Almost 27,000 soldiers - the equivalent of one-quarter of the Army's entire manpower - have deserted or gone absent without leave in the past 10 years, The Herald can reveal.

At least 1100 of them are still on the run, amounting to two full battalions of permanently missing men at a time when every frontline unit is under strength and overstretched by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than 2000 have been reported missing from their units in the first 10 months of this year .

Although Ministry of Defence figures show that the Army's Awol problem peaked between 2002 and 2005, when an average of just under 2900 troops a year went "under the wire", the MoD denies that the prospect of combat was a major factor.

A spokesman said: "Numbers going Awol have remained fairly constant and actually fell back between 2004 and 2005 to the lowest level for four years.

"Soldiers - especially young soldiers - often abscond temporarily for family or personal relationship reasons and there is no evidence that operational commitments to Iraq or Afghanistan have contributed significantly to the figures."

While 26,620 soldiers have absconded since 1997, only 1115 sailors and 280 RAF personnel followed their example.

But despite comparatively minor numbers, the Navy's desertion rate more than trebled from 30 men in 1997 to 105 this year and the RAF's tally rose 25% from 15 to 20 .

Absconders from the Army went from 1450 a decade ago to 2060 to November this year, peaking at 3030 at the height of the insurgency in the UK's sector of Iraq in 2004.

A serving officer with a Scottish battalion said yesterday: "Most of those who go Awol come back to face the music after sorting out domestic disputes back home. It's usually woman trouble or debt.

"They only come back in police custody if they are arrested trying to sort out the typical Dear John' domestic grief or demands for financial instalments their dependants can't afford with their fists.

"If they are gone for a few days, they face fines or other minor punishment within their units when they troll back to barracks. Those who actually desert and have no intention of coming back are not generally pursued.

"We have neither the time, the manpower or the inclination, if truth be told. In a shrinking Army of under 100,000 trained soldiers, there's no room for those who don't want to be there."

A Parachute Regiment NCO with more than 10 years' experience added: "We're seeing increasing numbers of guys either going for voluntary outflow - signing off before their enlistment is up - or a smaller number doing a runner because of family pressure.

"Almost back-to-back tours in units in constant demand impose tremendous strain on wives and kids. I had one mate who left because he suddenly realised his son was five and the guy hadn't been at home to spend a single Christmas with the kid because of combat deployments.

"It's nonsense to say overstretch isn't a factor in the numbers going Awol. A six-month tour involves a nine-month absence from home. Soldiers are hauled off for three months' pre-deployment training before they go to hot, sandy places."