During World War I, the primary operations and battles ensued in the European theatre, although a considerable part of the conflict also happened outside of Europe. Moreover, the segregation and racism of that time, made it easier for history to overlook the First World War heroes from other nations. Today we cover the heroism of Khudadad Khan, the very first Indian awarded the Victoria Cross.

Envisioning Europe

Subedar Khudadad Khan was born in the small village of Dab, in Chakwal District, Punjab (now known as Pakistan), on October 20, 1888. His was a family of Pathans who was originally from the northwest Frontier on the border of Afghanistan. During World War I, he served as a Sepoy in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, British Indian Army. The Battalion, now called the 11th Battalion, The Baloch Regiment of Pakistan Army, was formed as part of the Indian Corps that was deployed to France to help the British forces on the Western Front in 1914.

Like many others, Khan wanted to serve not just for social pressure but because he also genuinely wanted to see what Europe was like. Little did he know that the Europe he envisioned was far less desirable in reality. As a result, many who arrived at the continent they thought was paradise soon wrote back home, urging their family and friends not to enlist.

The sepoys, just like Khan, were more than willing to give their lives for Britain, although they found it difficult to thrive and function in the cold weather. Some were also vegetarians, a diet foreign to Europeans then.

Indians Were Needed

When World War I ensued, Britain was unprepared and the British Expeditionary Force found itself in dire need of reinforcements. So at the end of September 1914, the first sepoys were already at the French port city of Marseilles, on their way to reinforce BEF. From there, they were transported by train and then marched to the front lines.

British and Indian machine gunners with a Vickers machine gun, Lewis gun, and range-finder. (National Army Museum, London)

The 129th Baluchis arrived with a force of some 20,000 men and reached Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium— in time for the First Battle of Ypres. But, aside from that, they were the first Indian regiments to face the Germans, too.

World War I was known for brutal trench warfare, and that began with the Allies digging a series of trenches in hopes of keeping the Germans from advancing into France. In return, the Germans did the same thing and dug on to the west. Both sides kept digging and extending their fortifications until they reached the sea on October 19, that same year.

Sticking To His Gun

The Baluchi companies were used to the rain, but Khan, who was 26 then, was unhappy about it. To be an infantryman is to live wet, cold, and muddy  He was positioned in a trench just past a church, far from Boulogne and Nieuport.

Subadar Khudadad Khan. (National Army Museum, London)

Khan was assigned as a machine gunner, but they knew that the Germans had advanced weapons and grenades while they were under supplied. Even so, they stood their ground and waited as the Germans marched forward toward the village of Hollebeke in Belgium. The Indian troops awaited them in water-logged trenches, short of barbed wire, hand grenades, and personnel. They were outnumbered by five to one.

On October 30, the Germans attacked, and many Indian soldiers were either killed or wounded in their first rush. The machine gun crew, of which Khudad was part, continued fighting even when almost everyone around them was already dead or injured, stabbed or shot. The machine gun crew was annihilated, except for Khan, who pretended to be dead. When the coast was clear, he crawled back to his regiment in complete darkness. As per his citation,

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.

The dogged defense of their position almost to the last man gave time for  British and Indian reinforcements to counterattack and stop the German forces from reaching the vital ports.

Khudadad Khan was later on decorated with the Victoria Cross at the Buckingham Palace by King George V.