With his head wrapped in what appeared to be bandages, a dark bloody figure rolled out of the Belgian darkness on All Hallows’ Eve in 1914 into the entrenchment of a huddled group of British soldiers. Regaining their composure, the infantry men listened, as the badly wounded Indian soldier retold the horrors he had witnessed—and survived.
Battle of Ypres
In October 1914, the Germans launched a major offensive in northern Belgium to capture the vital ports of Nieuport and Boulognein in France. In what came to be known as the First Battle of Ypres (pronounced, “EEprah”), the newly arrived 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, British Indian Army, were rushed to the frontline to support the hard-pressed British troops.
They were part of the effort to repel attacks by the German XXVII Reserve Corps against I Corps north of the Menin Road that had poured through a thick fog on the dawn of October 29. By nightfall, the Gheluvelt crossroads had been overrun and 600 British soldiers were prisoners.
The next day, the German 54th Reserve and 30th Divisions renewed the attack on the left flank of the British troops at Gheluvelt. Though they repulsed the German onslaught, the British had to give up Zandvoorde, Hollebeke, and Hollebeke Château. The British rallied opposite Zandvoorde with French reinforcements and "Bulfin's Force," a command improvised for the motley of troops. The British Expeditionary Force had suffered so many casualties it had deployed all of its reserves. The French IX Corps sent its last three battalions in a desperate—and successful—attempt to stabilize the situation in the I Corps sector.
On the morning of October 31st, however, the German attacks renewed. As the Allied-held lines crumbled bit by bit, it appeared a total German breakthrough was imminent. It was during these early morning attacks where the wounded Indian’s tale began.
Two companies of his regiment had been posted near the village of Gheluvelt in the Hollebeke Sector—the focus of the German attack that morning. The conditions were appalling. The ground was water-logged so trenches were too shallow to offer much protection. There was no barbed wire. There were many gaps in the lines because there were not enough soldiers--the Baluchis were outnumbered, five to one.
The two companies fought gallantly but were soon overwhelmed by the better equipped Germans. Using improvised grenades made from jam tins, the Baluchis repulsed bayonet assaults. Sepoy Khudadad Khan commanded one of two Vickers machine-gun teams that poured a debilitating fire into the lines of German soldiers. Khan’s team, along with one other machine gun crew prevented the Germans from making the final breakthrough.
As the German infantry regrouped for yet another assault, artillery showered the Baluchi’s position with high explosives. A direct hit eliminated the second machine gun team. The Germans focused their attack on the crippled position, this time pushing deep into the Baluchi defenses. Khudadad Khan stood to meet the attackers but the German bayonetted his crew. The sole survivor, Khan regained control of a machine gun long enough to renew its death-delivery before, he too, fell, badly wounded by a German bullet. Left for dead, the Germans powered past Khan and the Baluchi position.
Hours later, when Khan regained consciousness, he could see through the darkness that all of his soldiers and friends lay dead. Nearly overcome by the tragedy, he realized he was, most likely, alone, trapped behind enemy lines. He began to drag himself toward where he thought the British lines must now be.
The stunned British soldiers listened to Khan’s story. After he finished telling what he thought was the story his failure to hold the line, the other soldiers explained that the two machine guns had actually prevented the Germans from making the final breakthrough! Thanks to Khan and his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive. These reinforcements, as it turned out, were sufficient to prevent the German Army from carrying the field and reaching the vital ports.
During WWI, more than 130,000 Indian soldiers served in France, mostly during the first two years of the war. At the end of 1915, the majority of Indian infantry units were withdrawn from the Western Front and redeployed in the Middle East.
One of the 130,000 was Khudadad Khan, born on 20 October 1888 into a Rajput family in the village of Dab in Chakwal District of the Punjab Province in British India (now Pakistan). Khan joined the army as a private (or “sepoy”) soldier for the sake of regular pay and, according to his family, “a chance of honor and glory.” Assigned to the 129th Baluchis, he was sent to France for that chance as part of the Indian Corps.
Once in France, the Indian Corps was organized into the 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions. (these were simply known as “Lahore” and “Meerut” Divisions to distinguish them from the 3rd and 7th British Divisions.) The Lahore Division, to which Khan’s unit was assigned, landed at Marseilles on 26 September 1914, but there were delays while the troops were re-armed with the latest pattern rifle, and a supply train could be improvised using locally procured commercial trucks. The Corps finally went into action in October 1914.
It was after the battles of October 1914, that Khudadad Khan would be personally recognized by King George V. While recovering from his wounds in an English hospital, Khan responded to the King’s invitation to Buckingham Palace in London. There, King George V presented Sepoy Khan with Britain's highest award “For Valour,” the Victoria Cross. The citation reads:
His Majesty the KING-EMPEROR has been graciously pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned soldier of the Indian Army for conspicuous bravery whilst serving with the Indian Army Corps, British Expeditionary Force: —
4050, 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.
— London Gazette, 7 December 1914.
The other members of Khudadad’s machine gun crew were posthumously honored, as well. Havildar Ghulam Mahomed was awarded the Indian Order of Merit, while Sepoys Lal Sher, Said Ahmed, Kassib and Lafar Khan were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medals.
The 129th Baluchis went on to serve with distinction. The Regiment suffered a devastating 3,585 casualties out of the 4,447 men who served during the Great War. But one man, a 26-year-old private from a village in Indian, will be forever remembered as the first Indian—and Muslim—to be awarded Britain’s highest military award, the Victoria Cross.
Preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine