100 years of the Indian gallantry in Gallipoli

  • Manpreet K Singh, Hindustan Times, Melbourne
  • Updated: Apr 21, 2015 22:56 IST

This year, April 25 marks the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) troops in Gallipoli, a military campaign during WW1 which lasted eight months and claimed at least 125,000 lives. Many regard April 25, 1915 as the day that Australia truly forged its national identity, rather than 1 January1901, when Australia federated as a nation. And as Australians prepare to mark this centenary with great respect, to honour those who fell in battle, the contribution of Indian troops in Gallipoli is also being remembered.

The Indian troops in Gallipoli comprised Gurkha and Sikh battalions from India, and thousands of mule drivers who literally "moved" the British forces and their allies. But their vital contributions to the Gallipoli campaign has been largely overlooked until now - to mark the centenary of that battle, the well known Australian historian and researcher Prof Peter Stanley has written the book "Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915".

Although there were at least a dozen Indian Australian soldiers who took part in WW1 as Anzacs - meaning that they enlisted as soldiers in the Australian Imperial Forces, but none of them were part of the Gallipoli campaign, since they joined the AIF after 1915. Even so, their names are inscribed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and they are paid homage to, as Anzac troops. A private collector in Canada even has two medals awarded to Private Ganessa Singh, described as an Indian Anzac, who returned to South Australia after completing his deployment in WW1. But as mentioned earlier, none of the Indian Anzacs fought in Gallipoli.

According to Professor Peter Stanley, there were four Gurkha battalions, one Sikh infantry battalion (of 14th Sikhs which suffered 80% casualties in June 1915 alone) and many thousands of Punjabi mule drivers in Galliopli. Stanley believes that most Indian troops were either illiterate or didn't maintain any records, which is why their stories have never been accurately told.

"To understand the Indian experience of Gallipoli, you must search the Anzac records - the diaries, photos and letters of Anzac soldiers who wrote endearingly about their Indian mates", says Stanley. He asserts that the close ties between Australia and India can be traced back to the landings at Anzac Cove, where Australians and Indians stood together resolutely, shoulder to shoulder. Travelling to New Zealand, India and Nepal to obtain more records, Stanley found that 16,000 Indian troops fought alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli, of whom 1600 became casualties of war. Stanley's book lists the names of these 1600 fallen Indians, predominantly Gurkhas or Sikhs, who were also cremated in Gallipoli after they fell.

Trawling through the Anzac records, Stanley found multiple mentions of the bravery of an Indian infantry man named Karam Singh. Many Anzacs wrote about Karam Singh with great awe, who is said to have continued to issue orders to his troops, even after he had been hit by an artillery shell and blinded by it.

Stanley tells us that even the most famous Australian Anzac John Simpson Kirkpatrick (popular in Australian folklore as Simpson and his donkey), used to stay with the Indian mule drivers in the battlefields of Gallipoli, because he preferred the fresh food cooked by the Indian troops much more than the bully beef that was supplied in the Australian rations. There are mentions of Simpson enjoying "chapattis" and freshly cooked curries, just two weeks before he himself succumbed to the war.

Letters sent by Anzacs show that they had the highest regard for the courage and professionalism shown by the Indian troops. One Anzac even sent a photo with his Indian mate, which was published in the Sydney Mail in 1916 with the title "Best Chums". The two Australian soldiers pictured in that photo, were killed soon after in action, but it is truly remarkable that they posed for a photo with a Sikh soldier in the battlefields of Gallipoli, and sent it back home to introduce him to their families as a mate. Says Prof Stanley, "That photo truly stands our for me," adding that the true friendship between Indians and Australians can be traced back to the fields of Gallipoli -- a friendship that must be commemorated at the centenary this year.

Prof Peter Stanley currently works at the University of New South Wales, and previously, worked for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for nearly three decades. He has authored quite a few books already and his new book "Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915" will be releasing shortly - first in London, then in Australia on August 6, and later in New Delhi.

To hear the author's audio interview with Professor Stanley, please visit www.sbs.com.au/punjabi

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