Mir Dast — the man behind the plaque

Last Sunday, a blue plaque was unveiled on the Royal Pavilion Estate, near the Indian Gate at the southern entrance to the estate. The plaque commemorates Mir Dast, a patient at the WW1 Royal Pavilion Indian Military Hospital, who was awarded the Victoria Cross here in August 1915.

Mir Dast blue plaque, 2016
Mir Dast blue plaque, 2016

Mir Dast was born in 1874 in the Maidan valley in a province of British India that is now part of Pakistan. He was a member of the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns (then more commonly known as Pathans) who were identified by the British as one of the ‘martial races’ who possessed excellent fighting qualities. Like many Afridis, Mir Dast joined the Indian Army in 1894, enlisting in the 55th Coke’s Rifles.

By the time of the First World War, Mir Dast was already an experienced and decorated soldier. The north west frontier was an area of frequent tension, and he fought in several campaigns. In 1908 he was awarded the Indian Order of Merit, at that time considered the Indian equivalent to the Victoria Cross. He was also promoted to jemadar, the most junior officer rank of the Indian Army.

Mir Dast, 1915
Mir Dast, 1915

Mir Dast was not among the first wave of Indian Army soldiers who travelled to the Western Front in 1914, as his regiment remained stationed in India. But as Indian casualties mounted, he was among a number of men that transferred from Coke’s to be attached to the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, a brigade that was fighting in Europe. Mir Dast joined his new unit in France in January 1915.

Mir Dast’s great moment of gallantry came through his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. On 26 April, he led a platoon on a counter-attack against German lines, across difficult undulating terrain. The attack was thwarted by heavy artillery fire and poison gas, at a time when the latter was still unfamiliar to most soldiers — the first major gas attack on the Western Front had taken place just four days previously. In spite of the confusion, Mir Dast held his position until nightfall. When ordered to retire he led numerous men back to the British lines, and at great personal risk he carried eight British and Indian officers back to safety.

Mir Dast was severely injured by the gas attack, and like many other wounded Indian soldiers he was hospitalised in Brighton. He was admitted to the Royal Pavilion Hospital and it was here that he learned that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in Ypres, and was also promoted to the rank of subedar.

Lord Kitchener and Mir Dast shaking hands in Royal Pavilion Garden, 1915
Lord Kitchener and Mir Dast shaking hands in Royal Pavilion Garden, 1915

The Victoria Cross made Mir Dast not only a hero but a celebrity too. He was presented to numerous eminent men of the day, including the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, and Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, who was also a former Commander in Chief of the Indian Army. While this was an obvious source of pride, Mir Dast’s pleasure was tempered by his physical suffering. In a letter written from the Royal Pavilion on 12 July he said:

‘I want your congratulations. I have got the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.’

On 25 August Mir Dast received his award from the King-Emperor George V at a ceremony in the Royal Pavilion Garden. The event was heavily publicised, through photographs, a book that was printed in three languages, and a short film that can be seen in the Royal Pavilion’s Indian Military Hospital Gallery. Although he still required the use of a wheelchair, Mir Dast insisted on standing to receive the Victoria Cross from the king. In conversation, he asked the king to release wounded Indian soldiers from further active duty once they had recovered — a request that was not carried out.

Mir Dast receiving the Victoria Cross from George V, August 1915
Mir Dast receiving the Victoria Cross from George V, August 1915

In a letter written two days after the ceremony, Mir Dast displayed a very different tone to his previous letter:

By the great, great, great, kindness of God, the King with his royal hand has given me the decoration of the Victoria Cross. God has been very gracious, very gracious, very gracious, very gracious.. the desire of my heart is accomplished.’

Curiously, Mir Dast’s fame and honour stand in stark contrast to the infamy and disgrace attained by his brother, Mir Mast. Another experienced and decorated soldier, Mir Mast had been promoted to jemadar shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. Arriving in France in October 1914, he had fought for several months under British command before deciding to desert. On 3 March 1915, Mir Mast led a small band of fellow Afridis to defect to the Germans. It is unclear whether this defection was motivated by personal or political grievances: the entry of Turkey into the war in November 1914 placed a strain on the loyalty of some Muslim troops. A rumour was circulated that Mir Mast had been awarded the Iron Cross by the Kaiser as a reward for his desertion, but this was probably a myth or a deliberate piece of propaganda by the Germans.

Mir Mast’s defection came just a few weeks before Mir Dast’s extraordinary feat of bravery in Ypres: was the latter inspired to this through shame of his brother’s treachery? While Mir Dast’s actions were certainly sufficient to win him the Victoria Cross, it is easy to speculate whether the British felt that the award could provide a counter-narrative to the actions of his brother. The vast majority of Muslim soldiers would remain loyal to the British, but it was certainly a cause of concern for the military authorities throughout the war.

One intriguing question is whether the brothers met again. Both survived the war: Mir Dast was invalided from the army, and returned to a hero’s welcome in India. Mir Mast is reported to have worked with the Turks in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade more Afridis to defect. Although he returned to his homeland, he remained just outside of British jurisdiction, and was spared reprisals. Mir Mast is believed to have died in the flu epidemic of 1919, having been stripped of his previous medals. Mir Dast IOM VC lived until 1945.

Mir Dast at the Royal Pavilion, 1915
Mir Dast wearing his Victoria Cross at the Royal Pavilion, 1915

 

Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer

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