The 11 men from India who won Victoria Cross for British Empire in WWI

The 11 men from India who won Victoria Cross for British Empire in WWI

11/10/2021

Indian WWI heroes awarded the highest honour of the British Empire: The 11 brave men who won the Victoria Cross after fighting for King and Country

  • The 11 are pictured together for the first time after research uncovered their stories in newspaper archives
  • Chatta Singh was awarded for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ during the Battle of the Wadi in Mesopotamia
  • Also named is Mir Dast, who led his platoon ‘with great gallantry’ at Ypres in Belgium in April 1915 

They were the men who fought proudly for the British Empire, winning the highest possible award for their bravery.

One shielded a comrade with his own body for five hours, another helped carry eight officers to safety amidst heavy fire, a third manned a machine gun until it was rendered useless by the enemy.

Now, these men – Indian soldiers who won the Victoria Cross in the First World War – can be pictured together for the first time after their stories and images were unearthed in newspaper archives by ancestry website FindMyPast.

They include Chatta Singh, who was awarded for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ in helping his wounded commanding officer during the Battle of the Wadi, in Mesopotamia – which is now Iraq – in January 1916.

Also named is Mir Dast, who led his platoon ‘with great gallantry’ at Ypres in Belgium in April 1915 and showed ‘remarkable courage’ by helping to carry to safety British and Indian officers who had been wounded.

And Shahamad Khan kept firing his machine gun in Mesopotamia even after all his men had become casualties. His citation states that, but for his actions, ‘the line would undoubtedly been penetrated by the enemy’. 

Overall, six VCs were won by soldiers from India, three from what is now Pakistan, and two from Nepal.

All but one of the 11 are now pictured for the first time. Of those, nine survived to receive their awards in person, whilst two were killed whilst carrying out their daring acts of bravery.

During the four-year conflict, a total of one and a half million men were recruited from the Indian subcontinent – which made up the British Raj – into the British Indian Army to fight against Germany.


Indian soldiers who won the Victoria Cross in the First World War can be pictured together for the first time after their stories and images were unearthed in newspaper archives. Shahamad Khan (left) kept firing his machine gun in Mesopotamia – which is now Iraq – even after all his men had become casualties. His citation states that, but for his actions, ‘the line would undoubtedly been penetrated by the enemy’. Chatta Singh (right) was awarded for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ in helping his wounded commanding officer during the Battle of the Wadi, in Mesopotamia in January 1916

Named Sepoys after the Persian word for ‘infantry soldier’, the men were a multi-ethnic force who came from diverse religious backgrounds. They included Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.

Unlike their Western counterparts, they did not leave behind the wealth of diaries, poems and memoirs which inform so much of the collective memory of the First World War.

It means that the stories of their daring feats of bravery are now far less well-known. However, including the VCs, the men of the British Indian Army received more than 9,200 decorations.

The first Indian soldier to win a VC was Khudadad Khan, who was from the village of Dab in the Chakwal District of the Punjab Province (now Pakistan).

He was a sepoy in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis infantry regiment. His battalion was sent to France in October 1914 to help shore up British forces who were fighting on the Western Front.

On October 31, at the battle of Neuve Chapelle, two companies of the Baluchis bore the brunt of the main German attack near the village of Gheluvelt.


The first Indian soldier to win a VC was Khudadad Khan (left), who was from the village of Dab in the Chakwal District of the Punjab Province (now Pakistan). Mir Dast (right) led his platoon ‘with great gallantry’ at Ypres in Belgium in April 1915 and showed ‘remarkable courage’ by helping to carry to safety British and Indian officers who had been wounded

Dast is seen (right) meeting British War Secretary Lord Kitchener (right_) and South African General Jan Smuts

They fought gallantly but were overwhelmed after suffering heavy casualties. Khan’s machine gun team and one other kept their guns in action throughout the day, keeping the Germans at bay.

However, the other gun team were disabled by a shell and Khan’s own team were then eventually overrun.

All the men were killed by bullets or bayonets except Khan who, despite being badly wounded, continued to fire his gun.

He was left for dead by the enemy but managed to crawl back to his regiment during the night.

Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough for reinforcements to arrive, preventing the German army from reaching the vital ports in the region.

His citation, quoted in the London Gazette in December 1914, read: ‘On 31st 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 Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.’

Chatta Singh, who died in 1961, was 29 when he won his VC for bravery shown in the Battle of the Wadi on January 13, 1916.


Gabar Singh, from the Indian district of Tehri in the Himalayas, was one of the men who was awarded the VC (his shown left) after being killed. Right: His name is seen on the Nueve Chapelle Indian Memorial in France

His citation reads that he won his award for ‘most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in leaving cover to assist his Commanding Officer who was lying wounded and helpless in the open.’

‘Sepoy Chatta Singh bound up the Officer’s wound and then dug cover for him with his entrenching tool, being exposed all the time to very heavy rifle fire.

‘For five hours until nightfall he remained beside the wounded Officer, shielding him with his own body on the exposed side.

‘He then, under cover of darkness, went back for assistance, and brought the Officer into safety.’

Mir Dast, a Pashtun from the Afridi Tribe, was born to a Muslim family in what is now Pakistan. 


Kulbir Thapa was born in Palpa, Nepal and was a 26 year old Rifleman in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army when he became the first Nepalese recipient of the Victoria Cross. Right: His medals are seen on display

He enlisted in the British Army in December 1894 and served in regions including in what was then known as the North-West Frontier, in what is now western Pakistan.

In March 1909, he was promoted to the rank of Jemadar (troop leader). At the Battle of Ypres in Belgium, he was serving in the 55th Coke’s Rifles.

During an attack on April 26, 1915, his unit was part of a British and French counter attack against German troops.

Despite heavy losses, they were able to get close to the German trenches.

The Germans then released chlorine gas, and many soldiers retreated in confusion.

Dast was among a small number of British and Indian troops who stayed and held their position until nightfall when they were ordered to withdraw. 


Karanbahadur Rana Magar (pictured right in later life), who died in 1973, was awarded the VC for his actions in El Kelfr, Egypt on April 10, 1918. His citation reads: ‘For most conspicuous bravery, resource in action under adverse conditions, and utter contempt for danger. During an attack he, with a few other men, succeeded under intense fire in creeping forward with a Lewis gun in order to engage an enemy machine gun which had caused severe casualties to officers and other ranks who had attempted to put it out of action. No 1 of the Lewis gun opened fire, and was shot immediately. Without a moment’s hesitation Rifleman Karanbahadur Rana pushed the dead man off the gun, and in spite of bombs thrown at him and heavy fire from both flanks, he opened fire and knocked out the machine-gun crew; then, switching his fire on to the enemy bombers and riflemen in front of him, he silenced their fire. He kept his gun in action and showed the greatest coolness in removing defects which on two occasions prevented the gun from firing. During the remainder of the day he did magnificent work, and when a withdrawal was ordered he assisted with covering fire until the enemy were close on him. He displayed throughout a very high standard of valour and devotion to duty’

How soldiers from across the Empire helped win the war

INDIA 

The Indian sub-continent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had sent two infantry and two cavalry divisions to the Western Front by the end of 1914.

In 1915, Indian troops fought against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine and Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and alongside British, Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli.

AFRICA 

African troops were also involved in containing the Germans in East Africa and defeating them in West Africa – in an area where Europeans had struggled in the hot climate. By the end of the war, the ‘British Army’ in East Africa was mainly soldiers from Nigeria, Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda and Nyasaland (Malawi). In addition, some 60,000 labourers came from South Africa.

CARIBBEAN 

Around 15,000 men from the Caribbean enlisted, with a few serving in regular British Army units – although most were in the West India Regiment and the British West Indies Regiment. They served in France, Italy, Africa and the Middle East.

CANADA 

Canada also made a huge contribution to the war, with the Canadian Expeditionary Force fighting in most of the major battles on the Western Front from 1915. They were at the Somme, Passchendaele and in the Hundred Days offensives of 1918. Nearly 10 per cent of the 620,000 Canadians who enlisted were killed in the war.

NEWFOUNDLAND 

Newfoundland, which only became part of Canada in 1949, fought at Gallipoli in 1915), but was almost wiped out at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme the next year.

AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND 

More than 410,000 Australians served in the war, suffering about 200,000 casualties in campaigns at Gallipoli, on the Western Front and in the Middle East.

New Zealand forces helped Australia capture Germany’s colonies in the Pacific and fought on the Western Front, with 5 per cent of the country’s men aged 15-49 killed.

It was then that he helped to save the lives of both British and Indian officers. His citation reads: ‘For most conspicuous bravery and great ability at Ypres on 26th April 1915, when he led his platoon with great gallantry during, the attack, and afterwards collected various parties of the regiment (when no British Officers were left) and kept them under his command until the retirement was ordered.

‘Jemadar Mir Dast subsequently on this day displayed remarkable courage in helping to carry eight British and Indian Officers into safety, whilst exposed to very heavy fire.’

The wounded Dast was sent for treatment in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, where he received his medal from King George V. 

Dast was retired from active service in 1917 and died in 1945 at Shagi Hindkyan Village, Tehsil, Peshawar, and was buried at Warsak Road Cemetery, Shagi Hindkyan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

A blue plaque was erected in May 2016 in honour of Mir Dast next to the Indian Gate at Royal Pavilion Gardens in Brighton.

Shahamad Khan, who died in 1947, was a Punjabi Muslim from Rawalpindi in what is now Pakistan. He was a Naik (corporal) in the 89th Punjabis regiment.

Whilst serving in Mesopotamia in April 1916 at the age of 36, he continued firing his machine gun despite the heavy fire that was coming his way.

His citation reads: Shahamad Khan was in charge of a machine-gun section 150 yards from the enemy’s position, covering a gap in the New Line at Beit Ayeesa, Mesopotamia on 12th/13 April 1916.

‘After all his men, apart from two belt-fillers, had become casualties, Shamahad Khan, working the gun single-handed, repelled three counter-attacks.

‘Under extremely heavy fire, he continued to hold the gap, whilst it was being made secure, for three hours.

‘When his gun was disabled by enemy fire, he and the two belt-fillers continued to hold the ground with their rifles until they were ordered to retire.

‘Along with the three men who were sent to his assistance, he brought back to his own lines, his gun, ammunition and a severely wounded man.

‘Eventually he returned to remove all remaining arms and equipment, except for two shovels. But for his action, the line would undoubtedly have been penetrated by the enemy.’

Gabar Singh, from the Indian district of Tehri in the Himalayas, was one of the men who was awarded the VC after being killed.

In October 1913, he joined the 2nd Battalion of The Garhwal Rifles. After the outbreak of war, the battalion was sent to the Western Front and ended up on the front lines during the First Battle of Ypres and later in the Pas-de-Calais region.

In March 1915, he was among those selected to be involved in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Singh was ordered to clear a path to the German trenches with bombs and was killed in doing so.

His citation reads: ‘For most conspicuous bravery on 10th March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender.

Gobind Singh won his VC at the Battle of Cambrai, an all-important effort by the Allied forces to break the Hindenburg Line in France. It was the first time tanks were used successfully in the history of warfare



Lance Naik Lala (left) won the VC for bravery shown when he was part of a relief force sent to rescue British troops who were trapped at the infamous ‘Siege of Kut’ in Mesopotamia. Dawrwan Singh Negi (centre) won his VC for ‘great gallantry’ shown during the Defence of Festubert in France in 1914. Badlu Singh (right) was killed in the course of winning the VC. Singh died on September 23, 1918, at Khes Samariveh, in Palestine. His squadron had charged a well-fortified enemy position on the west bank of the River Jordan and Singh was mortally wounded after ignoring danger to charge the enemy

‘He was killed during this engagement.’

The other man who was killed was Badlu Singh. He was aged 41 and was a Risaldar – a commander of a mounted division – in the 14 Murray’s Jat Lancers.

Singh died on September 23, 1918, at Khes Samariveh, in Palestine. His squadron had charged a well-fortified enemy position on the west bank of the River Jordan and Singh was mortally wounded after ignoring danger to charge the enemy.

His citation reads: ‘On nearing the position Ressaidar [sic] Badlu Singh realised that the squadron was suffering casualties from a small hill on the left front occupied by machine guns and 200 infantry.

‘Without the slightest hesitation he collected six other ranks and with the greatest dash and an entire disregard of danger charged and captured the position, thereby saving very heavy casualties to the squadron.

‘He was mortally wounded on the very top of the hill when capturing one of the machine guns single-handed, but all the machine guns and infantry had surrendered to him before he died.’

Findmypast military records will be free to search and explore from Thursday 11th to Monday 15th November.  

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