The service of Sepoy Ajab Khan 59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force)

Killed In Action | December 19th 1914 | Age - Unknown

Remembered with Honour | Neuve Chapelle Memorial | France

JBA Member Charles Sandbach found that it was not an easy task researching Ajab as no documents exist that chart his life.  Known facts how are that he came from the tribal Banni area of Punjab, north of Mianwali which at that time was part of India but is now a part of Pakistan. Ajab was the son of Alam Khan,  believed to be  a Muslim and that his family probably worked in agriculture or perhaps traded in commodities as those two vocations were common to the area where he was born and raised.

What is for certain is that Ajab was a very brave soldier, loyal and fearless who joined an organisation that had a fearsome and excellent reputation; the Frontier Force Regiment still exists today as part of the Pakistan army. Ajab volunteered for service in the Indian Army and held the rank of Sepoy, the same as a Private in the British Army, It has been possible to track his movements from the outbreak of the war until his death in December 1914.

The 59th Scinde Rifles were part of the Jullundur Brigade and served with the 3rd (Lahore) Division. Also stationed at Jullundur were the 47th Sikhs and the 1st Battalion  The Manchester Regiment; these regular soldiers all fought together in the same brigade throughout the Brigade’s time in France and later Mesopotamia being part of the reinforcements despatched by India within weeks of being so requested by London to assist the beleaguered BEF. The Jullundur Brigade, as part of that reinforcement, set sail from Karachi on August 29th 1914, arriving in Europe in the southern French port of Marseilles almost a month later on September 26th.Ajab and his comrades received a rapturous reception from the French populace when they disembarked.

It took some time for Ajab to reach his first combat zone near Ypres in late October. He, like many others would have found conditions extremely uncomfortable being poorly attired and not familiar with the harshness of the climate. As autumn moved on the Indian soldiers found themselves in fierce fighting in the  area of Givenchy, Neuve Chappelle, La Bassee and the strategically important French city of Lille.

On 19th December  Ajab lost his life with that of many of his comrades in a heroic series of actions that will forever be immortalised by the heroism of one of his officer’s – namely Lt. William Arthur McRae Bruce. The Scots officer led a party of his Indian soldiers on a trench bombing raid, in the dark, against overwhelming odds. The 59th Rifles managed to hold on to their position throughout the night, Bruce being shot through the neck whilst urging his men to hold their ground at all costs before he finally succumbed to his wounds. Despite pleas from Sergeant Dost Mohammed to withdraw, the gallant  Indians refused to leave their officer and fought to the death. In total five officers of the 59th Rifles and at least forty other ranks, including Ajab, perished that night. For his leadership and gallantry, Lt. McRae Bruce was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Sadly the body of Ajab and his comrades were never found. He and they are now remembered on the nearby Neuve Chapelle Memorial that bears the names of 4653 soldiers of the Indian Army whose bodies were not recovered from the battlefields.

India, and now Pakistan and Bangladesh, have never given the deserved recognition for the sacrifices their sons made in the Great War but recently there has been Governmental action in all countries to redress this situation to a degree. Casualty figures from various sources are conflicting:  it is generally agreed that around 50,000 men - all volunteers - lost their lives with more than that figure were wounded and many more taken prisoner. The Indian Army fought in all of the theatres of war including Gallipoli, East Africa, South West Africa, Mesopotamia, Salonika -  and in some of the most horrific battles on the Western Front  where around 9,00 men including Ajab lost their lives. Many more labourers, followers and non-combatants from the Indian sub-continent were also killed, wounded or maimed in supporting the troops..

Ajab Khan’s Victory Medal remains his only legacy. With no actual record of his service or details of his life on record it is a lonely and sad single artefact of an ordinary man who travelled half-way across the world to lose his life in conditions that were so alien to him. Now, however,  we can celebrate his bravery and the fact that he did not shirk from what he felt was his duty., He was truly a brave and loyal Sepoy and now he is remembered always.

JBA Member Charles Sandbach .

Who has in his possession 3445 Sepoy Ajab Khan’s  WW1 Victory Medal.

August 2016