25 April 2019 | Sunil Kaushal, Secretary General – NZITA

1915 (WW1): Indian Soldiers in a trench at Gallipoli. Photo credit: NAM_London

Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War I, and almost 75,000 of them died on the battlefields. But history has mostly forgotten these sacrifices.

16000 Indian Soldiers fought alongside ANZAC troops in Gallipoli campaign and as many as 1600 never returned back.

Termed as nothing short of a complete disaster for the allies, the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War in 1915, continues to be a turning point in the history of Australia and New Zealand. However, what we really forget is the significant role that the Indian soldiers played in the campaign.

Indians when touring the Gallipoli peninsula today are met with stunned silence from their guides who show them some of the graves of the Indian soldiers who died in battle.

As Rana Chinna, Retired Airforce Wing Commander and Military Historian puts it, “The average Indian is almost ignorant about Gallipoli as a campaign in World War I”. But, you may ask, what was the Gallipoli campaign and why is it imperative to understand the contribution of the Indian soldiers? Let us break it down for you.

1915 WW1: Indian soldiers in Battle of Gallipoli (Battle of Cankkale) also known as Dardanelles Campaign. Photo credit: NAM_London

The Gallipoli campaign was an unsuccessful attempt by the allied powers to control the sea route from Europe to Russia during the First World War. The British, French, ANZAC and Indian troops tried to invade the grueling terrain of the Gallipoli peninsula but made negligible headway in this regard. Unlike the Australian troops, the Indians who fought were professional soldiers and as history recounts, belonged to the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, the Indian Infantry Brigade, the Mountain Artillery Brigade and the Mule Brigade. The 29th Infantry Brigade comprised of the 1/6 Gurkhas, the 14th Ferozepur Sikhs, 69th and 89th Punjabis. General Sir Ian Hamilton who was the Commander-In-Chief for the Allied Powers wanted a Gurkha Brigade to traverse the hilly terrain of the Gallipolis after witnessing their military prowess in India earlier on. He believed that the Gurkhas would be his secret weapon.

The Indian Army Battalion almost ended the impasse at Gallipoli when they attacked the Turks physically but were unfortunately gunned down in an artillery attack which was mistakenly undertaken by the British Royal Army who mistook them for Turks. This compelled the Gurkhas to withdraw.

As Rana Chinna pointed out, “The Mule Corps were the unsung heroes of Gallipoli. If it hadn’t been for them, the Anzacs and the rest wouldn’t have been able to hold on in the manner that they did.”

The ANZAC’s and the Indian troops shared friendly relations and history shows that friendships developed on the battlefield, rations were shared and the ANZACs respected the Indians when they realized they were professional soldiers.

However, there exists very little information and next to negligible records about the contribution of the Indian soldiers in the battle of Gallipoli. Most of the soldiers who fought were from Punjab, and after India’s partition, letters, belongings and possessions were destroyed. The only tangible record that exists to this day is a small plaque in a tiny hospital in the city of Ferozepur in Punjab.

Professor Peter Stanley, an Australian military historian in his book “Die in Battle, DO not despair” has stated that there were actually 16 thousand Indians in Gallipoli and 1600 died while fighting the Turks.

The Gallipoli Campaign although a significant milestone in the Turkish history had no consequence in the larger scheme of the first world war. This is however not to say that the Indians didn’t play a significant role in the battle. As Professor Stanley in an interview to the Sunday Times said, “I accessed all possible records available in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Turkey, Nepal and India, and managed to piece together the individual stories of 200 Indians at Gallipoli. I can put my hand over my heart and say that the Indian role was all positive”

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”