September Special

First World War Finding Pakistan’s Place in History

August 4 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of First World War (WW1) 1914-1918, one of the deadliest wars in history. Over the next four years, a series of commemorative events will be conducted around the world in remembrance of those who lived, fought and died in 'The Great War'. The commemorations are not about victory or defeat, winners or losers, it is about remembrance of courage and sacrifice, of lives lost, of suffering, and the tragedy of war.
WW1 was the first global war and the first to be fought on land, in the air, and at sea.  Modern weaponry caused mass casualties not seen before in war, and civilian populations suffered great hardships.  It was one of the most significant events of the 20th century and a turning point in history, the impacts of which are still being felt today. Under post-war treaties, the national boundaries of a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East were redefined which heightened tensions in the region, some of which continue to this day.  In Germany, this and simmering resentment about the stringent terms of the Treaty of Versailles, enabled Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to develop an aggressive nationalist movement that ultimately led to World War II (1939-1945).


The complex political, economic and territorial disputes between European nations that led to WW1, and its antecedents, had been simmering for several decades, dating back at least to 1890 and the German Kaiser's dismissal of the Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. But on 28 June 1914, a sunny day in Sarajevo, the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Gavrilio Princip – a member of a Serb militant organisation wanting independence from Austria-Hungary - set off a chain of events that, within a few weeks, triggered a world war. Austria responded to the assassination by declaring war on Serbia, having gained support from Germany.  Russia then mobilised its troops.  On 1st August, Germany declared war on Russia; on 3rd August, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium; and on 4th August, Britain declared war on Germany. Although not the underlying cause of the war, the act of one man set off one of the deadliest conflicts in history, drawing in millions of troops from many nations.

The Entente Countries (the Allies) included the British Empire – UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Malta and what was then Rhodesia – France, and Russia. Japan, Italy, Belgium Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and the Czechoslovak legions were secondary members of the Entente. The United States entered the war on 6 April 1917 as an associated power rather than a formal ally of France or the British. The Allies were pitted against the Central Powers – the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Germany; German Colonial Empire; Ottoman Turkish Empire, and Kingdom of Bulgaria.

The war that many over-optimistically thought 'would be over by Christmas', dragged on for four years until the surrender of Germany in November 1918 when they signed the Armistice of Compiègne with the Allies, ending the war. It is estimated that the casualties reached 37 million.  Of these, 17 million died and 20 million were wounded. The death toll included some 10 million military personnel and approximately 7 million civilians. The Allies lost 6 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.

So what has WW1 – and the 100th anniversary commemorations – got to do with Pakistan, a country that did not come into existence until 1947?  To most Pakistanis, WW1 is irrelevant if remembered at all, and had nothing to do with the country. They could not be more wrong. WW1 is an important part of the heritage of what is today, Pakistan. Many famous Regiments and units of the Pakistan Army – then a part of the British Indian Army pre-Partition – served with great distinction in this war. Hundreds of thousands of men from this region signed up to fight in lands far from home for a war that was not their own.

There is a distinction between seeking war and preparing contingency plans, should the worst-case scenario arise.  As a contingency, from 1902 to 1909 the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener reformed the sub-continent's Army and created one cohesive Army with a brigade and divisional structure, instead of the old 'Presidency Armies' (Bombay, Madras, and Bengal).

Kitchener also founded the Staff College, which moved to Quetta in 1907 where even today his portrait still graces the walls of the Command and Staff College.   Thus in 1914 the British Indian Army was able to mobilise and expand with more than 1.27 million men serving overseas in WW1. Seven large expeditionary forces, lettered A to G, were dispatched overseas. The first troops landed in Marseilles in France on 30 September 1914, just a few weeks after the declaration of war. As well as serving in France and German East Africa, these Regiments also fought in the two complementary campaigns and axes against the Turkish Army: one drive from Egypt/Sinai into Palestine and Syria; and the other up the Tigris River in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), terminating at Baghdad and Mosul.

According to some war historians, in 1914 approximately 63.6% of the British Indian Army was recruited from just three areas of the sub-continent – Punjab, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Nepal. The reason men signed up for the Army were varied but many chose to do so because of economic circumstances – a regular pay – and the opportunity to display courage and bring honour and glory to their families and villages. Also, in the Punjab and NWFP a martial tradition existed. The relevance of this tradition cannot be underestimated, nor the family connections serving in British regiments recruited from these areas.

When they arrived in the battlefields of Europe, the soldiers found themselves in a strange land, under-equipped and without appropriate clothing for the conditions, especially the freezing European winters which, in 1914, was particularly harsh. To ensure their basic comforts, the Army had sent cooks who could attend to the religious requirements of food preparation, and arrangements were made for observance of their prayers and other religious rituals.

These WW1 regiments included Battalions of the following current Pakistan Army regiments: Baloch regiment; Punjab regiment; and Frontier Force regiment.  They also included units of the Artillery and Armoured Corps regiments such as: 5 Horse (Probyn's Horse); 11th Cavalry (Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (PAVO) and Daly's Horse); and 12th Cavalry (Sam Browne's - Frontier Force).

For those who have served in these regiments since, much of this history is known, but for most Pakistanis there is a complete lack of knowledge of this important piece of the country's history. It isn't possible in this one article to cover the extensive historic accounts of all the regiments and Units or the history of the war itself – these are all big and diverse stories deserving of their own space. But it is an introduction to this important topic and one that I will write more about over the four-year period as commemorative events get under way here and overseas, and as I gather further research from families and historians from the regiments.  The regiments and units have been renamed at various times over the years, sometimes more than once.  For as much clarity as possible, I have mostly used their WW1 names with the current name in brackets. 

Pakistan Army has many historic cavalry regiments, a number of which served in the 1914-1918 War. 5 Horse (Probyn's Horse) was raised in 1857 and fought in WW1 as the 11th King Edward's Own Lancers (Probyn's Horse) serving in Mesopotamia. The 11th Cavalry (Frontier Force) – raised in 1849 – served in WW1 as the 21st PAVO Cavalry (Frontier Force) (Daly's Horse), served throughout the Mesopotamia Campaign, including the capture of Kirkuk. The 12th Cavalry (Frontier Force) was raised in 1849 and served in WW1 as the 22nd Sam Browne's Cavalry (Frontier Force) and also fought in Mesopotamia. The names of these regiments perpetuate some of the great Frontier commanders of the 19th Century – General Sir Dighton Probyn, General Sir Henry Daly and General Sir Sam Browne, VC. The ceremonial belt – still worn by Commonwealth armies – the Sam Browne belt commemorates the one-armed warrior, Sam Browne. Despite their great courage and sacrifice, there were no indigenous commissioned officers in the British Indian Army until shortly after the end of WW1 and even then it was some time before they were of any significant number. In 1923, there were only 23, a number far short of the 200 that had been hoped for. However, the war was certainly a catalyst for change.


Probyn's Horse consisted of two Regiments during this era – 11th Bengal Lancers and 12th Bengal Cavalry.  They were later amalgamated in 1921 to form 5th King Edwards VII's Own Probyn's Horse. The Adjutant's Journal from that time provides some insights into their lives and role in the war. In meticulous handwriting, the journal sets out the appointments, postings, the lives lost and the wounded. At the outbreak of the war, the 11th Lancers were stationed at Delhi where they formed part of the Security Garrison in India. The regiment historical account notes that it was to their 'everlasting regret' that they were not included in the expeditionary force to France. However, between August 1914 and April 1917, the journal notes that the regiment sent no fewer than 11 officers and 400 Indian soldiers of other ranks chiefly to the 9th Hodson's Horse, the 16th Cavalry, and the 19th Lancers.

In October 1917, the regiment was finally mobilised for overseas service and on 25th they embarked at Karachi for Basra where they arrived on 29th October.  They were then ordered to the III Corps area at Diyalah and after arriving at Shahroban, the regiment remained there until Armistice on 11th November 1918.

The outbreak of war saw 12th Bengal Cavalry at Meerut. They too regretted that they were not included in the expeditionary force to France but formed part of the internal security garrison in India.  However, between August 1914 and October 1915, the regiment sent 4 Indian officers, and 120 Indian soldiers of other ranks to various regiments, chiefly the 16th Cavalry and the 18th Lancers. In November 1915, the 12th Cavalry was finally mobilised for forward service and in December they proceeded to Mesopotamia (Iraq). On arrival at Basra, the Dogra and Muslim Squadrons marched to Qurnah and then travelled by sailing boats up the Euphrates River to Nasariyeh. They saw action in various places and in December 1918, the regiment returned to Meerut in India. 

During the regiment's service in WW1, two officers – Captain McCudden and Captain T.N. Watson – were each awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Risaldar (Ris) Asiq Ali Khan, was awarded the Indian Distinguished Medal, and Dafeder (Dfr) Pertab Singh and Dfr Naurang Singh, were awarded the Indian Order of Merit. 

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military award for valour that a British and Commonwealth serviceman can receive. The medal is simply inscribed 'For Valour'. During WW1, three soldiers from Pakistan – Sepoy Khudadad Khan, Naik Shahamad Khan and Jemadar Mir Dast were awarded the VC for extraordinary acts of courage. Of the millions of men from the British Commonwealth who have served in all wars since the medal was introduced by Queen Victoria 158 years ago, only 1,353 individuals have been awarded this rare honour.

In October 1914, Sepoy Khudadad Khan (born Chakwal, Punjab) became the first indigenous soldier of the Army to win the VC for his bravery in the First Battle of Ypres, at Hollebeke, Belgium. He was one of only two WW1 VC recipients from what is now Baloch regiment. Khudadad Khan served in the 11th Battalion, Baloch regiment, then known as the 1/129th DCO's own Baluchis (Duke of Connaught's Own). This battalion served in France and Belgium.  In October 1914, soon after arriving in France, the Baluchis were sent to the Front Line to help the exhausted British troops prevent the Germans from advancing and taking control of the vital ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuwpoort in Belgium.  The conditions were appalling. The shallow trenches were waterlogged, they lacked adequate hand grenades and barbed wire, and were outnumbered five to one by a better equipped enemy.

On 30 October, the Germans attacked and most of the Baluchis were pushed back. However, Khudadad Khan's machine-gun team, along with one other, continued to fight on, thereby preventing the Germans from making the final breakthrough. Eventually, Khudadad Khan's team was over-run and all gunners were either shot or bayonetted to death, except Khan himself who although badly wounded, pretended to be dead until the German soldiers had gone, then made his way back to safety. The other gun crew took a direct hit and all were killed. The courage of Khudadad Khan and the Baluchis ensured that the Germans were prevented from reaching the ports, as they had held the line long enough for British and Indian reinforcements to arrive. Khan was sent to a hospital at Brighton in England where he recovered from his wounds. Three months later, King George V presented him with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in London. Khudadad Khan survived the war and died in March 1971, aged 82. He is buried in Rukhan Village Cemetery at Dab, Chakwal in Punjab.  A statue of this heroic soldier stands at the entrance of the Army Museum at Rawalpindi.

The Baluchis fought in both the First and Second Battles of Ypres. They later fought at Messines, Armentieres, Festubert, Givenchy, and at Neuve Chappelle in 1915. The regiment later served in the campaign in German East Africa, and after WW1, the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 and in the Iraqi Revolt in 1920.  Of the 4,447 men who served in its 1st and 2nd Battalions, 3,585 became casualties during their operational service from 1914 to 1920.

rdships of a battalion of 900 men spending effectively six continuous years in battle or operational areas.  This too was the service of 1st Battalion, Baloch regiment from 1914 to 1920. 1st Battalion was raised in 1798. During WW1 this Battalion was known as the 89th Punjabis. A famous image of this Battalion photographed at historic Nowshera Cantonment in 1917, shows its many winners of gallantry awards. Front and centre is Naik Shahamad Khan (born Rawalpindi) who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions at Beit Aveesa on the Tigris Front in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) on 12/13 April 1916, and Lieutenant Colonel N.M. Geoghegan, DSO.

Shahamad Khan was in charge of a machine-gun section, 150 yards from the enemy line at Beit Aveesa. After all his Section comrades were killed or wounded, he manned the machine-gun single-handedly for three hours and held the gap in the defences against three enemy counter-attacks, while the gap was made secure.  Finally ordered to retire, he brought back to his own lines a severely wounded man, his gun and ammunition.  Shahamad Khan subsequently returned to remove all the remaining arms and equipment except two shovels.  But for his actions, the enemy would have penetrated the line. Shahamad Khan later reached the rank of Subedar.  He survived the war and died, aged 68 in 1948 and is buried in Takhti, his ancestral village in Punjab. His VC, purchased (presumably) from his family in 1999 by a private British collector, was displayed in the Extraordinary Heroes Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Shahamad Khan's battalion – the 89th Punjabis – served in all the major theatres of the war.  They served in Aden in 1914, then in Egypt 1915 and Gallipoli in the Second Battle of Krithia in May 1915. They then deployed to the trenches in France from June to December 1915.  In 1916 they served in Mesopotamia on the Tigris Front with great distinction and suffered many casualties. In 1918 they fought in Salonika in Greece and in the British campaigns in Russian Trans-Caucasia from 1918 to 1920. They arrived home in August 1920. This was an extraordinary six years of overseas military operations, and the battalion suffered 1,018 casualties – well over its nominal strength – including 211 killed.

The Punjab regiment also served with distinction in the war. Its current 1st Battalion fought as the 62nd Punjabis during WW1. The 62nd Punjabis saw service in Egypt where, as part of the Indian 10th Division, they were sent to protect the Suez Canal. They played a major role there in repelling the Turkish offensive in 1915. This was followed by operations in Aden (Yemen) and they then arrived in Mesopotamia on New Year's Eve, 1915. Lieutenant Colonel (later Field Marshal) Claude Auchinleck was the Commanding Officer in Mesopotamia. Auchinleck (1884-1981) was later Commander-in-Chief, British Indian Army, from 1943 to 1947. He was one of the longest-lived WW2 commanders, and ultimately retired to Morocco where he died in 1981, aged 96.

The 6th Battalion, also of Punjab regiment – then the 20th DCO's Infantry/Brownlow's Punjabis – landed at Fao near Basra in 1914 and later captured Kut on the Tigris. They also served in Palestine in 1918. The current 13th Battalion – at the time the 30th Punjabis – fought in German East Africa and in Palestine. The 16th Battalion – then known as the 40th Pathans – served in France in 1915, in German East Africa, and also in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.

The Frontier Force regiment is forever linked to extraordinary courage under fire. Men from this regiment earned three Victoria Crosses in the war. Through its 1st, 3rd,9th, and 7th Battalion, VC's were awarded to Lieutenant William Bruce at Givenchy, France in 1914; Captain Eustace Jotham at Tochi Valley in January 1914; and the third of the indigenous recipients, Jemadar Mir Dast for his heroic actions at Wieltie, Belgium in April 1915. 

Mir Dast was born in Maidan in the Tirah region of Khyber Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He served in 55th Coke's Rifles (7th Battalion Frontier Force Regiment), but he had been seconded to the 57th Wilde's Rifles (9th Battalion Frontier Force regiment). During the Battle of Ypres, the Germans released a large cloud of deadly chlorine gas into a favourable wind. Without gas masks, the Allied soldiers, including all British officers of the 57th quickly became casualties of the chlorine gas. Mir Dast was one of a small group of soldiers who tried to hold their ground until nightfall when he was ordered to retire. He rallied a number of disparate parties under his command and, under very heavy fire, wounded, and suffering from the impacts of the gas, he risked his life in the open to carry eight wounded British and Indian comrades to safety. In doing this, he was wounded for a second time. 

Mir Dast was sent to Brighton to recover and was presented with his Victoria Cross in the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion in late August that year. He was also awarded the Order of British India, making him one of the British Indian Army's most decorated soldiers. Mir Dast survived the war and passed away in 1945, aged 71. He is buried at Warsak Road Cemetery, Shagi Landi Kyan in FATA.

The battles against the Ottoman Turkish Empire were brutal and resulted in massive casualties, no more so than at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. The 89th Punjabis were not the only Pakistanis who fought there (Second Battle of Krithia in May 1915). The 26th Jacob's Battery and 21st Royal Kohat Battery were there at the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign. Then known as 7th Artillery Brigade, under command of the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) they landed at Gallipoli at 1030 and 1800 hours respectively, on 25 April 1915. They met fierce resistance and it quickly became a stalemate, dragging on for eight months till the Allied troops were evacuated. The 26th Battery was the last artillery unit to leave Gallipoli. They also served in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia. These batteries were later renamed the 21st Mountain Regiment until partition of sub continent in 1947. The regiment was then re-designated as 1st Mountain Regiment in 1947, the senior most artillery regiment in India and Pakistan, and today is known as 1st SP Medium Regiment Artillery.

Over the eight months of the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, which ended in a victory for the Ottoman Empire, 113,350 died and 230,605 were injured.  Illness also took its toll. The death toll included 1,358 British Indian Army soldiers with 3,421 injured.  The Ottoman Turkish Empire troops at Gallipoli were led by Atatürk (Mustafa Kemal) as commander of the 19th Division, the main reserve of the Turkish Fifth Army. Considered to be a superb strategist and courageous leader, he succeeded in defeating the Allies at Gallipoli. He went on to be a visionary leader of Turkey and was known as a great peacemaker.  In 1934 Atatürk wrote a poignant tribute to the Allied soldiers killed at Gallipoli:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

By 11 November 1918, when the guns fell silent, millions of lives had been lost. The destruction was on an immense scale and the suffering was immeasurable.  Millions of people had life-long health problems as a result of their wounds and from the effects of poisonous gas attacks. WW1 was often referred to as the 'war to end all war'. Obviously, it wasn't. Just 21 years later, the world was plunged into a second World War – an even greater global conflict – and there have been many other wars and conflicts around the globe since 1918.

The soldiers from this country who fought in WW1 have earned their place in history. Historic accounts of these Regiments are to be found in many prestigious institutions around the world such as the Imperial War Museum in London. An extraordinary amount of information is also to be found online. Here in Pakistan the regiments have collections documenting their own histories but for the obvious security reasons, these are not easily accessible to the public and unfortunately I was not able to visit them at this time. The impressive Pakistan Army Museum at Rawalpindi is also gathering an outstanding collection of historical artefacts and records of the entire Pakistan Army.  The museum is the logical home for housing the nation's military history and its pre-Partition collection will continue to be expanded as more papers and pieces from earlier times are acquired. This will provide more people with the opportunity to learn about the role of Pakistani soldiers in all theatres of war throughout the entire history of these regiments and those that have been formed since WW1.

It is important for nations to pay tribute to those who have served their country. Over the next four years, millions of people from many countries across the world, from all walks of life and from both sides of WW1, will come together on many occasions, in cities, towns and villages, cathedrals, mosques and shrines, and on the former fields of war, in remembrance of those who lived, fought and died. Children will involve themselves in school projects to discover their history and historians will look for new answers. No doubt many will reflect on the suffering of millions and perhaps, hopefully, the futility of war.

In Pakistan we should also make an effort to commemorate the many thousands of men from this country who fought in WW1. Their families are still with us and some are serving in the Pakistan Army today. The exact number of casualties from today's Pakistan is uncertain but overall, 74,187 British Indian Army soldiers were killed in the war and 69,214 seriously wounded so a large percentage of these would have been from Pakistan. In a country that has been so affected by conflict, it is a little sad that few Pakistanis take time to pay tribute to those lost in service of their country. Fostering public awareness of the courageous deeds and sacrifice of those who have served the country through all its history, and why this matters now and to future generations, is important in building a national spirit. It is hoped that these WW1 commemorations will provide new opportunities to reach out to the broader community.

Efforts have been made in recent times to ensure that these Regiments and their heroes are remembered in their own right, as Pakistanis, and not just as a part of the previous British Indian Army or India. The Memorial Gates located at the Hyde Park Corner end of Constitution Hill in London, UK commemorates the armed forces of the British Empire from Africa, the Caribbean and the five regions of the Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) who served in the First and Second World Wars. In the WW1 100th Anniversary Commemorations, political and military leaders from Pakistan are being invited to attend international commemorative ceremonies and events. A memorial plaque was recently unveiled in London honouring the three Pakistani Victoria Cross recipients. There will be conferences and symposiums exploring many aspects of the war including the contribution of troops from the sub-continent. In Pakistan some activities are already being planned – an international symposium on the war at the National Defence University, an essay competition for students to reflect on 'courage', and a commemorative copse of trees at a place of significance. As the commemorations get under way, more activities will be initiated over the four-year period.

As we celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day on 14 August – also the day when these regiments became part of the new nation – it is timely to honour their extraordinary history, their courage and sacrifice 100th years ago in WW1, and since, and their continuing and crucial role as part of the modern Pakistan Army, serving and protecting the nation.

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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