Indian links at Gallipoli

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One hundred years on, the extent of the Indian participation at Gallipoli is only now becoming apparent

For them it was duty, honour and country that came first. They fought in the trenches and on the frontline. Thousands perished and several thousand more were either wounded or scarred for life. Their service was full of heroic tales and deeds that even today inspire us.

These are the sacrifices our forefathers made and in our memories they will live on.

To commemorate the centenary of the landing by Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula during WWI, the National Sikh Council of Australia opened a week-long photographic exhibition at Sydney’s Parramatta Town Hall ahead of Anzac Day.

Supported by the Parramatta City Council, the exhibition showcased the contribution of the Gurkha and Sikh battalions from India who mobilised the British forces and her allies during the Gallipoli campaign. The rare historical photos and memorabilia dating back to these wars, presented a visual journey of those bygone years and a testimony of the 16,000 gallant Indian troops who fell fighting alongside the ANZACs.

The Indian contingent at Gallipoli comprised the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, Indian Supply and Transport Corps, and the 108th Indian Field Ambulance. They served there from late April 1915, through the August offensive, until the final evacuation in December.

“Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans have long been celebrated in history books and award-winning films like Gallipoli for their sacrifices,” Malaysian-based Harchand Singh Bedi, curator of the exhibition, said.

“Very little is known of the Indian troops who served during these wars. These images depict the century old partnership between the British Commonwealth and the Sikhs. The photographs document the relatively unheralded role of Sikh soldiers at the historic battle of Gallipoli and other wars where they fought alongside allied forces. They show how generations of Sikhs have sacrificed so much, including their lives, in virtually every field of battle.”

Back in 2006, Bedi stumbled upon a collection of photographs and artefacts of Indian soldiers during the war. Being a history buff, he realised their historical importance and plunged into digitising and restoring them to bring the collection to the attention of the wider public. What initially started out as a hobby eventually turned into his life’s quest.

“In my quest to preserve the legacy of Sikh soldiers I have not left a solitary stone unturned,” he affirmed, with a gleam in his eye. “I have been compiling photographs and artefacts of their involvement by visiting archives and libraries all over the world.”

“Over the past eight years, I have collected a lot of rare photographs from many countries in south-east Asia and Europe that highlight the participation of Sikh soldiers,” Bedi added.

Spectators and guests were enthralled watching Malaysia’s Sri Dasmesh Pipe Band perform at the Town Hall for the occassion. Begun in 1986 by Sukdev Singh and Harvinder Singh, it is the single largest Sikh bagpipe band in the world. Its members range from students to accomplished professionals in many fields. Despite the damp weather, the band marched down the streets performing many tunes that got the crowd gazing at them with admiration.

Speaking on the occasion, Lord Mayor Scott Lloyd hailed Parramatta as the meeting place for new and old arrivals. “It is home to many Indian communities, particularly the Sikhs, who came here generations ago. This exhibition is truly marvellous. With this, we are celebrating what our forefathers have done for us and it is important we acknowledge and pay our respects to our elders both past and present. I think it’s a great opportunity for young people to know what was going on in both World Wars,” he said.

“Just like Aussies, the Sikhs too went from their homeland to far-off continents to fight on behalf of allied forces,” Dr Geoff Lee, Member for Parramatta told the gathering. “This photographic exhibition pays tribute to the thousands of Indian soldiers who fought alongside ANZAC soldiers. I was particularly impressed by the performance rendered by the acclaimed Sri Dasmesh band,” he added.

Ajmer Gill, President and Amarinder Bajwa, Vice President of the National Sikh Council of Australia were also in attendance. Bawa Singh Jagdev, Secretary of the National Sikh Council of Australia Inc., hosted the event and spoke of the historic camaraderie binding Australia and India.

Exhibits include maps marked with coordinates, photographs, figures and data were depicted including a lengthy list of the names of fallen heroes.

One noteworthy discovery at the exhibition is that of ‘Ajax’ – a 108th Indian Field Ambulance, or a hospital ship, employed to nurse the serious cases of sick and wounded Indians of the Brigade. The courage and devotion of the men who managed to treat those on the Peninsula is worthy of mention. Even though they were exposed to the unforgiving weather, and stricken with frostbites, they toiled relentlessly to collect and transport the wounded.

Another part of the exhibit showcased how up to 12 million letters were being delivered a week to soldiers and sailors, many of whom were on the front line – making the wartime postal service a remarkable operation. Receiving news from home was a comfort for soldiers, while writing letters proved to be a good distraction from the horrors of the trenches.

Letters sent by ANZACs confirm they had a high regard for the courage and bravery displayed by Indian troops. One of them even sent a photo with his Indian mate, which was published in the Sydney Mail in 1916 titled ‘Best Chums.’

Before WWI, the armed forces of British India consisted of 76,953 British soldiers, 193,901 soldiers of British India and 45,660 non-combatants. Soon after the war broke out, an expeditionary force of British Indians was sent to France under the command of General Sir James Willcocks (1878-1922), a decorated war veteran in August 1914. It comprised two infantry divisions, accompanied by four artillery brigades and two cavalry divisions.

As the war raged on, the allied forces regrouped to mount a massive assault against the Central Powers. The sun never set on the British Empire, but dark clouds loomed. Britain summoned all her colonies to participate as she had suffered casualties, with her resources rapidly depleting. Indian regiments would play a pivotal role, largely as reinforcements, with 1.3 million British Indian troops deployed to serve in the conflict. The death toll of these soldiers went up to 74,187 with another 67,000 wounded.

The battle of Gallipoli was fought in an attempt to capture Constantinople and take the Turks out of the war, who had entered it on the side of the Central Powers. Despite having faced heavy casualties and collateral damage, the troops pledged to remain steadfast. A company of Sikhs was sent to the aid of 2nd Royal Fusiliers who faced a tough time pushing back the beach heads. Although the allies did not succeed in their mission, the gallantry displayed on the part of Sikhs is lauded in the history of modern warfare.

Soldiers from British India fought in every theatre of conflict in WWI. This included France, Belgium, Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine, Egypt and the Sudan, Mesopotamia, Aden and the Red Sea coast, Somaliland, the Cameroons, East Africa, north-west Persia, Kurdistan, south Persia, the Gulf of Oman, East Persia, central Asia, north China and the north-west and north-east frontiers of India.


7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade

Made up of the 21st Kohat and 26th Jacob’s Mountain Battery, this brigade was part of the earliest landings at Gallipoli. It had Punjabi soldiers of Sikh and Muslim faiths (the latter believed to be the only allied Muslim fighters). The Anzac landing at Ari Burnu on the Aegean Sea (Anzac Cove) took place on 25 April 1915 simultaneously with the rest of the allies, including Indian troops, landing further south on the Gallipoli peninsula at Cape Helles.

29th Indian Infantry Brigade

Given the hilly terrain of the region, Ian Hamilton, the general in command of the Gallipoli operation, knew the Gurkhas would be ideally suited in this part of the war. (Gen Hamilton had served in India and risen through the ranks in the Gurkha Regiments, and was a fluent Hindi speaker.) The Brigade had under its command four Infantry Battalions: 14th (King Georges Own) Ferozepur Sikhs, 69th Punjabis, 89th Punjabis, 1/5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), and the 1/6th and 2/10th Gurkha Rifles. The men of the 29th saw early success at Gallipoli when they captured on 12 May, what is today called the Gurkha Bluff, mostly by scaling the cliffs on their hands and knees. This helped extend the line of allied defences.

The Brigade also saw significant action on 4 June, when the men of the 14th Sikhs fought the Third Battle of Krithia. The highest casualties for India ensued on this day. General Hamilton wrote in tribute:

“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, and the glacis slope is thickly dotted with the bodies of these fine soldiers all lying on their faces as they fell in their steady advance on the enemy.”

But the Brigade was able to retaliate successfully in counter attacks on 3 and 5 July.

The ‘August offensive’ also saw the Indian troops take to the frontline, with heavy battles on 5 and 6 August, with the climax of the battle of Sari Bair taking place on 9 and 10 August.

On 21 -28 August, the Brigade saw subsidiary action during the capture of Hill 60, a position they held until final evacuation in December.

Indian Supply and Transport Corps

The lack of roads necessitated the call for animal transport, which the Indian army fulfilled in terms of over 4000 mules and some 2000 carts, plus drivers. (Animal feed came from India.) The mule trains transported ammunition and supplies to the men in the trenches, often under enemy fire and in cover of darkness.

The 108th Indian Field Ambulance

A medical force travelling aboard the hospital ship Ajax took care of the wounded soldiers. Some historical mention can be found of the “fine courage of the men of the Indian Army Bearer Corps of this field ambulance during the time they were on the Peninsula”, especially during the November blizzards when they themselves suffered from frostbite and exposure.

Source: Gallipoli – A ridge too far by TS Chhina. Paper presented at Australian War Memorial international conference in 2010

Royston Rebello
Royston Rebello
A lover of literary and musical works

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