The Call of Duty

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
The fascinating story based on the true events of the first Indian to win the famous Victoria Cross medal, the highest award for bravery in the British and Commonwealth forces. Sepoy Khudadad Khan won the Victoria Cross in the First World War, fighting in the trenches of Northern Europe. This short film is based in the facts of the case but imagines the debate surrounding the announcement of the first Indian to win the highest honour for bravery.

Submitted: October 23, 2015

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Submitted: October 23, 2015

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INT. LARGE GOVERNMENT OFFICE, NOVEMBER 1914.

 

TITLE: This film is based on true events.

 

Three dark leather chairs sit in the middle of a ballroom-size Government office around a table. On the table is a stack of 6 reports and unpoured tea for 3 people.

A tall, elegant, elderly man with a large moustache sits in one of the chairs. He is reading one of the reports.

There is a knock at the door.

 

Lord Kitchener

Come!

A man half enters the room.

 

Harold Tennant MP

Good morning Sir. Are you ready for us now?

 

Kitchener

I said “come”, did I not?

 

Harold

Erm, yes sir. Sorry sir.

 

The man retreats and closes the door. 

The seated man shakes his head in contempt and places the report he was reading back on the pile on the table.

The door opens and two smartly dressed gentlemen in their late 50s enter the room. They walk over to the table and Harold Tennant sits as if in a hurry. The other man remains standing and there is an uneasy silence.

Lord Kitchener looks at Harold Tennant but gets no response so nods at the new man.

 

Charles Roberts MP

Good Morning, Sir.

I am Charles Roberts, Member of Parliament for Lincoln

and Under-Secretary of State

for India.

Harold Tennant leaps to his feet.

 

Harold Tennant MP

My apologies.

Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War,

may I present the Right Honourable Charles Roberts MP,

Under... Secretary of State for India.

 

Charles

Lord Kitchener, it is an honour

 to meet you in person.

And thank you to you, Harold Tennant, 

MP and Under-Secretary of State for War,

for arranging this meeting.

 

Kitchener

Enough with the titles and brass tacks.

Please sit down.

Tea?

 

Charles

Please.

 

 

Lord Kitchener looks at Harold Tennant who is busying himself with paperwork. Kitchener clears his throat.

Harold is jolted back into the group.

 

Harold

Excuse me... milk?

 

Harold pours the milk then the tea and hands out the brimming cups and saucers.

 

Kitchener

Now... what’s got the Earl of Crewe 

on his high horse in the India Office?

 

This direct talk makes Charles Roberts uncomfortable.

 

Charles

Well... it’s not so much...

 

Kitchener

And why couldn’t he come down here himself?

Or bring it up in a cabinet meeting?

 

Charles Roberts pauses and just as he is about to speak...

 

Kitchener

There is a war on, you know?

We are rather busy here in the WAR OFFICE.

 

Charles Roberts makes sure Kitchener has finished.

 

Charles

Yes, sir. This is a delicate matter that we felt may be more prudently handled away from Cabinet and the Prime Minister. And one Secretary of State visiting another often raises... questions in the newspapers.

 

Kitchener appears convinced and nods.

 

Kitchener

So? Why the hubbub?

 

Charles Roberts drinks some tea and places his cup and saucer on the table.

 

 

Charles

The India Office has received a rumour 

that a soldier in line to be awarded the Victoria Cross

 may not receive the medal because...

 

Kitchener

Yes?

 

Charles

Well, sir. Because he is Indian.

 

Kitchener

Hmmm, I don’t like rumours. Bad for moral.

(turns)

However... what’s this about Tennant?

 

Harold

Well sir. There are 7 candidates nominated for the Victoria Cross in October.

(points to the stack of papers on the table) 

Here are the reports 

on each one of the actions 

that I presented to you earlier.

 

Kitchener

Ah yes. I managed to look at a couple. Heroic reading.

 

Harold

Quite.

We are now 3 months into the conflict with Germany 

and the War Office has awarded 23 men with the 

British and Commonwealth forces highest honour.

The October reports do contain a nomination 

for one Sepoy Khan of the 129th

Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis.

 

Charles (to Harold)

And is he going to receive the Victoria Cross?

 

Harold

Well... the War Office is looking into it.

 

Charles

Are the rest of the nominations approved?

 

Harold

Yes...

 

Charles

But not Sepoy Khan’s. Why?

 

Harold 

Sepoy Khan is from a remote region of the Punjab.

We don’t even know if he speaks English.

 

Charles

So?

 

Harold (to Charles)

He will meet the King!

The King will award him the medal personally.

What will happen if the King tries to speak to him?

 

Kitchener nods in agreement.

 

Charles

He may meet the King 

but he doesn’t need to speak to him to have

the medal he deserves pinned to his chest.

 

Harold (to Kitchener)

The risk of an etiquette embarrassment

to his Majesty at this early stage of the war

appears too great.

 

Charles

Sir!

 

Kitchener raises his hand to quieten Charles Roberts.

 

 

Kitchener(to both)

I was Commander-in-Chief of the armies of India for 8 years some time ago and I must agree that Sepoy Khan may not speak English to our standard. The Punjab is a remote area of the Empire. However, I also know that Indian soldiers conduct themselves with the utmost decorum and their ceremonial drill is second to none.

 

Both Harold Tennant and Charles Roberts believe they have ‘won’ that round and smile.

 

Charles

So there is no reason Sepoy Khan 

couldn’t be the first Indian to win

 the Victoria Cross?

 

Harold

Now, we have two ‘firsts’ this month.

Yes, Sepoy Khan is a candidate for nomination

but... 

(Charles sighs at the terminology 

and Harold thumbs through and picks up a report)

but Lieutenant Arthur Martin-Leake is to become the 

first soldier ever to win the Victoria Cross twice.

 

Harold hands the report to Kitchener who opens it.

 

Kitchener

Yes, I remember reading this one. Exceptional bravery under fire. 

(speaking to Charles)

Rescued a large number of wounded men. Brought them back, singled handed, from right in front of the German trenches. In the heat of the battle. Exceptional.

 

Charles

I’m sure sir.

 

Harold

And this would be the first time any soldier has won our greatest award for bravery for the second time.

We can’t have that tainted by an Indian who’s winning the Victoria Cross for the first time.

 

Charles

But...

 

Kitchener

I agree.

This medic has set a standard for bravery that 

we can use as a symbol for recruitment.

Saving our boys from certain death 

at the hands of the evil Hun.

And to be winning the Victoria Cross for the second time.

It will be front page news.

 

Harold

And we can’t have an Indian interfering with this.

 

Charles

Interfering?

 

Harold

The War Office is uncertain how the announcement will be received by the general public.

 

Charles

How so?

 

Harold

This hasn’t happened before. As you know, every Victoria Cross medal winner has their name, rank and citation for valour printed in the London Gazette. How will people react to the news that we have given our highest honour to an Indian?

 

Charles

That is impossible to know until it has happened.

 

Harold

And how will the news be received back in India?

Or in his home province, the Punjab?

 

Charles

How do you mean?

 

Harold

While there has been an unprecedented outpouring of goodwill towards Great Britain from most of India, the Punjab region, and Bengal now we hear, has increasingly become a hotbed of anti-colonial activity.

 

Charles (conceding)

Yes, that is true.

 

Harold

Many believe these regions just need a figurehead.

A... heroic leader who will take on the Raj head first, 

beat us at our own game, etc.

(to Charles)

Do you believe the India Office

 can keep control if such a man appears?

 

Charles

It would be difficult.

 

Harold

And we certainly don’t have the resources to put down another Indian mutiny.

 

Charles

Yes.

 

Harold

We can win the war against Germany and the war against the Ottomans. But we can’t fight a revolution in India too.

 

Charles

You are right.

There has been more and more

 anti-British sentiment in the Punjab

 since the war began.

That saying, I don’t know Sepoy Khan’s politics but...

you may be correct to err on the side of caution.

 

There is a pause. Charles reflects while Harold is smug in victory.

 

Kitchener

So you are agreed?

 

Harold

Yes, it looks that way, sir.

 

Charles

I cannot help feeling this is a mistake but cannot disagree with my Right Honourable Friend.

 

Harold

So, we are not going to approve Sepoy Khan for the Victoria Cross.

 

Charles

Yes. In terms of politics Sepoy Khan receiving the Victoria Cross may cause problems that my office does not need at this time.

 

Harold

So the decision is made.

 

Kitchener

(to Harold)

Except you do not get to make that decision.

(to Charles)

And I do not care for your politics.

 

Both Harold and Charles are shocked.

 

Kitchener

This morning I read a report

 on a man winning his second Victoria Cross. 

And then I read something more inspiring than anything I’ve read in quite a while.

 

Kitchener leans forward and picks out Sepoy Khan’s report. We see the report and a picture of Sepoy Khan.

He begins to read.

 

Kitchener

On 31 October 1914 two companies of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis bore the brunt of the main German attack on the village of Gheluvelt, near Ypres. They fought gallantly but were outnumbered by the enemy 3-to-1 and eventually overwhelmed. While all the other five men in his unit had been killed, Sepoy Khan continued working his machine gun even after he had been shot and bayonetted. Eventually, having run out of ammunition, Sepoy Khan was overrun. The Germans left him for dead. Despite his life threatening injuries, that night Sepoy Khan managed to crawl back, through the German lines, to his regiment. Thanks to his bravery, and that of his fellow Baluchis, the Germans were held up just long enough so that vital reinforcements could arrive to halt their advance. Otherwise the crucial ports of Calais and Boulogne could have been at risk. For his matchless feat of gallantry and courage, Sepoy Khudadad Khan is nominated for the Victoria Cross.

 

There is a pause as Kitchener puts down the report while Harold and Charles take in what has been read to them.

 

Kitchener

I am going to accept this nomination and approve the Victoria Cross to Sepoy Khan. This man deserves an audience with His Majesty the King. 

Gentlemen, we are all in this war together. You politicians organised this war while us soldiers must fight it. Our call of duty. You may bicker over the merits or tribulations of every minor detail but ALL the soldiers at the front don’t have that luxury. 

(he becomes angry)

Now I have neither the time nor the patience to explain this to you but you will never again argue over the nomination of any soldier for any medal when they have already given more for the war than you ever will.

 

 

Lord Kitchener refills his tea and drinks deeply.

Harold and Charles stand. They look at Lord Kitchener for some recognition but it doesn’t come. In silence they leave the room.

 

FADE TO BLACK

FADE IN A PICTURE OF SEPOY KHUDADAD KHAN

TITLE: His Majesty the King-Emporer has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery to:

Sepoy Khudadad Khan, 129th Duke of Counaught's Own Baluchis.

On 31st October, 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium, the British Officer in charge of the detachment having been wounded, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.

— London Gazette 4 December 1914 

 

FADE TO BLACK

 

CREDITS 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Thom Goddard. All rights reserved.

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