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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Eliza Barr, ‘Large crowds gather at Balmain’s Loyalty Square Cenotaph, one of the world’s oldest World War I memorials, for an Anzac dawn service‘, Inner West Courier, 27/4/2015. This article briefly refers to a Malaysian Sikh Pipe Band leading the dawn service with a photo.
- Gurinder Kaur, ‘Anzac Day 2015: Record Sikh crowds participate all over Australia‘, Singh Station, 26/4/2015.
- Stephanie March, ‘Anzac Day 2015: Up to 15,000 ‘forgotten’ Indian soldiers fought alongside Anzacs‘, ABC.
- Manpreet K Singh, ‘Remembering the contribution of Indian troops in Gallipoli‘, SBS, 25/4/2015. Peter Stanley is interviewed for this article
- Manpreet K Singh, ‘Thousands of Indians fought with the Anzacs‘, SBS, 22/4/2015.
- Peter Stanley, Die in Battle, Do Not Despair: The Indians on Gallipoli, 1915, publication forthcoming. This book will be a welcome contribution to recognising the role of the large numbers of non-European soldiers in World War I.