By Gurbir Singh:
‘Those who create history, seldom have the time to write about it’, this old saying could well be the reason that the vital contribution of Indian troops in Gallipoli has largely gone unnoticed until recently.
As none of their personal experiences were ever documented, was perhaps the reason many Kiwis and Aussies were or are still unaware of the vital role played by the Indian troops to the Gallipoli campaign.
Just like the Aussies and New Zealand troops, the professional Indian soldiers fought a war in a strange land and against an enemy they knew little about.
The Indian involvement at Gallipoli in 1915 –a campaign that lasted eight months and claimed at least 125,000 lives, is now a well-recognised fact, with documentation including photographs and letters unearthed after many years.
Nearly 16,000 Indian troops, comprising Gurkha and Sikh battalions, fought alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli. 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 Gallipoli.
Historians believe almost 1,600 Indians died at Gallipoli and up to 3,500 were wounded.
The ‘courage, comradeship & camaraderie’ of Indian troops at Gallipoli was documented perhaps for the first time in late 2015 by Professor Peter Stanley of the University of New South Wales.
In his latest book “Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915”, the well known Australian historian and researcher Prof Stanley found that 16,000 Indian troops fought alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli, of whom 1600 died at Gallipoli.
With over 80 photographs and colour maps, Stanley’s book has the complete list of the names of these 1600 fallen Indian troops who were also cremated in Gallipoli.
The Indian contingent comprised the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, 29thIndian Infantry Brigade, and medicos of the 108th Indian Field Ambulance, among others.
There was also the an Indian Mule Corps of the Indian Supply and Transport Corps which served as the logistic lifeline. Made up of 650 men and more than 1,000 mules, it transported supplies – including food and water – to troops where motor transport was impossible. The transport took place almost always at night, under cover of darkness. They were the unsung heroes of Gallipoli. If it hadn’t been for them, the Anzacs and the rest would not have been able to hold on in the manner that they did.
They served there from late April 1915, through the August offensive, until the final evacuation in December.
The contribution of the 14th Sikh regiment was particularly noteworthy. 371 Sikhs fought valiantly to their death on June 3 and 4, 1915. Their bravery is exemplified by the fact that Sikhs won 14 of the 22 Victoria Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers and many were awarded the Victoria Cross honour.
General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander of the Gallipoli operations paid tribute to the heroism of the 14th Sikhs soldiers at Gallipoli. He wrote to the Commander-in-Chief in India:
“In the highest sense of the word extreme gallantry has been shown by this fine Battalion. . . . In spite of these tremendous losses there was not a sign of wavering all day. Not an inch of ground gained was given up and not a single straggler came back. The ends of the enemy’s trenches leading into the ravine were found to be blocked with the bodies of Sikhs and of the enemy who died fighting at close quarters”.
Similar tributes were paid by F. Yeats-Brown who wrote in Martial India (1945):
“The history of the Sikhs affords many instances of their value as soldiers, but it may be safely asserted that nothing finer than the grim valour and steady discipline displayed by them on the 4th June has ever been done by soldiers of the Khalsa. Their devotion to duty and their splendid loyalty to their orders and to their leaders make a record their nation should look back upon with pride for many generations.”
Many of the Indians who fought at Gallipoli were from Punjab, but few records remain about their contribution to the war effort there. The only recognition is a small plaque at a hospital in Ferozepur.
Gallipoli campaign of the WW1 in 1915, continues to be a turning point in the history of Australia and New Zealand and Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in these two countries.
While this Day commemorates the sacrifices made by troops of these two neighbouring countries, it’s time also to recall the vital role that the Indian soldiers played in the Gallipoli campaign.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne (Australia), a contingent of Indian veterans participated in the Anzac parade to mark the 104th anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers on the Turkish Peninsula. An estimated crowd of 25,000 people participated in the dawn service.