Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli

Group of soldiers wearing turbans gathered on top of a hill around a gun barrel on wheels.

The Australian War Memorial says of this photo, “A group of gunners from the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade with one of their guns, which was used to support the Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The guns of this brigade were the first shore at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915; from then on they won, and kept, the admiration of the infantry.”

The Anzac Day that was bigger than ever has been and gone. Returned soldiers from Australia and New Zealand have marched for another year, remembering wars past and present. This year was the centenary of the event that started it all – the landing of British forces at Gallipoli. Australians and New Zealanders were there.

And so were many Indians.

New Zealand journalist, William Hill landed as a soldier with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. While in hospital later that year he wrote a letter in which he recalled:

The first realisation of what the war really is like came to us as we stumbled across the beach, which was just littered with wounded men – English, French, Indians, New Zealanders and Australians.

29/8/1915

On Saturday Indian soldiers marched at Anzac Day events around Australia. The presence of Indians in the Anzac Day marches is an important reminder of the nature of World War I. It was a war of empires. The imperial overlords mustered the colonials to battle the armies of other empires. At Gallipoli the armies of the French and British empires fought the Ottoman forces on their home soil. The British forces included soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the India subcontinent and Newfoundland which is now part of Canada.

One hundred years after the first landing of troops at Gallipoli Australians hear very little about the Indian soldiers who played an important part in the fighting at Gallipoli. Yet there are many references to the Indians at Gallipoli in the diaries of the Anzacs.

3 turbanned men standing behind a pile of sandbags on a hill, 1 man sitting and holding a long pipe that is coming out of the sandbags.

“An Indian Mountain Battery in action at the back of Quinn’s Post at Anzac Cove.” Source: Australian War Memorial

The future Catholic cardinal of Sydney, Norman Gilroy, was serving as a junior wireless operator on a transport ship. His ship, the Hessen (later renamed the Bulla), was responsible for transporting troops who were to land at Gallipoli on 25th April. Gilroy recorded that the Hessen transported over 400 Sikhs, 200 mules, several Indian and English officers. “The Sikhs are men from the hills of India enrolled in the mountain Battery. They are all very tall lean men, but very wiry.” Gilroy observed.

Soldiers from the subcontinent were fighting alongside Australian, New Zealand and British troops from the first day of hostilities on the peninsula.  “The Indian mountain guns just above me on the hills were pounding away in great style, but I hear have suffered many casualties”, wrote the commanding officer of the 5th Field Artillery Brigade, Charles Rosenthal in his diary entry on 25th of April. Private Archie Barwick thought highly of the Indians. “[T]he way the Indian batteries behaved on the first day or so of the landing is beyond all praise, they suffered heavily too”.

The Indians gained great respect for their feats on the battlefield, particularly at the Battle of Sari Bair. The commanding officer of the Allied forces on Gallipoli, Sir Ian Hamilton, wrote t

To the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, therefore, and to those who were associated with that famous Corps in the battle of Sari Bair – the Maoris, Sikhs, Gurkhas, and the new troops of the 10th and 13th Divisions from the old Country – Sir Ian Hamilton tenders his appreciation of their efforts, his admiration of their gallantry, and his thanks for their achievements.

Special Order from Sir Ian Hamilton, 7/9/1915, found in diary of Oscar Rhodes (p. 69).

The relationship between the Indians and the Australians went beyond the requirements of the job before them. Archie Barwick observed, “[t]he Indians of all tribes are on fine terms with the Colonials…”

They were indeed.

The Australians admired the way the Indian soldiers fought and were grateful for the hard work of the Indians who brought supplies to the trenches using mules on the steep hills. Dudley V Walford of the thirteenth battalion observed in his diary:

Throughout the Gallipoli campaign the Indian Mule Corps played an important part for it was to them that we trusted all our supplies of ammunition, water, food and necessary timbers being punctually brought to the firing lines… We daily awaited their arrival & their cheerful Indian leaders whom we called Johnny…

Frederick Burgis of the 20th Battalion was another who praised the work of the Indian Mule Corps. “They and the Gurkhas have a very good opinion of our men, and in speaking we say “Hulloa Johnny”. They say likewise. So that we are all Johnnys.”

Indian and Australian soldiers posing for a photo with mules behind them.

“A group of eight unidentified Australian artillerymen and two Indian drivers on the beach at Anzac Cove.” Source: Australian War Memorial

Last year there was some controversy in Adelaide about whether Indians should be allowed to march in this year’s official Anzac Day march. Fortunately the issue has been resolved so that veterans of the Indian army who now live in Australia be allowed to march for the next four years recognising their role as allies of the Australians and New Zealanders. This shows proper recognition and respect for the Indians who were important co-combatants with the Anzacs throughout World War I.

Syd Sikhs march Anzac Day 2015

Veteran Sikh soldiers marching in Sydney, Anzac Day 2015.

Indians also marched in Anzac Day parades in Perth, Sydney and other places in Australia.

As I was searching through the diaries of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli I came across actions that were small but demonstrated the depth of camaraderie between the Indian and Australian soldiers. The Australians were often hungry and thoroughly sick of the hard biscuits and bully beef that they had to eat too often. Some were developing a taste for Indian food.

“Called on Indians & had a feed of curry & chapadies”, wrote Leonard Bartlett, a signaller with the 4th Battalion. Bartlett had the flu, was hungry, dirty and was disgusted at the living conditions the soldiers endured. A couple of days earlier he conducted a culinary experiment,

Went over to Indian Camp in eveng. & got some chapadies (?) which went down well with marmalade.

Not only did the Australians and Indians share food, they also shared clothes. Group portrait of three Indian troops and a Gurkha (far right), all unidentified, at Walden Grove, Gallipoli Peninsula. The Australian War Memorial says of this photo,

Not only did the Australians and Indians share food, they also shared clothes. “Group portrait of three Indian troops and a Gurkha (far right), all unidentified, at Walden Grove, Gallipoli Peninsula. The first two soldiers on the left are Sikhs. The third soldier from the left is wearing an Australian jacket and a forage cap of the type that was issued to Australians before the service dress cap.” Source: Australian War Memorial

If I left this account of Gallipoli at this point, I would leave you with a soft glow of frontline amicability and friendship. That certainly happened on battle fields throughout the war, but this is a perverse side-effect of war. The human spirit can still be seen despite war’s quest to suppress it. Yet I am reminded of Professor Karen Hagemann’s advice to historians who write about war. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war.”, she said.

The main purpose of war is to cause death and destruction. All soldiers are required to work towards this, whether they collude as friends or clash as enemies. To avoid mentioning the main purpose of war is to sentimentalise war and tread the slippery slope that leads to glorifying war.

This is a message that the New Zealander, William Hill, and many other soldiers were desperate to convey. “Don’t ever believe stories about the glories of war, because war is not glorious, it is hell – nothing but dirt, filth, blood, sweat, toil and pain”, he wrote from his hospital bed.

As Hill attested, many Indians were injured at Gallipoli. Around 1600 Indians were killed. These Indians and their families shared the same fear, pain and loss suffered by Australians and New Zealanders.

While writing this post a horrific earthquake struck Nepal. The death toll has climbed past 4,000. If friendship and trust can develop on the frontline of a war, we can show an abundance of fellowship with the members of our human family at this time when they need it most. Children are often disproportionately affected by natural disasters so UNICEF has set up the Nepal Earthquake Children’s Appeal to address their needs. Médecins Sans Frontières have already sent some teams into Nepal but the scale of the disaster will require many more medical resources to be quickly brought into the country. 

Further Reading

All the quotes from the soldiers come from the significant collection of WWI soldier diaries and letters held by the State Library of New South Wales.

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13 thoughts on “Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli

  1. You mention that 1600 Indians were killed. Do you know how many served? I read somewhere in the past week that the number was 15,000, but don’t know how accurate that figure is.

    Thanks, too, for sharing the quote from New Zealander, William Hill: “Don’t ever believe stories about the glories of war, because war is not glorious, it is hell – nothing but dirt, filth, blood, sweat, toil and pain”.

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    • Statistics and war are both nebulous creatures. I hunted around for some definitive statistics about Indians serving at Gallipoli but came up with a variety of websites with a variety of numbers. Apparently many Indian war records were destroyed during the partition after World War II. But even the Australian statistics about World War I are described as estimates.

      I settled for using Peter Stanley’s estimate of the number of Indians who died at Gallipoli as he has done a lot of work about Indians at Gallipoli for his book forthcoming. I suggest you contact him with your question.

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      • Thanks! I will have to keep an eye out for his forthcoming book. It’s great that some of these alternative stories are coming out, so thanks for this post.

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  2. hello. Peter Stanley here. Thank you, Yvonne, for this work. Some of these sources are new to me. There’s clearly more work to be done.
    I can confirm that just over 16,000 Indian Army troops served on Gallipoli. We used to think it was just 5000 or so – but I worked through the Force G, Force E and Indian Army Headquarters war diaries in the National Archives of India in early 2014 and it became absolutely clear that the figure must be at least 15,000.
    There’s more in my book, of course – to be launched in London on 28 May, Winchester (at the Gurkha museum) on 5 June, Canberra on 6 August and in Delhi in mid-December.
    Contact me if you’d like to know more at p.stanley@adfa.edu.au
    PS though – the AWM photo supposedly showing ‘three Indian troops and a Gurkha’ is plainly mis-captioned. There are no Sikhs in that photo. I think these men are medical personnel at a dressing station during the August offensive, and are therefore probably Hindus from the Ganges valley (UP), guarded by a Gurkha because the foothills of the Sari Bair range were still full of Ottoman snipers.

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    • Thank you very much for your comment Peter and the correction to the caption of that photo. I wonder if you could persuade the Australian War Memorial to change it?

      I’m looking forward to reading your book. It would be great if it percolates through schools, governments and media in Australia so that next Anzac Day we hear about all the troops that were involved in the campaign, not just a select few.

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  3. Wonderful post Yvonne. Did you see Peter Stanley’s article about Indian soldiers in the most recent edition of History Australia (Volume 12, No 1 April 2015). It’s an excellent issue, with an interesting feature about commemoration of Gallipoli in Turkey, Australia, India, NZ, France/Senegal and Britain/Ireland. It was all very timely (and it reminds me that I must open up my journals when they arrive instead of leaving them wrapped up for ‘later’) If you’re a member of a state library, you probably have access to History Australia.

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    • Agh! On Friday I had a note from the post office saying that a parcel was awaiting collection at the post office. I delayed collecting it until I had finished this post. It was the most recent edition that you referred to with the special feature on ‘Remembering Gallipoli in a Global Context’! I had changed my address, but clearly not in time for this issue to come directly to me.

      So I’ll be reading Peter Stanley’s article tonight!

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  4. Hello I was interested to hear about your post on” Indian soldiers” in the war’s as my Hubby ancestries are Indian .Hookum Tchan wife n families first arrived in 1829 living the rest of their lives in Perth.
    But his Grandson William Matthew Tchan was rejected 6 times when 1st enlisting in ww1 .
    It is said that he got 6 white feathers .
    They said he was not European enough in appearance to join the Army in 1WW.
    He was so determined to serve his country in the WW2 he dyed his hair, and finally got accepted into the Australian Army and his son joined the Navy . .

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    • Thank you Julie for sharing a fascinating family history. During WWI men applying to serve had to be “of sufficient European descent”. It became easier later in the war for non-European men to sign up, but success depended on the attitude of the officials that were handling the application.

      The Tchan family arrived in Australia very early. Do you know what brought them to Australia?

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  5. I don’t understand why there was a debate about whether Indians should be allowed to march in this year’s official Anzac Day march or not. If they were loyal enough back in 1914 to be active allies of the British, Australians and New Zealanders, then we need to recognise their loyalty and sacrifice in the proper way today.

    I have pictures of King George and Queen Mary visiting a hospital for Indian soldiers in Brighton in 1915. The royals wanted to thank the Indian men warmly and in person.

    Hels
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/indias-brave-soldiers-in-brighton-1914.html

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    • Thank you for the link to your blog post about how inured Indian soldiers were cared for in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton in England. That is another interesting aspect of the story of Indians in WWI.

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  6. Thanks Paula for a very interesting post. I am wondering why there is a time limit of four years for the Indians to be allowed to march with us. They should be allowed to march for as long as they want to march.

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