15 February 1915 – Singapore Mutiny

The 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army was sent to Singapore last October as replacement for a British Army unit that was being deployed to the Western Front. This morning, Lieutenant Colonel E. V. Martin attended the departing review ceremony for the 5th, which is slated to be sent on to Hong Kong tomorrow. The commanding general of the Singapore colony praised the troops without mentioning their destination, however, unintentionally fueling rumors that the entirely-Muslim unit is being tricked onto ships so they can be sent into the meat grinder of trench warfare — or forced to fight their co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire — rather than merely garrisoning another British colony.

Responsibility for these rumors lies with three Indian officers, Turkish agents, and Indian insurrectionists who have encouraged the men of Punjab to mutiny. This is a good day for it, too, because the colony’s Chinese troops are all on leave celebrating their New Year. At 3:30 PM, when most of the British officers are napping after their midday meal, four of the 5th’s eight companies rise in revolt; a detachment of 100 opens fire at Tanglin Barracks, killing fourteen people, including one of the Germans interned there. Other mutineers fire on nearby European civilians, killing eighteen.

A century later, there are some Indians who prefer to think of this episode as a thrilling moment in the history of India’s independence. But today’s violence is inspired by the Turkish caliphate’s fatwa of jihad — and a deliberate campaign of incitement and disinformation — in an imperial backwater located more than two thousand miles from India, and it is hardly a blow against imperialism either, for their core organizers hope to give the dying Ottoman Empire a strategic coup today.

This story ends with forty-seven mutineers lined up against a wall and put down by a firing squad because their deeds are properly adjudged acts of treason, not solidarity. I do not say this to diminish the men dying in the photo above; I am simply acknowledging their ambition. The 1915 Singapore Mutiny is another example of the Great War sundering old loyalties and forging new ones, but it is not really about Indian nationalism. Like the massacre and ensuing shootout at Broken Hill, Australia on New Year’s Day, religiosity is secondary to resentment among the Singapore mutineers. Most of them are justifiably upset about their abysmal pay, which is a serious issue in the long-underfunded army of the Raj.

Tanglin Barracks in 1900

Tanglin Barracks in 1900. A former nutmeg plantation, the base was decommissioned and turned to civilian purposes in the 1990s

Among the more than three hundred German internees at Tanglin Barracks are seventeen officers and crew of the Emden, a commerce-raiding cruiser which ran amok in the Indian Ocean until brought to battle by the HMAS Sydney, who were captured while operating the collier Exford as a prize crew. Although their liberation is a primary goal of the outside agitators, almost all of the internees refuse to join the mutineers; only one man of the Emden, Lieutenant Commander Julius Lauterbach, has the courage to make a bid for freedom. Lauterbach escapes by way of Java and the Philippines to Shanghai, where he avoids a Japanese dragnet by posing as a Scandinavian merchant to book passage to Hawaii.

(As I keep saying, there are enough adventure stories and intrigue during the Great War to make a dozen Hollywood — or Bollywood — productions.)

Rather than accept loyal Sepoys into his camp, Lt. Col. Martin tells them to take cover and avoid being mistaken for the enemy. In short order, he sets up a defense of his position and calls for reinforcements. Muslim civilians in town remain loyal, and the rebellious Baluchis have no support during the night. At first light, Martin counterattacks and wins back the barracks, scattering his foe and then keeping up a steady rate of fire all night where ever he finds them. As the mutineers try to enlarge their rebellion across the island, the Sultan of Johore’s army meets them.

The next day, four allied warships show up: one Russian, two Japanese, and the French Montcalm, which lands Marines. Low on ammunition, many of the insurgent soldiers soon begin to surrender. Some try to meld into the jungle, but they are not jungle fighters, and there are no supplies or relief on the way for them. Five days after the crisis began, British reservists arrive from Rangoon and quickly round up the last holdouts.

Muslim soldiers on the Western Front in 1915

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers served proudly and loyally on the Western Front, in Africa, and in Middle East

A court martial is held for more than two hundred mutineers on the 23rd of February, with 137 convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, while others serve various terms at prison colonies. Lasting into mid-May, the inquiry finds no single source of blame for the deadly uprising, but cites low morale as a problem. Martin is a capable combat commander, but his command suffers from poor communication between white and native officers.

The role of outside agitators is also deemed a motivating factor, and Pir Nur Alam Shah, a radical cleric at the Kampung Jawa Mosque as well as a member of the Ghadar Party, is later deported for his role in the Singapore Mutiny. He will remain under surveillance by British intelligence for years to come. Indeed, British agents are already tracking all the Ghadarites passing through Singapore — and laying plans of their own.

Among the many lies spread by the provocateurs, but only now recognized as rampant, are that the Kaiser himself has converted to Islam. Two mutineers even claim allegiance to the Kaiser, one doing so dramatically just before the execution. Rallying in the immediate wake of events, Singaporeans reject the uprising, and a crowd of over 15,000 turns out to watch the firing squad in solemn approval.

A re-formed 5th is later sent to Africa, where they will fight with courage in two campaigns to remove the stain on their unit’s honor.

A map of Singapore. Click to embiggen

A map of Singapore, Britain’s strategic colony on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. Click to embiggen