Sajid Gulzar portrait

Written by Sajid Gulzar

Founding CEO of the Prince Albert Community Trust (PACT) and National Leader of Education

On October 31st 1914 a 26 year old gunner and his machine gun crew managed to hold their position against a German onslaught. The Germans were using more effective weaponry and outnumbered the gunner and his crew five to one. A second crew fighting alongside the gunner were killed as a result of a direct shell hit. The consequences of the machine gun crews being over-run were potentially devastating. The goal of the German offensive was to capture the vital ports of Boulogne and Nieuport. 

The gunner and his crew held the Germans off, they continued to fire at the enemy all day. When all around him had been killed, despite being shot, the gunner continued to fight. Eventually, he was left for dead. The stand made on that autumn day on water-logged ground during the First Battle of Ypre, allowed reinforcements to arrive and the German advance was curtailed. The gunner would later be awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation noted ‘remained working his gun until all the over five men of the gun detachment had been killed.’ 

The gunner was born in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan and his name was Khudadad Khan. This young man, a member of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis helped to ensure that two ports used to supply British troops with vital supplies, remained in Allied hands.  He was the first Muslim soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross and there is a commemorative stone in his honour at the National Memorial Arboretum. 

During the course of the Great War, hundreds of thousands of young men left their homes behind to travel to Europe and fight for Great Britain. Many would never return. My mother recalls her father telling her that some villages were almost cleared of their young men. The level of sacrifice is indescribable. Khudadad Khan’s story is one amongst countless others of courage and lives cut short on the battlefields of Europe. 

Many of you reading this may be reading about Khudadad Khan for the first time. I first heard about him about 10 years ago. I didn’t know about the Indian contribution to the war effort until well into my twenties. That is despite being taught history at school. Despite teaching history at school. It wasn’t until 3 or 4 years into my teaching career that I discovered that 1.3 million Indians including 400,000 Muslims fought during WW1. That many thousands of them died on foreign shores, having never been to the nation they were sacrificing their life for. I didn’t know that 12,000 wounded Indian soldiers were sent to Brighton, that many of them died and were buried there in the cemetery at Horsell Common. 

Soon after I started teaching, the events of 9/11 changed our world. I remember watching the news in horror in 2005 as the details of the 7/7 attacks in London were emerging. I was actually on a visit to the school where I would be taking up a new role in the approaching September. Following the London attacks in particular, there has been a lot of soul searching about identity and belonging. What must the level of disenfranchisement be for someone born and brought up in a country to attack it from within. This is of course the extreme end of the spectrum that goes all the way from not quite feeling you belong to all out war.

I know this may appear a gross over-simplification but identity and belonging are definitely a part of the mix. So, where does Khudadad Khan and his regiment fit in? I spent much of my youth feeling like I don’t belong, particularly when it came to The World Wars. More than once I can remember being told that I didn’t deserve to be here, that the good people of Britain had sacrificed their lives for the freedoms that my family and I were enjoying. That somehow my being here was a betrayal of that sacrifice. I remember that my defence, at least as an adult, was based on the need of the country to rebuild post war and the importance of the migration of my father’s generation to Britain. At the time though, I didn’t know that my grandparents peers had fought and died too, in their hundreds of thousands.

I remember visiting a great aunt on a trip to Pakistan when I was 20 (I didn’t feel I belonged there either but that’s a whole other blog!). Her son had gone to fight for Britain in Burma during WW2. He never returned. 50 years after he left for war, she still waited for him to return. Would my knowing these stories have made a difference growing up? Had I known about the sacrifice of my forefathers to secure our freedoms, had I known about the extraordinary bravery of Khudadad Khan and countless thousands like him? Had I been taught that I had a vested interest, a shared history of blood shed for the cause? Quite possibly yes to all of the above. 

What is quite striking is the missed opportunity at this time of year to use this shared history, this shared sacrifice to bring communities together, cement feelings of belonging and to help secure identity. It is not just schools that miss this opportunity, from film to the media, opportunities are missed or just ignored. The recent Dunkirk is an excellent case in point. The film completely ignores the Indian soldiers who were present and took part in the events depicted in the film. I’ve seen many a film and a documentary, chronicling the World Wars. What I haven’t seen very often is a true depiction of the scale of the commonwealth contribution to the cause.  When in the epic and beautifully shot 1917, there was an attempt to include commonwealth representation, one right wing commentator described the presence of non-white soldiers in the film as ‘incongruous’.  I would suggest that the reason for this is that their stories have never been told. As far anyone learning about the World Wars in school or watching films about them is concerned, they were fought by white men, predominantly in Europe. 

The commonwealth contribution needs to be compulsory learning. Our children need to know that the poppy clad fields of European battlefields are soaked in the blood of the non-white commonwealth soldier as well as the English Tommy. Part of this shared history is that our children often live in neighbourhoods, streets and even houses that sent very young men off to war. In some cases these children also have forebears who left their towns and villages more than 3000 miles away to fight in the same war for the same cause. 

If you read this whilst thinking about your school’s plan for marking VE Day and Remembrance Sunday, then please share the stories of the young men and women who came from afar as well as those closer to home. Let the poppies you sell symbolise shared sacrifice and shared history in this age of divisiveness.

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