A Poppy in Potohar Fields
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Lord Alfred Tennyson tells us the story of the Light Brigade that had charged the shores of Alma River in the battle of Balaklava during the 1854 Crimean War. And here I must endeavour to point out to my readers that Tennyson is not the only one telling us the tales from the campaign. The Crimean War is said to be the first armed conflict to have been covered by a correspondent and here, dear reader, we had Sir William Howard Russell from Times, and it is he who tells us of infantry charging up the heights of Alma River, the assaulting “thin red line” of the 93rd Southern Highlanders; and played a phenomenal role in reporting the gallant and brave actions of the soldiers on battlefield to the British public. It was this reporting that subsequently inspired a movement for a gallantry award, to be purely based on the specific acts of courage; an award equally open for all ranks, particularly the junior ranks for which the compensation for the hard fight was nothing but ‘brevet rank’. These were the war despatches by Sir Russell, that initiated the path for a medallion on the front lines that eventually took the shape of Victoria Cross. Named to honour the Queen, originally initiated as “the Military Order of Victoria” got changed to “Victoria Cross” through an amendment brought about by the hands of Prince Albert, we are told. We learn that it was Queen herself who took keen interest in the design and made the significant alteration of “for valour” to the motto that was originally drafted as “for the brave”. The first medals, and these were sixty two in total, were to be awarded to the selected recipients from the Crimean Campaign and these were realized in a ceremony where Queen Victoria, staying on a horseback, pinned these in person on the high held chests of all sixty two recipients; and the year, dear reader, was 1857. Victoria Cross was instituted as the highest award for gallantry awarded to the soldiers of British Army and the Forces of Commonwealth territories for displaying undaunted courage at the battlefront.
It took “the British sense of fair play” more than half a century to genuinely admire the gallantry of the natives, the Indian Soldiers fighting for the glory of Empire, and the first native award for the Victoria Cross appeared in the London Gazette on 7 December 1914. The firsts of the VCs to the natives were awarded to Darwan Singh Negi and Khudadad Khan. There were others to follow course on the path of glory and 28 Indians in total, through their valour, earned the honour of Victoria Cross, of which 9 earned the medal during the first Great War. On this page, we shall be talking about one of these war heroes from the first Great War, with the distinction of the pink ribbon on his military chest, who lies buried on the outskirts of Rawalpindi. A poppy grows in the fields of Takhti Rajgan to honour one glorious dead here.
Takhti Rajgan is a village in the neighbourhood of Rawat, a suburban annex to the town of Rawalpindi. The route to Takhti deviates from Rawat – Chak Beli Khan road after having travelled a distance of about 20 kilometers. The winding road in the low hills has a scenic landscape of the Potohar Plateau with all the calm and serenity one would long for, on a long drive out of the city. Navigating through a couple of farm houses, a seasonal stream is forded on the wheels, and there, just across, is this small village that has nothing distinguishable but two features. The first one is an old brick obelisk on a raised platform just outside the house of Raja Muhammad Riaz, and it acknowledges the contribution from Takhti Rajgan in the words, “FROM THIS VILLAGE SEVEN MEN WENT TO THE GREAT WAR 1914~1919, OF THESE ONE GAVE UP HIS LIFE.” Just a few yards away from Great War memorial, lies the second landmark, the grave of Raja Riaz’s grandfather, Honorary Lieutenant Shahamad Khan. Shahamad Khan, who, back in 1916, was a Neik in the 89th Punjabis; the famous Mcleod Ki Paltan, and was fighting in Mesopotamia. Shahamad Khan, ladies and gentlemen, who displaying an unmatched feat of valour on the banks of Tigris earned himself the highest gallantry award, the Victoria Cross.
The setting was the First Great War with the “oil reach” inspired battle grounds of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). Towards the end of 1915, following a failed Anglo-Indian attack on Ctesiphon, the British forces under heavy Turk resistance had to withdraw to the town of Kut-Al-Amara, that in the treacherous loop of river Tigris was eventually besieged by the Turk and German forces. There were relief efforts brought in by the British, the major relief operation commencing in April of 1916 led by Sir George Gorringe. 89th Punjabis were part of this relief effort and the battle in her days was to witness a feat of gallantry by Neik Shahamad Khan. It was the British Tigris Corps that had its objective as Beit Ayeesa, around 20 miles from the besieged town of Kut-Al-Amara. An attack with two brigades was planned on April 12th, but was delayed due to weather and floods, and in the meantime by evening, Turks taking the initiative attacked the left flank. It was during the intense Turk assault that 36th Sikh on the right flank of 89th Punjabis had to retire exposing a major gap towards A Company. It was for the heroics of Neik Shahamad Khan, a machine gunner in A Company of 89th Punjabis that the exposed flank was defended, and was defended almost single-handed for more than three hours, beating back three Turk counter attacks till Connaught Rangers arrived for the relief. Shahamad Khan was phenomenal in displaying courage and determination defending the extra mile won by the British forces and was later on awarded with the highest gallantry award Victoria Cross. The Tigris Corps would go ahead to capture Beit Ayeesa and attempt some daring assaults to reach upto Kut-Al-Karma, to face the determined Turks and formidable forces of hostile weather (rain floods and mud), only to result into a heroic failure. A similar attempt in later months would follow suit forcing the British Commander at Kut-Al-Amara into an unconditional surrender. Neik Shahamad Khan won the Victoria Cross through unmatched valour in a contest that would eventually conclude to be one of the greatest humiliations for the British Army in its history.
The citation of Neik Shahamad Khan appeared in the supplement to the London Gazette on 26th September 1916 (and can be referenced here):
“No. 1605 Naik Shahamad Khan, Punjabis.
For most conspicuous bravery. He was in charge of a machine gun section in an exposed position, in front of and covering a gap in our new line, within 150 yards of the enemy’s entrenched position. He beat off three counter attacks and worked his gun single-handed after all his men, except two belt-fillers, had become casualties.
For three hours he held the gap under very heavy fire while it was being made secure. When his gun was knocked out by hostile fire he and his two belt-fillers held their ground with rifles till ordered to withdraw.
With three men sent to assist him he then brought back his gun, ammunition, and one severely wounded man unable to walk. Finally, he himself returned and removed all remaining arms and equipment except two shovels.
But for his great gallantry and determination our line must have been penetrated by the enemy.
At Takhti Rajgan, Raja Muhammad Riaz, the grandson of the legend Shahamad Khan was my host. I was warmly invited to the drawing room of the ancestral house and afforded a conversation over the cup of tea and biscuits. Neik Shahamad Khan had returned from the Mesopotamian Campaign and made it to the rank of Honorary Lieutenant. He died in July 1947, before the creation of Pakistan and is buried in Takhti. 89th Punjabis became a part of Pakistan Army as 1st Battalion, The Baloch Regiment. The VC of the soldier is on display at Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum of London. It was unfortunate that in the small village of Takhti, I could not find more about the other six soldiers who went to fight the Great War and the one who never came back. People are too forgetful right under the shades of the memorial that still stands to remind the contribution of the village to His Majesty’s War Effort.
Dear reader, in one obscured village of Pothar, a poppy grows, and blows in the air, the scent from the times, when the soldiers took up a quarrel with the foe, and with failing but firm hands passed on a torch to be held high. The legacy of the valour goes on, for the soldiers always take up a fight, and they do that with pride…
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields