As my collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs) nears the 200 mark, I am delighted to reveal that I have become the custodian of a particularly special medal group.
I have purchased the gallantry and service medals that were awarded to Subadar (equivalent to a captain) Khudadad Khan. He was the very first Muslim to be awarded Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for bravery and his medal group will soon go on public display at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Khan, who was also the first Indian soldier to be awarded the VC, was awarded his decoration when, while serving as a sepoy (equivalent to a private), he displayed exceptional gallantry in battle early in the First World War.
In a world in which a tiny minority of Muslims – notably those fighting for ISIS and those extremists responsible for terrorists acts around the world – tarnish their religion, this is a wonderful time for us to recognise the many, many loyal and brave Muslims who have risked, and sometimes given, their lives for Britain, its allies and for wider freedoms.
Make no mistake, Muslims made an immense contribution to the Allied effort during the Great War, and beyond. Of the 1.3 million Indians who volunteered to serve the Empire during the 1914-18 global conflict, approximately 400,000 were Muslims.
It has been estimated that some 50,000 Indians were injured and 8,500 killed on the Western Front alone. Around a third to a half of these war-dead were Muslims, who fought – and often died – alongside their fellow Hindu and Sikh countrymen. Many of those Muslims who were missing – presumed killed – in action are named on the Menin Gate war memorial in Belgium.
On October 31 1914, ferocious fighting was raging all along the front line as both sides tried to gain the advantage during the First Battle of Ypres. Only the day before, the enemy had repulsed the advancing British 2nd Cavalry Division and had captured the Belgian town of Hollebeke. The Germans were determined to push forwards as they tried to breakthrough the Gheluvelt sector of the Ypres Salient.
Early on October 31, one of the Baluchi regiment’s two Maxim machine-guns was destroyed by enemy fire in an attack that had wounded a British officer. Also wounded by the relentless enemy fire was Khan, 26, one of six men from his detachment who had been tasked with manning the second Maxim machine-gun.
Khan had been born on October 26 1888 in Jhelum, Punjab, India (now Pakistan). He had enlisted as a sepoy in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, Indian Army, on August 3 1914 at a time when the regiment was recruiting on the North-West Frontier.
Initially, Khan had been sent to the Suez Canal Zone but he was then diverted to France because of the desperate need for more troops. On October 18 1914, he moved with the Ferozepore Brigade from Orleans, France, to be attached to the British Cavalry Corps that was attempting to hold the line between Zandvoorde and Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium. On 22 October, his regiment joined the 3rd Cavalry Brigade.
As the battle raged on October 31, Khan shrugged off his serious injuries and continued to work his gun as German shells reined down on the six men. One by one, Havildar Ghulam Mahomed, Sepoy Lal Sher, Sepoy Said Ahmed, Sepoy Kassib and Sepoy Afsar Khan were killed by enemy fire.
Before his position was finally overrun by the Germans, Khan put the machine-gun out of action so that the much-prized weapon did not fall into enemy hands. As the enemy advanced, he initially feigned death but he eventually crawled back to rejoin his company and receive medical assistance.
Khan was treated in hospital for his wounds and then transferred for further treatment to the UK, where he spent several weeks at the Indian Convalescent Home, New Milton, Hampshire.
During the battle, 164 Balluchis were killed or wounded and 64 others were missing in action. A further three British officers were killed and three more wounded, while three Indian officers were killed and two wounded.
Khan’s VC was announced in the London Gazette on December 7 1914 and he received his decoration under the terms of the Royal Warrant of 1911, which extended the reward to native troops. Previously Indians who showed exceptional gallantry received the Indian Order of Merit (First Class). The other five men manning the second machine-gun on October 31 received a different but lesser posthumous gallantry award.
Initially, Khan was too weak to attend his planned investiture but he eventually received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on January 26, 1915.
In 1917, Khan was promoted to jemadar and the following year he was elevated to senior jemadar. He survived the war and, in 1919, was promoted to subadar, his final rank. After retiring in 1921, he worked as a farmer and, in 1956 and by then aged 68, he took part in the VC centenary celebrations in London.
Khan, who was married twice and had two sons and a daughter with his second wife, died at the Military Hospital, Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 8 1971, aged 82. He was buried at Rukhan Tehsil cemetery, Punjab, Pakistan.
His name is engraved on the Memorial Gates, Hyde Park Corner, London, and there is a statute in his honour at the Army Museum, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
For a time, Khan’s medal group was on display at the Army Museum in Rawalpindi but it remained in the ownership of one of his descendants. When this individual decided to offer the medal group for sale, I was able to secure it in a private deal.
As part of my attempts to champion bravery, I have built up the world’s largest collection of VCs over the past 30 years and the latest decoration is the 196th VC in my collection. As with the other VCs, the new medal group will go on public display at the Imperial War Museum.
The VC was created by Queen Victoria in 1856 to recognise the exceptional bravery of British troops during the Crimean War. To this day, it remains Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
I treasure every VC in my collection along with the inevitable story of great gallantry that accompanies it. Gallantry and service medals are the tangible relics of an individual’s service and bravery.
Since 1997, I have been the custodian of the first VC ever awarded to a Sikh: a decoration recognising the courage of Sepoy Ishar Singh during an ambush by Mahsud tribesman in the North-West Frontier in April 1921. This excessively rare inter-war VC was awarded for courage during the Waziristan Campaign.
Now, nearly 20 years on, I feel equally privileged to have become the custodian of the first VC that was ever awarded to a Muslim. It means that of seven VCs awarded to Muslims, four are now in the Ashcroft VC collection.
I feel proud to have become the custodian of Khudadad Khan’s wonderful medal group because he was such a courageous soldier. This medal group has international resonance and I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to add it to my collection. I am fortunate enough now to have 80 Great War VCs including 47 that were awarded for bravery on the Western Front, but this one really is very special.
Only two years ago, two former heads of the Army called for greater recognition of the bravery of Khan as the first Muslim soldier to be awarded the VC. Their call was intended as a “riposte” to the “sickening extremism” of IS militants.
General Lord Dannatt and General Lord Richards led a group of peers, MPs, historians and religious leaders who argued that children should be told about the role played by Muslim troops in the Great War.
In November 2014, Lord Ahmad, then the communities minister, unveiled a commemorative stone at the National Memorial Arboretum in Khan’s memory. He said: “In honouring the courage of Khudadad Khan we not only remember our shared history, we also cherish the long tradition of Muslims fighting bravely alongside British soldiers for a just cause in the service of this country.”
I wholeheartedly echo those sentiments and hope that, when Khudadad Khan’s VC goes on public display, Britons and foreign visitors to London – of all religious persuasions – will visit the Imperial War Museum to see the medal group of a noble man who belongs to that rare group of people fully deserving to be described as “the bravest of the brave”.
>Lord Ashcroft’s five books on gallantry include Victoria Cross Heroes. His sixth book on bravery, Victoria Cross Heroes Volume II, will be published by Biteback in November.