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 South Asian troops, the Pashtuns were not eager to fight Ottoman Turkey. The members of Pashtun tribes from NWFP voiced strong objections to the war with Turks on the religious grounds. Abstentions and desertions among Pashtuns in the initial stages of campaigns exceeded those among all other martial classes. 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 employing the Pashtuns of North-West Frontier and Afghanistan against Ottoman Turkey. On 12 April, during the Turkish attack at Shaiba, the Bajauri and Bunerwal Pashtuns deserted from the unitIn early 1915, two Pashtun units refused even to embark for service in Mesopotamia, with members of one unit opening fire on their officers. (The Army in British India: From Colonial Warfare to Total War 1857 – 1947 by Kaushik Roy, page-86)

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 Pashtuns 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 two Pashtun soldiers shot 2 sentries and deserted to the Ottomans. Faced with growing desertion rate, Townshend decided to send an entire Battalion composed largely of Pashtuns back to Basra (“My campaign”, Townshend. page-226). In February 1915, the Pashtuns who advanced up to the Tigris with the relief force, showed reluctance to fight the ottomans, consequently, in late February, all trans-Indus Pashtuns 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 Pashtuns 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 Pashtuns 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 Pashtun hero is Jemadar Mir Mast Afridi from the 58th Frontier Force (Vaughan’s Rifles). Mir Mast was a Qambar 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 [1]. Mir Mast deserted British 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 rumored to have been 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 [2]. 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. 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 campaign. He also started recruiting for what they called “a Turkish Army” the deserters and dismissed sepoys of whom a sizable number was there. [3]

Roose-Keppel, the Chief Commissioner of the Northwest Frontier Province 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. [4]

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 agents 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. [5]

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. [6]

2- “Race, Empire and the First World War”, edited by Santanu Das, p.2-3
3. “The Trans-Frontier Pathan soldiers and the First World War” , by Miss Lal Baha, Islamic Studies, Vol. 25, No.4
4. “Activities of Turkish agents in Khyber during World War I” , by Miss Lal Baha, JASP, 1969
5- ‘N.-W.F.P. Administration Under British Rule, 1901-1919″, by Lal Baha, p-94
6.  “Activities of Turkish agents in Khyber during World War I” , by Miss Lal Baha, JASP, 1969

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. Source
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