Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Mir Mast Khan Afridi, a forgotten hero (recipient of Germany's Iron Cross)

By Khan Barmazid

Mir Mast Afridi

A forgotten Pashtun hero is Jemadar Mir Mast Afridi from the 58th Frontier Force (Vaughan’s Rifles). Mir Mast was a Kambar Khel Afridi from Tirah. In 1914 his unit was shipped to France as part of the Indian Infantry Corps, which played a major role in stopping the German advance in France in 1914 in Ypres Sector . Mir Mast Afridi seems to have been a far more politically aware and resolute man as compared to many Muslims educated at MAO College Lahore, Aligarh or at many prestigious British universities and Legal Inns! . Mir Mast decided that he must not fight the Britisher’s war and crossed over to the German lines on a rainy night in March 1915 along with 14 other Afridi Pashtuns. According to a contemporary German report quoted by Höpp, two groups – altogether 23 Afridi Pashtuns – led by commanding officer Jemadar Mir Mast, deserted to the German side on 2 and 3 March 1915.  Mir Mast was awarded one of the highest German gallantry award Iron Cross by the German Kaiser Willhelm II. Because of the exceptional nature of the event , his trench notebook is now housed in the National Archives of Delhi. The British in order to equalize the insult awarded Mir Mast’s real brother Mir Dast Afridi (from 55th FF Coke’s Rifles) the Victoria Cross to who was fighting in the same sector!. A unique incident where two brothers were awarded by two different European masters fighting against each other in the same sector!. After his desertion in France, he met the Grand Mufti in Constantinople (Istanbul) and then accompanied the Turco-German mission to Kabul and crossed the border over to Tirah, his home area.

In the early months of the world war, the Government of India was informed of the unsatisfactory behaviour of the trans-frontier Pashtuns serving in the Indian regiments. The reports poured in of constant desertions, in large numbers, of Afridis, Mohamands, Mahsuds, and Jowaki (a clan of Adam Khel Afridis) soldiers from the army. By March 1915, 22.2 percent had deserted. Desertions took place in the North and South Waziristan Militias alongwith the other regiments on the frontier.  By July 1915 there were some 700 deserters in Tirah alone and the numbers was believed to be steadily swelling. Many dismissals and discharges were besides these.' The three companies of Pashtuns in 130th Baluchis, more than 215 men and mostly Afridis, reacted with "mutinous behaviour". They declined to go on active service at all because they had ",. a strong disinclination ... to fight against Turks". These "mutinous men were then disarmed and imprisoned. The ring leaden were tried by summary court martial and condemned to death while 197 men were sentenced by another summary court martial to various terms of transportation. The Jihad movement in tribal territory during war years was considered a contributory cause of desertions. It was led by Mir Mast Afridi. In Tirah he began, assisted by religious leaders of Khyber, an intensive pro-Turkish, anti-British propaganda. He also started recruiting for what they called "a Turkish Army" the deserters and dismissed sepoys of whom a sizeable number was there.

The Afridi tribe, in organization, power and armament was regarded as "facile princeps" upon the border and every other border tribe looked to the Afridis for example. From the Governament's point of view, therefore the attitude of Afridis was, at the commencement of war, of paramount importance. Roose-Keppel, the Chief Commissioner of the North West Frontier Province, in emphasizing this stated ;
" the Mohammadan crisis , which there is reason to believe is approaching rapidly, their (Afridis) friendship will be of incalculable value. So as long as we hold Afridis, we can form a fire-proof between northern and southern Islam on the frontier , no Jehad or rising be general.."
The Chief Commissioner further urged the Government that as the general situation was grave as the Afridis were key to it, their allowances should be forthwith increased. The British Indian Government, being anxious to secure the goodwill of Afridis, doubled their allowances from Rs.84,040 to 1,68,080 per annum. The policy paid off : the Afridis remained staunch.

In June 1916,  the two Turkish emissaries arrived in Tirah who were welcomed by Mir Mast Khan Afridi and a prominent Mullah of Kambar Khel. One of the Turkish agent was Khired Bey, a staff colonel of the Turkish army and Mohammad Abid (alias Abidin), an Arab, a former employee of the Turks as a drill instructor at Kabul. Mir Mast Khan had already prepared ground for the mission. They unfurled a flag, which was by the Turkish Caliph and announced themselves plenipotentiaries of the Turkish Sultan. The Afridis were promised arms , ammunition and money and were called upon to assist the emissaries who declared that they were serving the Afghan government.

By July 1916, the total number of the Afridi recruits was reported to have reached about four hundreds.. They were posted in three different Kambar Khel villages and and drilled every day by Mir Mast Khan under the supervision of Kharid Bay, the Turkish Colonel. The Turks also wrote letters to the neighboring tribes, and in the month of August some Turkish emissaries visited the Mohmand areas where Hajji Sahib Turangzai was busy in waging war against the British.

As a result of the growing popularity of the Sultan's army in Tirah, Sir George Roos-Keppel, then Chief Commissioner NVVFP, found the tribes being virtually divided into two camps: anti-British and pro-British. The former consisted of deserters and discharged soldiers from the Indian army and other pro-Afghan elements, while the latter was composed mainly of Maliks and elders who were in favour of maintaining friendly relations with the British in lieu of their allowances and other emoluments from the British Indian government. Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Khan successfully played upon the mutual jealousy of the Afridi Mullahs , and kept some of them attached to the government.

In the middle of September , 1916, the Afridis under a "gentle pressure" from the British officers at Khyber drove off the Turks to Rajgal , near the Afghan border. Here the Turks got protection from an anti-British Kuki Khel Mullah and remained active for a further six months. Then , in march 1917, Malik Zaman Khan Kuki Khel, an influential pro-British elder, led a four hundred strong lashkar into Rajgal and killed the anti-British Mullah. In June 1917 the Turks were reported to have finally left the tribal territory and crossed over to Afghanistan.


1. "Activities of Turkish agents in Khyber during World War I" , by Miss Lal Baha, JASP, 1969
2. "The Trans-Frontier Pathan soldiers and the First World War" , by Miss Lal Baha, Islamic Studies, Vol. 25, No.4
3.  The Forgotten Regiments. A.H Amin corrects historical misconceptions
4.  " Race, Empire and First World War Writing", edited by Santanu Das
5.   Afghanistan in World War I : Afghans in the Kaiser’s jihad by Thomas Ruttig

Mir Mast Afridi on extreme left

Mir Dast, brother of Mir Mast

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