This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Khudadad Khan served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis regiment of the British Indian army in the First World War, becoming the first south Asian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation, issued on 7 December 1914, reads: “On 31 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 [soldier] Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.” Khan spent his final years in Pakistan, and his VC is now displayed in the house in the village in which he was born.
When did you first hear about Khan?
I had read about him a few years ago, but I really started thinking about his story when we, the government began planning for the First World War commemorations. We went out to Belgium to visit the battlefields including Hollebeke, where Khan had fought, and that’s where I got to know about him and felt much more connected to him as a person.
What kind of person was he?
What is particularly interesting for me is that he was of Indian origin: he was born in the village of Dab, in the Punjab province of what is now part of modern Pakistan (and the same region from which my parents originate). It fascinates me that here was a man who, nearly 100 years ago, was fighting for king and country, who went on to become the first south Asian to be awarded the Victoria Cross – but that, throughout my time at school, I had never heard of him.
What was Khan’s finest hour?
I think fighting until the bitter end and surviving. Khan was quite young, in his twenties, when he joined up as a machine-gunner in the Baluchis regiment. This regiment was in Hollebeke in October 1914, fighting to hold their position against a major German offensive. Although they were outnumbered, the Baluchis kept their machine guns running throughout the day, preventing the Germans from breaking through. Eventually all of the people around him were killed, but Khan carried on fighting until he was left for dead. After the sun went down, he crawled back to base and survived. And, by holding off the Germans for as long as he did, his regiment had effectively allowed British troops to come in and take the position.
He died 20 days before I was born, on 8 March 1971, so he lived a good long life. And what an experience to have had: to come from a small village to serve on the front line, to be awarded the Victoria Cross by King George, and then to go back and live your life out in Punjab.
What made him a hero?
Khan was a man from a colonised nation who fought for a king who didn’t look like him and for a country that he’d never seen. Yet he was prepared to put his life on the line, to show blind loyalty to those things. He was completely aligned to the British war effort, but was also of Indian origin and from the Muslim faith, and he was able to reconcile all of those aspects of his identity.
I think, at a time when we are still having so many discussions about belonging, this is a great example of how we all have a shared past. There are, unfortunately, far-right extremist groups who question people’s place in society, and I think that it’s really important to learn how we got the freedoms that we enjoy in Britain today. We have all made sacrifices to get there, and in planning our future we have to turn back to our shared history.
If you could meet Khan, what would you ask him?
I’d ask him if he felt any conflict between what was going on in India at the time, where the movement for independence had started, and fighting for a country that this movement opposed. How did he reconcile all of that? Maybe, as a young man in his twenties, he didn’t – but it would be interesting to know what his thought process was, and how, having fought and got the VC, he felt after the Partition of India in the 1940s.
Baroness Warsi is Senior Minister of State for Faith and Communities and for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs. Her duties include work planning for First World War centenary commemorations