When it came to desertion, it was often a result of homesickness or depression. But those who went to the German side, like Mir Mast, were usually soldiers who felt strongly about fighting against the Ottomans due to their faith and what they represented as the world’s Muslim power, as the 15th Lancers did in February 1916.
Army seniors were on the look out for any suggestions that soldiers were dissatisfied to be fighting fellow Muslims, and were happy when soldiers felt that the Turks were the enemy, as one censor writes in a report: [Letters] 15 and 16 give a rather comforting picture of the spirit in which Muhammadans of India are serving abroad against their co-religionists’.
Physical desertion took place in many different war-fronts, not least when the soldiers arrived in Muslim-majority countries. One such example is recorded in the regimental diary of the 21st Field Company Sappers and Miners, which records a number of desertions in Egypt.
The 17th September 1914 entry records arrival in Cairo, before leaving to Alexandria in the evening. The entry for the next day states: 'Two men who absented themselves at Cairo returned under arrest – Naik Rajwalik Han and Sapper Sher Mohmed’. The following day, the entry records that they were summoned in front of a court martial for desertion.
Some were not caught, and often, these would write to their friends to convince them to desert from the allied forces. For instance, in March 1916, one Risaldar-Major (cavalry officer) received a letter from an anonymous Muslim fighter, urging him to and his troops to switch allegiance. This letter is not typical of the period, and the censor notes that it is the most virulent type of Islamic fanaticism’. What you ought to do is raise your fellow caste-men against the English and join the army of Islam’.
The general ramifications of desertion on some of the soldiers were significant. Some expressed their sadness at seeing their friends imprisoned for desertion. Others felt that it impinged their general freedoms. For instance, in a letter, Mast Khan of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles in France complains that due to recent desertions, the soldiers are only allowed to be within half an hour’s distance from the camps. This, he writes, is causing everyone great distress’.
The 15th lancers refuse to fight
Mass rejection to fight was uncommon, but did occur with the 15th Lancers in February 1916, when the men were ordered to march from Basra to the front. Most of the regiment refused to follow these orders. They swore a secret oath together, laying the Qur’an on their heads as they did so.
They were determined not to fight against the Turks, who were fellow Muslims, especially as battles would be taking place near holy parts of Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf. But a Jemadar told their seniors about this plot, and a 'fall in’ was ordered in which everyone had to report immediately, dressed or not.
The other regiments took possession of the 15th Lancers’ arms, and they were ordered to embark onto a ship, which they refused to do.
The commissioned officers denied knowledge of this, and were let free, but the non-commissioned officers, 429 in total, were all arrested. Every one of them was punished, most receiving long prison sentences. In 1917, on the King’s birthday, they all received pardons.