Down a broken road winding through a corner of Punjab province lays a silent graveyard, the resting place of hundreds of soldiers who fought for Britain in two world wars.
Nestled in the rocky hills of Punjab’s salt ranges, blasted by heat in the summer, the village of Dulmial is a far cry from the freezing mud of the Flanders trenches. But the village gave 460 men to fight in the 1914-18 conflict—more than any other single village in what was then British India.
By the end of World War I, nearly 1.3 million men from across the Indian subcontinent had volunteered for service, with 74,000 giving their lives in the fight against Germany and its allies. As part of commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the British High Commission in Islamabad unveiled a plaque on Monday honoring Pakistani recipients of the Victoria Cross.
Three soldiers from what is now Pakistan were awarded the VC, Britain’s highest military honor, for extreme bravery under fire.
Dulmial’s contribution to Britain’s war effort is recognized with a historic 12-pounder artillery gun, made in Scotland, installed on a marble platform in 1925 as a memorial and still kept an immaculate, gleaming black. A few meters away, the primary school building has another plaque placed on a monument.
“From this village 460 men went to the Great War 1914-1919. Of these 9 gave their lives,” the plaque reads.
Dulmial’s military tradition continues to this day—the district is still a fertile recruiting ground for Pakistan’s armed forces. The WWI centenary has sparked interest in the village’s history and the sacrifice made for the colonial rulers, who governed the subcontinent until it was divided into India and Pakistan at independence in 1947.
A one-room museum in the former home of late WWI veteran Fateh Muhammad Malik houses mementoes of the village’s proud heritage—a captured Italian battle flag, old military equipment and photos of soldiers. “Three soldiers of our village received Indian Order of Merit (IOM) medals for their bravery and valor shown for the British forces during various wars,” said Riaz Ahmed Malik, president of Dulmial’s history society. “The IOM medal was equivalent to the Victoria Cross because this top British military medal was not awarded to Indian soldiers before 1911.”
Troops from the village were also honored for bravery fighting in France in 1915, he said. “Besides 460 men of our village who fought in WWI, at least 736 went to fight in WWII,” Malik said.
Haji Malik Muhammad Khan was one of those men. Now 91 years of age, the old soldier is still fit enough to take a daily march across the village. “I was recruited in the British army on Dec. 11, 1940,” he said. “Everybody from our village was going to fight because there was great poverty around here.”
Khan’s service with a Punjab infantry regiment fighting the feared Japanese took him to some of the toughest theaters of the war in the east—Burma, Indonesia and Malaya. “There were many difficult times during the war,” he said. “Many a time we had to eat the roots of banana plants to quell our hunger. Once our whole regiment was surrounded by the Japanese in the forests of Burma. As intelligence officer, I was assigned to get us out of the siege and thanks God I succeeded.”
Almost 70 years after the end of WWII, Khan wants no one else to go through the horrors he witnessed as a young man. “Disputes should be solved through talks. There should be no war. War destroys countries, lands, crops, people. War is a very bad thing,” he said.
But for Malik, wars have put their village on the map, making it stand out from the thousands of others that dot Punjab. “This cannon installed here is our pride. If we did not have this gun for our martial services, our village would have been like all others,” he said. “Our village sent the highest number of soldiers in WWI from Asia and we are proud of our history.”
His mission now is to build a monument to accompany the gun, commemorating soldiers from the village who fought for Pakistan, as well as the British Empire.