WWI: Three times more Indians fought at Gallipoli

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Old 13-Dec-2015
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WWI: Three times more Indians fought at Gallipoli

The Gallipoli campaign of the First World War in 1915 was a disaster for the Allies. Yet it was the defining moment in the history of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey—their national identities were forged on Turkish soil. India, though a major player, was given a short shrift and the number of troops in the Indian Expeditionary Force G at Gallipoli was pegged at only 5,000 for a century. That narrative is about to change.

Australian military historian Professor Peter Stanley has said in his latest book, Die in Battle, Do Not Despair, that there were actually 16,000 Indians at Gallipoli, and 1,600 perished fighting the Mehmets. Stanley found evidence to this effect at the National Archives of India in Delhi last year, but it was difficult to dig out individual stories as Indian troops, the vast number of them being illiterate, left no written accounts of the war. In the absence of memoirs, the Indian soldier of the First World War has remained a nameless, faceless entity and his contribution was reduced to a footnote in the pages of history — a paradox since India sent the largest army of volunteers (1.3 million) to the war.

"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," Stanley told Sunday Times.

Indians and the Anzacs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) first met up in Egypt in 1914 before the Gallipoli campaign started. At dawn on April 25, 1915, the Anzacs landed on the beaches of Gallipoli under the cover of fire provided by troops of the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade. "The Indian mountain artillery was the only artillery available at that time and the Anzacs remembered this help," Stanley said. Soon after, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade composed of the 14th King George's Own Ferozepore Sikhs (4 Mech today), 1/6 Gurkha Rifles (now Royal Gurkha Rifles), 69th Punjabis (1 Guards) and 89th Punjabis (1 Baloch, Pakistan Army), joined battle. But, colonial politics came into play.

"The Punjabi battalions were Muslims. They were withdrawn on the ground that being Muslims, they may have qualms about fighting the troops of the Caliph. The real reason was the theatre commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, wanted a Gurkha brigade. The hilly terrain of Gallipoli was most suitable for the Gurkhas as they were trained in mountain warfare, he thought. So the Punjabis, despite fighting valiantly and gloriously, were unfairly withdrawn and replaced by the 1/5 and the 2/10 Gurkhas. Yet the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade was never withdrawn although 75% of its troops were Muslims," Stanley said. Unfortunately, even today, ill-informed commentators on social media use this instance to question the loyalty of Muslims in the Indian Army.

The Gurkhas, true to their reputation, captured a hilly feature in May — called the Gurkha Bluff in their honour — and in August, they crested the Sari Bair ridge and came closest to ending the stalemate at Gallipoli. They had to withdraw when the Royal Navy shelled them thinking they were Turks. "We could speculate that had the Indian troops been used earlier in the campaign, Gallipoli may have had a different outcome," Stanley said.

The fighting qualities and discipline of the Indians had a profound impact on the Anzacs. "The British were apprehensive about clubbing Indians and Anzacs together as they thought the Anzacs would ill-treat them, but Indians and Anzacs developed a unique camaraderie. Indians were admired because they were professional and skilled soldiers unlike the Anzacs who were just volunteers," he said. "Many Australians officers commented in their diaries that Indians were role models."

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