We in Pakistan have a complicated relationship with our colonial past, especially with its most visible and perhaps divisive legacy – the army. Just as Pakistan’s present has been shaped by its past, so too are individual lives transformed by family history. In the case of my family, our present was created by the actions of one man, Major General Muhammad Akbar Khan, my great grandfather.

The nucleus of Pakistan’s army was made by men like him who were forged in the old British Indian Army and who fought Britain’s wars. My great grandfather, Nana Abu, was among the people who bridged the divide between our colonial past and independent present. His career, and the subsequent trajectory of our family, has been set by his involvement in one of the most fateful events of the past century – Dunkirk.

Nana Abu rose from a private to become among the first “native” officers and then among the first “native” generals of the British Indian Army, despite the prejudice he experienced and wrote of in his memoirs. He had served in World War I, but it was the Dunkirk evacuation in the summer of 1940 that [changed] his career. His performance in the battle and evacuation of Allied troops at the beaches of Dunkirk, in German-occupied France, earned him a portrait in England’s Imperial War Museum.

Discrimination on the frontline

Nana Abu commanded the first Indian unit sent to France from British India, known as K6. It was composed almost entirely of Punjabi Muslims from the Potwar Plateau, an area between rivers Jhelum and Indus, which Nana Abu couldn’t resist calling “the sword arm of India”. While most of these men were handpicked, none of these units had ever worked together. As Nana Abu once said, “An idea was going to be tested and tried after the war started.”

Force K6 was to supply animal transport, in this case transport on mules. While the French had spent a fortune on the Maginot Line – the famously ineffective line of fortification installed in the 1930s to deter any German attack – they still needed mules to transport supplies to the front line. Unlike mechanised transport, animals could deliver supplies right where they were needed at the front, and often ended up pulling vehicles that got stuck on the slippery roads of that winter.

The Indian unit landed in Marseilles in December 1939. The blistery cold weather shocked Nana Abu. He couldn’t get billets (temporary housing for soldiers) for his men, and instead was told to make do with poorly pitched tents in the snow. Someone must have taken mercy on his unit, as they were allowed to stay inside the Chateau Reynard, in poor condition but certainly better than sleeping outside. Despite this, Nana Abu was still impressed by the ceilings of the chateau.

The next morning, they were loaded on troop trains without any heat for the men or the mules, except for the British officers who got heated bogies. In an ironic twist, the trains that carried them were part of Germany’s reparations for the last war.

A knife in a gunfight

When they finally reached their destination near Market-les-Lille’s, near the Belgian front, they used a deserted brick kiln area as a camp site. The British officers wanted the men to continue living in tents, but despite such prejudice, Nana Abu writes that his men remained cheerful and kept a simile on their faces. The men transformed the area into a real camp and used the shed built for colouring bricks as living quarters. The unit became ambassadors of Indian culture, and started holding exhibitions for the locals, including performing Potwar khattak dances. The French civilians wanted to join in, but Nana Abu’s “Olympic gods”, as he called his men, would not allow them to participate. The unit spent that winter helping with the construction of defences along the Belgian front, working long hours in freezing weather. At the front, the men had to sleep in shallow dugouts as the frost had deeply penetrated the soil.

Despite their hardships, Nana Abu’s men were noticed for their hard work. In February 1940, Oliver Stanley, British secretary of war, visited his unit. In April, the Duke of Gloucester with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery also visited. Nana Abu used these visits to plead for guns for his men; somehow, the British thought swords would be sufficient protection for them – a literal example of bringing a knife to a gunfight. The BBC London also sent representatives and Nana Abu started doing a weekly broadcast. An English soldier, mentioned in Compton Mackenzie’s book, Eastern Epic, wrote of Nana Abu’s unit, “I used to see the Indian troops often in Lille and their conduct in comparison to my own people, who I am sorry to find rather let the side down pretty badly at the weekends, was absolutely first class.”

The unit was on a goodwill tour of England when Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940. They returned via Cherbourg four days later and tried to go immediately towards Lille. However, when they reached Arras, Nana Abu learned that the British forces’ headquarters was gone, and there was chance Lille had been captured. Nana Abu writes of seeing the exhaustion of the Belgian and French soldiers, most without their weapons.

Somehow, a special train was arranged to transport his unit towards Lille. He writes of seeing “a constant flow of carts, cars…a solid block, jammed tightly across the width of the road…a fabulous, gargantuan, malevolent monster”. The French local civil administration had collapsed and Nana Abu tried desperately to get in touch with his superiors. When phone contact failed, he saddled up his horse and rode across the countryside to the [abandoned] headquarter. A staff officer there told him that he had asked for orders on May 18, but the transmission had been jammed. He advised Nana Abu to go towards Dunkirk. His British officers had been evacuated while Nana Abu was in the UK. Now, Nana Abu was responsible for 300 Indian men in captured territory, with no back-up. Mackenzie’s book states, “The units were told to act independently” but somehow, I believe Nana Abu’s version.

Courtesy: Syed Hashmi
Courtesy: Syed Hashmi

On May 20, Nana Abu was again told to go to Dunkirk immediately, and to “throw away arms”. If his “men were unarmed and intercepted by Nazi troops they should surrender”. However, Nana Abu, in conference with his junior officers, decided to “move to the front with their arms” instead. He chose his route by looking at a map, not knowing the enemy’s location.

They left Lille after dusk on May 21, Steenwerck the next morning. After getting some drinking water from the locals, he decided to move towards Forêt de Nieppe that afternoon, travelling about 36 miles over the course of 36 hours. He chose this roundabout route believing there would be less congestion, but found instead that the forest itself was full of refugees who had been told that the French army would protect them.

Narrow escape

The forest was bombed by the Luftwaffe that evening. Nana Abu writes of hearing a “screaming noise in the sky as the enemy bombs came down”. Despite all his years of war, this was his first aerial bombardment. The forest was ablaze and the petrol dumps also located in the forest caught fire, causing yet more heat and smoke, and panic among the refugees. Nana Abu abandoned the rest of his mules at this point, and headed towards Le Temple. There, he took shelter from icy rain and wind inside a plantation – there, he saw food on the table and blankets laid out on beds.

On May 23, the unit ran into some German tanks and took shelter in a deep drain. Thankfully no one noticed them, but once again they were thoroughly cold and wet. On May 24, they reached Winnezeele and took shelter in some farm sheds. Nana Abu wanted to reach Dunkirk as quickly as possible – rations were running out.

I suspect Nana Abu reached Dunkirk by May 24. He writes of seeing “our defeated army in thousands in utter confusion”. Many of the boats were being overloaded and sinking, so he didn’t let his men take this route. On May 25, he was able to get some British volunteers and four lorries, and set off back towards his camp at Lille. By this time, the roads were clear and all the civilian traffic was being directed towards Paris. As he reached the village of Saint-André he saw a dogfight of fighters and was told that there was a tank battle underway near the Lille airport.

He filled the lorries with supplies and headed back towards Dunkirk, but this time around the shells had started falling and on arriving towards Armentières, he once again ran into a traffic jam, as many of the civilians had decided “to die at home rather than die in the wilderness” – the Luftwaffe were using bombs and tracer bullets to keep civilians off the roads for their own advance, leading to “horrible scenes”. On the journey, he was strafed by two enemy planes, dropping bombs and machine gunning his lorries. He salvaged what he could and continued on towards Dunkirk. He reached the coast by May 27 and could see the glare of the burning docks.

Return to Britain

Shortly after his arrival at Dunkirk, he was told to head towards the Malo-les-Bains beach. He realised that embarkation was not going to be easy, so he approached the embarkation commandant to offer the use of his men to help with the embarkation, especially since, at this point, his were the only men still with arms. He suggested a plan of using his men to work the routes, which was accepted. His Rissaldar Major Muhammad Ashraf Khan fed the civilians on the beach – many of whom were starving – and, in true Indian fashion, set up a free tea shop. Malo-Les-Bains had the only wharf which could be breached at two places and because of its length many boats could be berthed alongside it. Nana Abu posted an armed body at the first breach of the wharf to prevent gate crashing and used his unit’s trumpeter to organise the embarkation, using the terms “stand to attention” three times, followed by “fall in”, “stand at ease” and finally “stand fast”. When there was no more capacity for entering the wharf, the trumpeter sounded “Halt!”

On the way, Rissaldar Major Mohammed Ashraf Khan made tea for the crew and contingent. When they landed in Dover, before boarding the trains, the men used the copper buckets and trays they had used for chai to play folk tunes. Everyone joined in the spontaneous dance. The British soldier earlier referenced in Mackenzie’s book, wrote of the arrival of the Indian troops in Plymouth – “The conduct of a big majority of our troops was unspeakable. One would have thought the war was over instead of suffering one of the greatest defeats in military history…their devil-may-care attitude was one that I could have accredited perhaps to the training and temperament of Italian troops…I saw a group of Indian troops arriving at my port before going to the trains lined up, were dressed off, and marched from the docks.”

Nana Abu lost none of his men during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The whole force lost 12 men.

The public relations department took notice of the performance of Nana Abu’s men both in Dunkirk and Dover and highlighted his efforts especially since he was a veteran of World War I. He started making radio broadcasts again and toured the UK. He met the King at Buckingham Palace. Later, in September 1940, the King visited his unit. The unit fed the King and Queen on Indian foods and gave some extra for their children. Rissaldar Major Mohammed Ashraf Khan would go on to be the only Indian who was personally decorated by the King with Indian Order of Merit. Nana Abu’s service was not over, as he would serve in Burma and towards the end of the war help with the resettlement of prisoners of war and returning soldiers. He was also involved with the creation of the Fauji Foundation.

‘Pak Army 1’

As I write these words in 2017, I am about the same age Nana Abu was when he started his World War II journey. Over two million Indians served in the war like my great grandfather (including five of his brothers). They served in theaters of war not started by them. In essence, these Indians, and other “natives” all across the world carried the British burden, and it’s doubtful the Allied victory would have been possible without their service and sacrifice. Nana Abu’s unit was a mule company from another era that survived the Blitzkrieg. These men navigated an unfamiliar terrain with maps – no GPS, no mobile phones, not even a working radio to keep in touch with a headquarter that had little interest if any in their welfare.

Despite the discrimination, they kept their humanity and went out of their way to help those they could, in whatever small ways they had at their disposal. In his memoirs, the only people Nana Abu is concerned about are his men and the civilians who had to relive another world war in their lifetime.

When Pakistan was formed, due to his seniority and rank, Nana Abu’s army number was “Pak Army 1”. He turned down serving as the first chief of the Pakistan army, so his brother was then slated for the position, but died in an airplane accident – had he survived, perhaps our nation’s history would have been different.

In retirement, Nana Abu became an author and wrote books in both Urdu and English. It is interesting he chose to write his books during a time when the army was becoming ascendant. It appears most of these books are addressed directly to the army he had left, but I don’t think anyone there listened. As the years passed, he became an old soldier who slowly faded away.

His Urdu memoir, Meri Manzil (My Destination), details some of the struggles he saw during Partition. I wish I could have asked if he approved of the military takeovers. Was this the country that was his destination, a place where his own grand and great grand grandchildren would be considered outsiders, a place whose army enriched itself at the cost of the nation?

It is interesting to compare his pictures pre- and post-retirement. Pre-retirement, the pictures are with soldiers and he is almost always in uniform. Post-retirement, he is almost invariably surrounded by family, with a genial smile on his face. His grandchildren have memories of an affectionate old man, living in an old crumbling house, one that became a second home for his extended family.

His home, in my childhood, could be seen from Drigh Road and its colour gave the bus stop nearby its name. Now, this home has been swallowed up by an ever-expanding Karachi. In something out of Faiz’s Mera Dil Mera Musafir, my own mother today cannot find this house of which she has so many fond memories. I wonder if the people at the bus stop ever wonder why it carries its name.

Most of his own children, and certainly almost all of his grandchildren, were more educated than he ever was. Nana Abu barely had a 10th grade education. But I doubt we will travel the same distance in our lifetimes. We remain in his shadow, in awe of his deeds, his sacrifices, and because of him we have the freedom to choose where and how we live. By the time I was born, I think the dementia had set in. I don’t remember him speaking, but I still remember his upright, regal bearing and his crushing handshake. I doubt we shall see his like again.

This article first appeared in Herald.