1916 supplement to The London Gazette states:
No. 1605 Naik Shahamad Khan, Punjabis.
For most conspicuous bravery. He was in charge of a machine gun section in an exposed position, in front of and covering a gap in our new line, within 150 yards of the enemy’s entrenched position. He beat off three counter attacks and worked his gun single-handed after all his men, except two belt-fillers, had become casualties.
For three hours he held the gap under very heavy fire while it was being made secure. When his gun was knocked out by hostile fire he and his two belt-fillers held their ground with rifles till ordered to withdraw.
With three men sent to assist him he then brought back his gun, ammunition, and one severely wounded man unable to walk. Finally, he himself returned and removed all remaining arms and equipment except two shovels.
But for his great gallantry and determination our line must have been penetrated by the enemy.
Most of Khan’s regiment did not return home until four years later, while Khan himself retired in December 1928, two years after being promoted to Subedar (lieutenant). By that time, over 200 members of the regiment had been killed, and over 1,000 were wounded. Khan eventually went back to his village of Takhti, where he passed away at the age of 68.