THIS is with reference to the letter ‘A unique tale in world history’ (Nov 17), which, I am sure, the students of history must have found extremely fascinating; the story of two Afridi brothers who fought in World War I, winning gallantry awards for opposing forces – the British and the Germans!
I have a picture of Mir Dast Afridi (seen on the right) on a mobile stretcher outside Brighton Pavilion Hospital, Sussex, in 1915, being awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V in person.
On arrival at Marseilles in September 1914, Mir Dast and the 57 Wilde’s Rifles unit were pushed to the front in Belgium immediately. These soldiers seemed to be the only troops who really thrived on the battlefield at Ypres, and their letters in Urdu often contained the phrase “we are fighting with great zest” (D. Omissi; Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18). Mir Dast’s exploits are also detailed in Philip Mason’s book, A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, its Officers and Men, published in 1974.
On April 22, 1915, the 57 Wilde’s Rifles unit was sent, as part of the Lahore division, to repair a breach in the line that had resulted from the surprise gas attack on the Ypres Salient. Ordered to counter-attack, the regiment was met with a cloud of poison gas that rolled towards them.
The men had no gas masks, and, therefore, resorted to dipping their turban ends in the chloride of lime and holding them over their mouths. Three months later, Mir Dast wrote to a friend in Kohat in what at the time was the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), that he had been wounded twice, “once in the left hand, of which two fingers are powerless. The other injury is from gas. I have got the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest.”
Before receiving his award, Mir Dast had received a telegram from the king, telling him to write out on paper whatever request he had to make and the king would ask him about it when he came. The request he made was this: “I have no son that you might give him a jemadari or a havildari. But this is my request that, when a man has once been wounded, it is not well to take him back again to the trenches. For no good work will be done by his hand, but he will spoil others’ work also.”
This was considered the most important common grievance because all those soldiers were allowed to return home who had lost either a hand or a foot.
This clearly shows that not only Mir Dast was brave, but considerate and compassio-nate towards his fellow soldiers, too.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021