The first Muslim soldier to win the Victoria Cross
The First World War involved many countries around the world, but did you know about the vast amount of Commonwealth countries whose citizens gave up their lives and fought with British forces? India was one of those countries and the story of Khudadad Khan is just one of many tales of bravery during WW1.
Army life was all Khudadad Khan had known. Born in 1888 in the Punjab village of Dab, he was a Muslim Rajput, a martial race which had fought for the British for 170 years. Khan’s parents died while he was a teenager and he became a sepoy (an Indian soldier who is serving under the British or European armed forces) to support his two sisters.
The Western Front
Nothing could have prepared 26-year-old Khan for the high-tech carnage of Belgium in October 1914. His regiment, the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, was ferried to the front in 36 bright red London double-decker buses. He had entered a cold, dark, alien world.
Used to seeing his enemy, at first he could not spot a single German; from his shallow trench south of Ypres, all he saw was barbed wire, a wilderness of earth and the shells that burst around him.
He was to see the enemy soon enough though… Germany, intent on capturing the ports of Boulogne and Nieuport, had launched an offensive on a 20-mile front, it was the first Battle of Ypres.
On October 26 at Hollebeke, the first Indian attack on the Western Front was beaten back and in three days of fighting every British officer was killed. Trapped in a trench with little cover and six men, Khan continued firing his machine gun until, as the last man alive, he collapsed from wounds and exhaustion. He had stopped an enemy breakthrough.
Life after the War
Khan received his VC from George V at Buckingham Palace in January 1915. His photo appeared on the front page of The Daily Mirror under the headline: The first Indian to win the Victoria Cross.
Khan’s regiment moved to East Africa and he stayed in the army until 1929, becoming a Subedar, the equivalent of a captain.
Back in Dab, he was given 50 acres of land and built a reservoir for the village. In 1956 he travelled to London for VC centenary celebrations and he died aged 82 in 1971 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. A statue of him still stands in the grounds of the city’s army museum.
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