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#WeRemember: Celebrating the Muslim contribution to Britain’s War Effort

A hundred years ago today, a 26-year-old Muslim soldier from the Punjab, British India, performed a singular act of bravery in the mud-filled trenches of rural north-western Belguim that would make him the first overseas serviceman to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest honour for gallantry.

Khudadad Khan was a machine gunner attached to the Duke of Connaught’s 129th Baluchi Regiment which had been transported thousands of miles from the Punjab to the Western Front in the early months of the Great War.

Born in the small town of Chakwal in what was then British India (present-day Pakistani Punjab), Khan hailed from a family of Pathans who had migrated to the Punjab from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

He had joined the British army as a private soldier – or “sepoy” – for the sake of a regular income.

The 129th Baluchis were first deployed in Europe in September 1914.  Khan and his comrades were among the more than 20,000 Indian soldiers initially sent to fight in the Great War – more than a million would eventually serve in various parts of the world in support of Britain.

In October, almost immediately after arriving in France, the 129th Baluchis were sent to the front line.

Their job was to help the exhausted soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to prevent the advancing Germans from capturing the vital ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuwpoort in Belgium.

If the Germans took the ports, they would cut off the BEF’s supply lines and the Allies would have lost the war in the very first months of the conflict.

The 129th Baluchis faced the well-equipped German army in horrific conditions – mud-filled trenches and a severe lack of hand grenades as well as a shortage of soldiers. 

They were also vastly outnumbered – some estimates put it at five to one. 

When the Germans attacked on 30 October, most of the Baluchis were pushed back. 

But Khudadad Khan’s machine-gun team, along with one other, fought on, preventing the Germans from making the final breakthrough.

The other gun was disabled by a shell, and eventually Khudadad Khan’s own team was over-run.  All the gunners were killed except the badly wounded Khudadad Khan. 

He pretended to be dead until the attackers had gone on – then, despite his wounds, he managed to make his way back to his regiment.

Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive.

They strengthened the line, and prevented the German army from reaching the vital ports.

Soldiers of the 129th Baluchi Regiment deploying in France

Sepoy Khudadad Khan recovered from his wounds in an English hospital, and three months later was decorated by King George V at Buckingham Palace in London with the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award ‘For Valour’.

Khudadad Khan returned to India, and continued to serve in the Indian Army.

In 1971 he died at home in Pakistan, aged 84. 

Several memorial services are being held in the UK on Friday to celebrate the contribution of Sepoy Khan – one of 400,000 Muslims who fought alongside British troops.

On Friday an open letter by a group of well-known public figures called for the Muslim contribution to Britain’s war effort to be made part of the UK’s school curriculum.

The letter, published in the Daily Telegraph, said: “The First World War brought together soldiers from across the Empire to fight for Britain.

“Khan was just one of the 1.2 million Indian soldiers, and the 400,000 Muslims, who fought alongside British troops in 1914.  It is important today that all of our children know this shared history of contribution and sacrifice if we are to understand fully the multi-ethnic Britain that we are today.

“The gallant Sepoy Khan embodies that history.”

Among the signatories to the letter are former army chiefs General Lord Dannat and Lord Richards; journalist Mihir Bose; Amjad Bashir, communities spokesman for the UK Independence Party; Sughra Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of Britain; Baroness Warsi and a host of other cross-party politicians.

Also on Friday Lord Ahmad, the communities minister, will unveil a commemorative stone which will be laid at the National Memorial Arboretum in Sepoy Khan’s honour.

He said: “In honouring the courage of Khudadad Khan we not only remember our shared history, we are also cherish the long tradition of Muslims fighting bravely alongside British soldiers, for a just cause in the service of this country.”

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