Malabar is now part of the Indian state of Kerala, on the south west coast of the Sub-Continent. Then it was a remote district in the Madras Presidency, lying between the western slopes of the Mysore Plateau, the Nilgiri Hills and the sea, well from the usual areas where the average British soldier served in India.
The Moplah Rebellion, which took place in Malabar during 1921, was a conflict rooted in religious revivalism among the Muslim Moplahs. It was based on a deep disaffection with British rule, and a burning sectarian resentment against the land owning Hindu Nair community, who sided with the British. The rebellion had a strong fundamental Islamic and espoused 'freedom from the foreigners'.
Several political events precipitated the rebellion or Jihad but amongst the Moplahs, a rumor spread that British rule had collapsed and a successor to Mohammed had been taken power in Delhi. On 20 August 1921, the first incident in the rebellion took place at Tirurangadi, where the rebellion's initial focus was against the limited British presence in the area. Arsonists took to the street, burning and destroying Government property. The British District Magistrate of Calicut, with the help of troops attempted to arrest some armed Moplah leaders. The resulting in clashes produced the first deaths and the British officials and Planters and merchants were driven out of the area. The Moplahs then focused their wrath on the Hindus. Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, and other outrages followed.
Mohammed Haji was proclaimed the Caliph of the Moplah Khilafat and flags of Islamic Caliphate were raised and Khilafat kingdoms declared.
The British regional government in Madras could see that the 'situation was beyond civil control' and requested that the Army should therefore 'now take charge'. They signalled that:
'...reports received satisfy us that there is a state of open rebellion, and that in the Ponnani, Walluvanad and Ernad taluks (sub-regions) Martial Law should be established. We consider the conditions now correspond to the state of affairs described in Martial Law Manual and that regular measures should be taken as contemplated in that Manual. We accordingly suggest that Governor General introduces Martial Law by ordinance.'
Along the coast, there is a narrow strip of sandy plain, but inland the country rises to the east in successive steps of low hills, interspersed with paddy flats fringed with coconut groves, until the spurs and deep ravines of the main escarpment are reached on the eastern borders of the District. Here the jungle and forests become dense and the country difficult; in most parts uninhabited. Annual rainfall is very heavy, particularly in the South-West Monsoon period. The mountains to the east, which average 5,000 feet, rise in places to over 8,000 feet.
The ground and the physical conditions made Malabar an exceedingly difficult area for to counter insurgency operations and provided the Moplah rebels with ample cover and hiding places. The climate, very hot and stuffy, was at its worst when the rebellion broke out, and heavy rains, amounting at times to ten inches a day, added to the difficulties and discomforts of the Army. An undeveloped area, even by Edwardian Indian standards, the roads were mostly little more than tracks for the normal requirements of local people. For instance, bridges could not be relied on to bear the weight of light trucks, let alone armoured cars. This necessitated careful reconnaissance or reliable intelligence on routes to be taken. Difficulties in planning movements and gaining surprise resulted.
The commander of the Madras Military District, General Burnett-Stuart, had under his command a British cavalry regiment, a brigade of Field Artillery, two British battalions, including 2nd Dorsets and seven Indian battalions (including a battalion of Pioneers), and a company of the Madras Sappers and Miners.
However, only a small proportion of these units were available, as the after effects of the Great War were still being felt and consequent reorganisation of the Indian Army was underway. In addition, other parts of the Madras District could not be denuded of troops in case the rebellion spread and in any case, the interruptions of railway communications prevented the employment of a large force. There was also little scope for the use of either cavalry or artillery due to the ground and weather conditions. With the Moplahas, however, being poorly armed, with a small proportion of them armed with small arms, it was assumed that British infantry would suffice.
On receipt of the request for support, General Burnett-Stuart immediately ordered 2nd Dorsets to deploy from Baird Barracks, Bangalore to Malabar. They were quickly under way, having been on standby since the previous month, in two trains. The Dorsets were followed by a cavalry squadron of the Bays and a section of artillery, and together the force was to move to Podanur where it would concentrate, under the command of Colonel Humphreys. A patrol train, sent out and found the line clear as far as Shoranur. Troop trains were pushed on to that point dropping a few detachments to guard key points en route.
Arriving in Malabar, the Dorsets received word that an isolated detachment of the Leinsters was in trouble at Malapuram. The immediate need, however, was to restore railway communication with Calicut, and headquarters were sent on to Kuttipuram, to which point the line had been hastily repaired, to cover the reconstruction.
The Dorsets were formed into a column with a troop of the Bays, a section of artillery and some Sappers and Miners, under Colonel Radcliffe. They advanced on Malapuram, thirty miles northward, leaving Kuttipuram early on 27 August. Reaching Malapuram the next day they found that the Moplahs had already driven off. Colonel Radcliffe's column now marched on Tirurangadi. Much delayed the column had to 'cross a river in a small boat, the only means of passage available, Lt Grimley, who swam the river and hunted about in the dark, having succeeded in finding it in the jungle'. The Moplahs retired in front of the Dorsets and took refuge in a mosque, where they were summoned to surrender but refused. Sentries from Major Hope's column were placed in position and was detailed to watch the mosque, Colonel Radcliffe's part of the column started back for Malapuram before midnight and en route 'it burnt the town of Tirungadi as a response for the murder of a Leinsters officers and a Policeman'.
The Dorsets had had several casualties before, about 1.30pm, the Moplahs dashed out of the mosque and after a sharp fight at close quarters about fifty Moplahs succeeded in breaking through the cordon while about forty left in the mosque surrendered. The prisoners included a notorious ringleader, Ali Musliar. It was a useful operation but it had cost the Dorsets a dozen casualties, 4 men being killed.
The Dorsets action had broken the Moplahs up into small bands scattered about the country, 'looting, plundering and committing outrages, but carefully avoiding contact with the troops'. Company columns were now formed, each unit being allotted an area, which it searched systematically, making arrests. Colonel Herbert was out with a column for five days from 2nd September without encountering many Moplahs, though their presence was reported from every direction. Major Hope took D Company and half B out on September 5th, returning on the 10th:
'the weather had been miserably wet and the Moplahs most elusive, while the transport animals suffered severely from lack of a shoeing smith and a proper supply of veterinary medicines.'
For political reasons the Government of India refused to proclaim martial law and refused to send re-enforcements. Thus in a look forward to the frustrations of some of the Regiment's post war campaigns,
'It was impossible to deal with the rebellion without...the prompt punishment of plunderers and murderers by "drum-head courts martial" would have had twice the effect of merely making arrests and handing prisoners over to the slower and less impressive methods of civil justice...'.
To the Dorset's frustration this policy reduced the force available for hunting down the marauders still in the field.
The Dorsets' HQ was now at Malapuram, with the battalion deployed across the Malabar. Companies and even single platoons controlled villages in their surrounding area. Their aim was to limit the Moplahs' freedom of movement, thereby helped the Battalion's 'raiding columns'.
The Dorsets formed several columns, one of which, based on B Company, was sharply engaged on September 24th September near Nilambur and on this occasion stubborn resistance was put up by the Moplahs. Four members of the regiment were awarded the George Cross for this action.
B Company dispersed a large group who lost three killed. The Dorset however lost one killed and six wounded. In another action, Major Weldon caught another Moplah party in the open, in which circumstances the machine-guns, assisted by two platoons of C Company did great damage to the enemy.
Moplah ambushes were a feature of this period of the campaign but when taking on the Dorsets, invariably came off worse. In one case a patrol extricated itself very successfully, killing and taking 24 insurgents at a cost of two killed and one wounded. In another ambush however, Colonel Herbert, and a private were wounded, while Lt Harvey was mortally wounded.
By the middle of October it was apparent to the Government of India that there would after two months of operations be no early solution. In certain districts the Moplahs were still un-subdued and the local population was too terrified to face the rebels. Accordingly several Ghurkha battalions were dispatched to Malabar and a big drive was organized to sweep the area from north west to south east.
Meanwhile, Major Saunders, who had been commanding the depot left at Bangalore, had taken command of the battalion. The drive with Ghurkhas, armoured cars and D Company Dorsets moving forward swept through the country driving the Moplahs on to a line that A Company, three platoons of B and one of C, with other troops were awaiting them. This was fairly successful, with thirty rebels being killed without any British casualties. A few days later, A and D Companies took part in a successful operation, in which a large enemy party was reported to be hiding. Mountain howitzers forced the Moplahs out of some houses and drove them into the open to be tackled by the waiting infantry.
'This was the most serious blow the insurgents had so far received, nearly 250 Moplahs being accounted for, without any British casualties, while four days later the Malapuram and Perintalmanna garrisons co-operated most successfully against another large party and inflicted nearly 50 casualties on it, without suffering any losses themselves.'
The enlarged force and military tribunals to deal promptly with the prisoners had some effect and by the beginning of November surrenders were becoming frequent. The more desperate rebels, however, were still active but were greatly reduced in number and their activities much curtailed.
Starting on 20 November the Dorsets left Malapuram by train for Bangalore, having been relieved by the Suffolks. Its casualties consisted of an officer and 9 men killed and an officer and 15 men wounded, was, considering the difficulties of the country, the determination and fierceness of the opposition and the numbers to be faced, remarkably light.
'Fitness and discipline had been severely tested, the troops had had to endure considerable hardships and the Moplahs were not enemies to be lightly regarded.'
Operating in small sub-units, junior officers and NCOs had, what was unusual at the time, the 'chances of showing initiative and skill'.
Even though the operations had been insufficiently important to deserve a battle-honour, the Indian General Service Medal 1908, which was issued with a bar 'Malabar, 1921', had been fully earned.