During World War I, around 400,000 Muslim soldiers fought for Britain. Many of these men came from pre-partition India – present-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – and almost all of them had never been to Europe before. Few of them could have anticipated the horror that they would encounter. By war’s end, 47,000 soldiers from India had been killed and 65,000 more wounded.
We want to highlight the story of Khudadad Khan, just one of the many Muslim men and women who made a great sacrifice. In 1914 Khudadad became the first Indian and Muslim recipient of the Victoria Cross – the highest award in the British armed forces.
Born in Chackwal, Punjab, in present-day Pakistan, Khudadad Khan Minhas served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, an infantry regiment of what was then known as the British Indian Army. He was sent to the Western Front in 1914.
In October of that year, German forces launched an enormous offensive to capture the key ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuport in Belgium, in a battle that would come to be referred to as the First Battle of Ypres.
Khan’s regiment, known simply as the Baluchis, bore the brunt of the assault near the village of Hollebecke, Belgium.
A newspaper report about Khudadad Khan’s VC award. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Khan was part of a machine gun team that attempted to repel the German forces, who vastly outnumbered them. Despite returning fire, heavy shelling would soon destroy the only other British Indian machine gun position and kill all of the men Khan was pinned down with.
Khan, while badly wounded, was the only soldier left alive. He continued to fire on the enemy until the German assault overran his position. He was presumed dead by German soldiers. As night fell, Khan, despite severe injuries, began to crawl back to his regiment.
The effort and bravery of the Baluchis held off the German advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Khan’s continued fight, even as his fellow soldiers were killed around him, helped prevent the enemy from reaching the strategically crucial channel ports. For his actions, Khan was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Khudadad Khan retired as a Subedar, a historical rank in the Indian Army. Khan later returned to India where he remained in the forces. He died in Pakistan in 1971, at the age of 82. Khan’s Victoria Cross continues to be displayed at his ancestral home in Pakistan, and his portrait hangs in the National Army Museum in London.
Even more Muslim soldiers would fight for Britain in World War II. Over 2.5 million men and women from the Indian sub-continent would contribute to allied victory some 30 years after Khan’s own gallantry in WWI.
While Khan’s story is extraordinary, we feel it’s emblematic of the exceptional service of thousands of Muslim soldiers during WWI and II, whose bravery and sacrifice helped make Britain’s victories possible.