My son asked me a few days ago about the significance of the red poppy that he sees people wearing. I told him that this is a reminder for us to be grateful for our freedom, and to honor the soldiers who fought and died so that we may remain free.
I explained to him why the poppies are red. This is a tradition that came to us from the first World War. In the European war theaters poppies used to crop up in the fields where the men fell fighting. Due to the bright red colour, which resembled that of blood, people began to say that the poppies were being nourished by the blood of the fallen.
The red flowers remained a vivid memory for those who had experienced the great wars. It has been passed on to us as a legacy for us to remember. This was also an excellent opportunity to remind him of our family’s martial traditions.
I told him about my grandfather’s elder brother who gave his life fighting for the British Indian army, against the Nazi regime in WW2.
Lieutenant Ali Bahadur was a member of the 10th Baluch Regiment, and died in Sicily (Italy) at the conclusion of the second World War. He was only 24 years old, and posthumously awarded the rank of Captain in recognition of his service and sacrifice. Ali Bahadur was the son of Subedar Sher Jan Khan who himself had been awarded the Indian Order of Merit earlier for his own contributions. Sher Jan was himself the son of Duffedar Shahzada Khan (Duffedar is the cavalry equivalent of the Sergent).
It was unusual for a ‘native’ Indian to become an officer in those days, and Ali Bahadur had one of the highest ranks that a non-European professional soldier could attain in the British Indian Army. This was an accomplishment attained by all three generations of soldiers I named in the previous paragraph.
- Lt Ali Bahadur’s official record of service is partially available.
- A photo of Lt Ali Bahadur’s grave.
Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck said that Britain ‘couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t the Indian army’. Students of military history will agree, at its peak there were 2.5 million men in the British Indian Army fighting against the Axis powers. About 87,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives during this conflict. Indian soldiers won 31 Victoria Crosses during the Second World War. 37% of these soldiers were Muslims, with a large number of these being recruited from what is modern day Pakistan.
Some 7,000 Indian soldiers died in the Italian campaign, and at least 1,413 of these were Muslims. Three of these Muslim casualties were only 15 years old: Amir Khan, Mian Khan and Gulab Khan. Age restrictions applied to British volunteers but not Indian volunteers.
The graves of these soldiers can be found in the Sangro River Cemetery and Florence Cemetery in Italy.
There were so many stories of selfless sacrifice in these wars.
Today’s Toronto Star has published the remarkable story of the courageous Noor Inayat Khan which I have taken the liberty of reproducing (partially):
In the Dachau Memorial Hall, there hangs a plaque dedicated to Noor Inayat Khan, better known to the French by her code name “Madeleine” and to the British by her alias “Nora Baker.” Since she was descended from Indian Muslim royalty on her father’s side (her mother was American), she is also referred to as Princess Noor. Her father was a musician and a preacher in the Sufi tradition of Islam.
At age 26, Noor volunteered for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a radio operator. Noor was the first female radio operator to be sent by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) into occupied France to help the French Resistance. Within two months of her arrival in Paris in June 1943, every other member of the network of radio operators she had joined had been arrested by the Germans. Even though she was offered an opportunity to return to Britain, she stayed in Paris at considerable danger to herself, providing the only important telecommunications link between Paris and London tracking the movement of German troops. This information proved vital in planning the D-Day invasion. The head of the SOE described her work as “the principal and most dangerous post in France.”
Noor was eventually betrayed to the Germans by a member of the Resistance. Despite intensive interrogation for more than a month by the Gestapo, Noor resisted fiercely and refused to give any information. She attempted two escapes but was recaptured. In November 1943, having refused to promise not to try escaping again, she was taken to a prison in Germany and kept in solitary confinement as a “highly dangerous” prisoner. Despite isolation and painful restraint in chains most of the time, she continued to refuse to give any information on her work or that of her fellow spies.
In September 1944, Noor was moved to Dachau. There she was stripped and brutally and incessantly beaten by the Nazis but still refused to give any information. A particularly sadistic SS officer who had participated in Noor’s torture, Wilhelm Ruppert, executed her with a gunshot to the head on Sept. 13, 1944. Her last word was “liberté!”
She was 30 years old. Her body was burned by the Nazis in the Dachau crematorium. She was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry off the battlefield.
Sixty-five years later, Noor’s story remains unknown to many people. Her unflinching courage and defiance in the face of Nazi brutality speaks to the common human impulse to react against injustice.
In the frank words of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz)..
The price of freedom is death
Lest we forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, we need small reminders now and then. We have to be ready to pay this price for our freedom.
The next day, my son bought a poppy from his school with the money he had been saving. I am very proud of him.