Sunday, 15 June 2014

Pashtun Soldiers who refused to fight against Ottomans during World War I

More than one million soldiers from India fought in the British Empire army ranks during the First World War. Some of them were combat troops and some were support units. Among Indian troops, the Pashtuns were not eager to fight Ottoman Turkey, this was evident among the Patshtun personnel in the 20th infantry when the unit was destined for Mesopotamia in late 1914. In fact on 19 November and 26 November 1914, some Kamber Khel Afridis deserted to the Ottoman Turks. Arthur Barret cabled to GHQ India that this unit be sent from Mesopotamia to India. John Nixon was also against the North-West Frontier Pathans and Afghans against Ottoman Turkey. On 12 April, during the Turkish attack at Shaiba, the Bajauri and Bunerwal Pathans deserted from the unit.(The Army in British India: From Colonial Warfare to Total War 1857 - 1947 by Kaushik Roy, page-86)

The members of Pathan tribes from NWFP voiced strong objections to the war with Turks on the religious grounds. Abstentions and desertions among Pathans in the initial stages of campaigns exceeded those among all other martial classes . In early 1915, two Pathan units refused even to embark for service in Mesopotamia, with members of one unit opening fire on their officers. (The Indian Army in the Two World Wars edited by Kaushik Roy, page-403)

Omissi has observed : "From early 1915 , letters written by Pathan Sepoys show that they are willing to consider absconding" .By march, major general Arther Barret, the original commander of 6th Indian division in Mesopotamia, had twice requested the replacement of four companies of Pathans which he didn't trust. The authorities in India refused on the grounds that they could not depend on Muslim troops to fight on North-West Frontier (Pakhtunkhwa) either, and therefore couldn't spare non-Muslim units for service overseas.("The Sepoy and the Raj", Omissi, page-120).

On 23rd October , 2 Pathan soldiers shot 2 sentries and deserted to the Ottomans. Faced with growing desertion rate , Townshend decided to send an entire Battalion composed largely of Pathans back to Basra ("My campaign", Townshend. page-226). In February 1915, the Pathans who advanced up to the Tigris with the relief force, showed reluctance to fight the ottomans, consequently, in late February, all trans-Indus Pathans were removed from the force and sent back downriver. (War record of 27th Punjabis, 1916, Lt.Colonel H.S Vernon Papers)

In 1914 there were nearly 5000 Trans-Indus Pathans in the Indian Army, of whom about half were Afridis. By June 1916 over 600 Afridis had deserted to Turks. In November 1915 all recruitment of Trans-Indus Pathans was stopped (World War I, Michael S. Neiberg, page-481). Philip Mason well summed up the loyalty assessment of the Indian Army by saying that "A faint question mark hung over the Pathans throughout the war but the Punjabi Muslims were steady as a rock"

15th Lancers

The 15th Lancers was a cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army which existed from 1858 to 1921. The regiment was one of the single class regiments, with all troops being recruited from the Multani Pathan community. In 1915, 15th lancers were detached from the Lahore Division and sent to the Middle East. On landing at Basra from Europe, 429 soldiers of 15th lancers refused to fight fellow Muslims, i.e. the Turks, in the Holy Land of Islam but agreed to do so elsewhere  (The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy. . page-119)

The incident of 15 Lancers Pathan rebellion is mentioned in one of the volumes of the British official history of Operations in Mesopotamia .This 15 Lancer was an Alizai dominated unit and was one of the very few units of Indian Cavalry to have an 'Honorary Native Commandant' Nawab Abdullah Khan who was the Head of the Alizai clan of Dera Ismail Khan Pathans. ( 

Mir Mast Afridi           

A forgotten hero in Pakistan is Jemadar Mir Mast Afridi from the 58th Frontier Force (Vaughan’s Rifles). Mir Mast was an Afridi Pathan from tribal areas of modern Pakistan. 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 Tribal Pathans. Mir Mast was awarded one of the highest German gallantry award Iron Cross by the German Kaiser Willhelm II . The British in order to equalize the insult awarded Mir Mast’s real brother Mir Dast Afridi (from 55th FF Coke’s Rifles) a Victoria Cross in April 1915.

Mir Mast was sent to Turkey by the Germans, to meet with the Mufti, and by late in the war was back in Afghanistan apparently trying to discourage his Muslim countrymen from joining up to fight for the Raj.The Turko-German mission failed in 1915 to gain the support of the Afghan government. However, the Mission members succeeded in establishing a center for the anti-British activities in Bagh (Tirah), in the tribal belt. In June 1916 two Turkish emissaries arrived Tirah; one was Khired Bey, a staff colonel of the Turkish army and the other Mohammad Abid (alias Abidin), an Arab, a former employee of the Turks as a drill' instructor at Kabul. Mir Mast accompanied the Turko-German Mission. He was already busy in propaganda against the British in Tirah, he had already prepared ground for the mission.

On their arrival in Tirah, the emissaries were welcomed by Mast. They delivered anti-British speeches and unfurled a flag, a blessed and sent by the Turkish Sultan. By the middle of 1916 a large number of the Pashtun soldiers, mainly deserters from the British Indian army had swelled the ranks of the Turkish emissaries. They started recruitment of the locals as well.. By July 1916, the total number of the Afridi recruits was reported to have reached about four hundreds.. They were posted in three different places and and drilled every day by Mir Mast Khan under the supervision of Kharid Bay, a 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 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 NWFP, 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. Roos Keppel believed that the Turkish agents were responsible for creating the troubles in the tribal belt, but he could not ask the Government to take any stern action against them lest he feared aggravation in the already tense situation.

The tribes who were supporting the Turkish emissaries inflicted losses on those who were accused of supporting the British. In retaliation, other tribes also organized themselves under the leadership of Khan Bahadur Zaman Khan Kuki Khel and attacked and burnt the village in which the two Turkish emissaries and their Afghan followers were living in Tirah. This action of the Afridis made them unpopular among the people. The British rewarded the tribes by sanctioning a bonus of one year’s allowances. (Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, Volume 12, Issue 4. page-40)

From left to right they are Mir Mast Afridi, Itbargul, Mohabad Khan, the cook Seyed Ahmed and the two volunteers that had arrived from America, Abdur Rahman Khan and Abdul Subhan Khan. They wear simple khaki uniforms with red fezzes. The Afghan Mission was a collective of Indian, German and Ottoman military and diplomatic personnel sent to Kabul to try to convince Emir Habibullah of Afghanistan to join the Central Powers and rise up in a Jihad against the British in India. These six pathans were recruited to protect the mission.

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