Khudadad Khan: South Asia’s First Recipient of the Victoria Cross
By Dr Irfan Malik
A striking oil portrait on canvas of Khudadad Khan by Hal Bevan Petman (c1935) is one of the collections at the National Army Museum, London. He was the first South Asian and Muslim to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Indian troops were first made eligible for the Victoria Cross in 1911; prior to that they were awarded the Indian Order of Merit. Here I explore the history of this great soldier.
Khudadad Khan was born on 20th October, 1888 in Dab village, Chakwal, in present-day Pakistan. He was a Muslim of Rajput descent. He went on to serve as a Sepoy (Private) in the 129 th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis battalion, as a machine gunner.
In October 1914, in the early stages of the Great War, 20 000 Indian troops were sent to the front line on the Western Front. (A total of 1.2 million Indian soldiers were involved in the First World War). These included the 129 th Baluchis and a 26-year-old Khudadad Khan. The Germans were launching their offensive in Hollebeke, Belgium. It marked the setting for the First Battle of Ypres. The newly arrived Indians found themselves in a cold, wet, dark environment - very different from their home country. They had little time to acclimatise. The 129 th Baluchis were pushed to the front line to aid the Allies. They were outnumbered 5 to 1 by the better equipped enemy. The shallow, water-logged trenches provided little protection. There was no defensive barbed wire. There were many gaps in the line, as the soldiers were few. Communications was difficult and smaller units often became isolated, surrounded by the enemy. The Germans had advanced weaponry and hand grenades. As you can expect from the situation, the outnumbered 129 th Baluchis were pounded endlessly by the Germans, sustaining heavy losses and casualties in the process.
On 31 st October 1914 at Hollebeke, Khudadad Khan together with his team, was one of two groups each manning a Vickers machine gun on the front line. One gun was taken out by a German shell, the commanding British Officer Capt. F.F.Dill suffered severe injuries, and five fellow Indians were killed by bullets and bayonets. Despite the odds, Khudadad Khan, all alone and wounded, stood his ground, and continued to fire his machine gun. He kept the German frontline at bay, thus preventing a breakthrough. Khudadad finally fell but kept still and was left for dead by the enemy. After deactivating his machine gun, he crawled back to his regiment under the cover of darkness. Thanks to him and his comrades the Germans were held up long enough for reinforcements to arrive. As the defences strengthened, the Germans were prevented from reaching the strategically vital ports of Boulogne, France and Nieuwpoort, Belguim. Had the Germans succeeded the important supply chains of food and ammunitions would have been disrupted from England to the Allies on the front line.
In extreme adversity Khudadad Khan had held his position and greatly assisted the Allies. He recovered from his injuries in an English Hospital, The Indian Convalescent Hospital, New Milton, Hampshire.
His Majesty the King Emperor George V approved the granting of the Victoria Cross to Khudadad Khan. On 25 th January 1915 at Buckingham Palace, London he became the first Indian and Muslim to receive the Victoria Cross. His Majesty personally presented him the honour.
Khudadad Khan went on to have a long career in the British Indian Army and retired as Subedar (Lieutenant). He passed away at the age of 82 years, in Mandi Bahauddin, Pakistan on 8th March, 1971. His bronze, full sized statue is present at the entrance of the Pakistan Army Museum, Rawalpindi.
On 31 st October 2014, 100 years since the act of gallantry, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon (Minister for Communities) unveiled a commemorative stone at the British Library in Khudadad Khan’s honour. This stone will be laid at the National Memorial Arboretum (Staffordshire) on Commonwealth Day, 9 th March 2015. Lord Tariq said, ‘In honouring the courage of Khudadad Khan we not only remember our shared history, we also cherish the long tradition of Muslims fighting alongside British soldiers, for a just cause in the service of this country’.
Two former heads of the British Army, General Lord Dannatt and General Lord Richards, led a group of peers, MPs, historians, religious leaders and think tank British Future to write a letter to ‘The Telegraph’, on 31st October 2014. They called for better recognition of the contribution and sacrifices by the 400 000 Muslim troops in the First World War, as exemplified by Khudadad Khan, who fought alongside with the British troops.
On 10 th November 2014, at the British High Commission First World War Centenary reception in Islamabad, the three Victoria Cross recipients of present-day Pakistan were honoured. They included Sepoy Khudadad Khan, Jemadar Mir Dast and Naik Shamamad Khan. Also honoured were the 460 soldiers of Dulmial, ‘the village with the gun’, who participated in the Great War.
By describing the bravery and courage of Khudadad Khan, my aim is to reflect and remember the immense courage and sacrifices of the Indian Army soldiers 100 years ago. I do not wish them to be ‘forgotten’ any longer.
(Photograph courtesy of the Council of the National Army Museum, London)