The British army has long relied on soldiers and units from its former empire and never more so than in the First World War when Khudadad Khan became the first Asian and Muslim to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery.
Khan was born in Chakwal in the Punjab province of India in 1888, now the Potohar region of Pakistan, and joined the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis as a sepoy.
His battalion formed part of the Indian Corps which was sent to France in 1914 to shore up the British forces fighting on the Western Front. In October that year, the Germans launched a major offensive to capture the vital ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuport in Belgium and the newly arrived 129th Baluchis were rushed to the frontline to support the hard-pressed British troops.
This became known as The First Battle of Ypres and two companies of the Baluchis bore the brunt of the main German attack near the village of Gheluvelt in Hollebeke Sector. Although outnumbered, the Baluchis fought gallantly but were eventually overwhelmed and all that prevented the Germans from making a final breakthrough was Khudadad Khan and his machine-gun team.
Despite being badly wounded, Khan continued to work the machine-gun until his position was eventually overrun, but he had held up the assault long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive. The other members of his team had been killed and Khan left for dead but he managed to crawl back to his regiment during the night.
Thanks to Khudadad Khan’s brave action, the Germans failed in their attempt to seize the ports that were essential to the Allied Powers and he was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace in January 1915.
Khudadad Khan retired as a Subedar, the rank equivalent to captain, and died in 1971. His Victoria Cross is on display in his home village of Chakwal.
Inspired by his story, his great-grandson Dr Aamer Khan is helping to rebuild the lives of British soldiers blown up in Iraq and Afghanistan, using lasers to heal their injury scars and giving them back their confidence.