Anzac and India: A shared but forgotten camaraderie
“Before the war who had ever heard of ANZAC? Hereafter who will ever forget it?” …by saying this British Commander at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton best summed up the spirit of Anzac.
Gallipoli was the strife of people of different races and it has had a special impact on Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, who have kept the spirit alive. What is not immediately remembered is that there was a significant participation by troops from India. A million Indian troops fought in the First World War, of them 700,000 were pitted against the Ottoman Empire. In Gallipoli they formed part of the Australia New Zealand Division. Of 5010 Indians who served in Anzac, 1926 died and 3863 were wounded, some more than once. The number of dead, although horrific, paled in comparison with the number that died in France and Belgium.
“This fighting force was complete only with the participation of troops from India. Several accounts of the campaign remember the Indian soldiers and the camaraderie they shared, which alas is not commemorated as much as it rightly deserves.” The Australian Imperial Force commemorating the Australia New Zealand Division.
There were many constraints to the participation, not only to the British Empire but also to the troops. It was a time when the 1857 mutiny and the Afghan campaigns were still in the memories of the British and it influenced policy within the Indian Army. Around this time the Ottoman Empire had launched its pan-Islamic movements that held the Caliphate in Turkey in high esteem and Muslims in India were sympathetic to protecting it. This was also the time when an Indian Muslim League had formed with separate demands. The freedom movements in India were beginning to gain momentum. In 1903-4, Lord Kitchener, the C in C of the Indian Army, started re-organizing the army into field formations under commands and divisions, preferring troops from new found regions and loyalties.
The Indian contribution to the First World War was in the form of seven Expeditionary Forces (A to G), fighting in the Western front, East Africa Campaign, British East Africa, Mesopotamia, Sinai and Palestine, First Suez Offensive and the Gallipoli Campaign. The Mesopotamia Campaign was almost entirely an Indian one.
It was Expeditionary Force G that fought in the Gallipoli Campaign. It comprised the 29th Indian Brigade, which had under its command four Infantry Battalions, namely: 14th (King Georges Own) Ferozepur Sikhs, 1/5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), and the 1/6th and 2/10th Gurkha Rifles. An artillery component: 7th Mountain Artillery Brigade with 21st (Kohat) and the 26th (Jacob’s) Mountain Batteries, equipped with breech-loading 10-pounder guns. These mountain batteries were the first to be reluctantly Indian-ised after the great mutiny of 1857. Further, except for the Gurkha battalions, all other units had equal components of Muslim troops. As the Ottoman Empire at that time held sway over the Islamic world and Indian troops were subject to Turkish propaganda, units with Muslim troops were quickly moved away to France, leaving mainly the Gurkhas to fight it out in Gallipoli.
There was also an Indian mule cart train of the Indian Supply and Transport Corps whose services were vital for the operations of the entire Anzac. The lone Indian muleteer who stayed back to provide logistic support to Kiwis is part of part of folk lore to date. All these units were further served by the 108th Indian Field Ambulance. In addition, 69 Punjabis and 89 Punjabis, on their way to France and Flanders as part of 7th Indian Infantry Division were rerouted and sent to Gallipoli.
The Battle of Gallipoli had raged on two fronts, Anzac Cove and Cape Helles (see map on left), for three months since the invasion of 25 April 1915. With the Anzac landing a tense stalemate, the allies had attempted to carry the offensive on the Helles battlefield at enormous cost for little gain. In August, the British command proposed a new operation to reinvigorate the campaign by capturing the Sari Bair ridge, the high ground that dominated the middle of the peninsula above the Anzac landing.
The troops that fought in Gallipoli, as part of Anzac, were the 29 Indian Infantry Brigade. The Indian brigade was dispatched from Egypt and attached to the British 29th Division which had been decimated in the earlier battles. 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. In this Helles front Krithia was an important objective and several attempts were made to capture it. There were four battles fought over Krithia and the Turks successfully defended it till the end.
The brigade was held in reserve for the Second Battle of Krithia and they played a major part in the Third Battle of Krithia. Advancing on the left the Brigade was quickly halted except along the Aegean shore where the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles managed to advance. The 14th KGO Sikhs, advancing along the floor of Gully Ravine, were almost wiped out, losing 380 men out of 514 and 80% of their officers. The Brigade was next involved in the Battle of Gully Ravine and here the 2/10th Gurkha Rifles managed to advance half a mile.
The Brigade next took part in the Battle of Sari Bair; under cover of a naval bombardment the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles assaulted and captured the hill, which was then shelled by the Royal Navy. With their casualties mounting and under command of the battalion medical officer they were forced to withdraw to their starting positions. By the end of the campaign, which by every account was a disaster, the Gurkhas had achieved their objective to overlook the spine of the peninsula. Thus a piece of geography there was referred to as Gurkha Bluff.
Many accounts of Gallipoli remember the Indian Ambulance Brigade and the Indian Mule Transport. “The Anzacs called every Indian ‘Johnny’ and treated them like a brother, with the consequences that the Indians liked them even more … I often saw parties of Australians and New Zealanders sitting in the lines, eating chuppatties and talking to the men.” Major HM Alexander, Indian Mule Transport.
The spirit of Gallipoli lives on as battle honours in the regiments that exist even to date in the Indian Army albeit under new titles. Indians who gave their supreme sacrifice in the Helles sector are commemorated on the memorial at Cape Helles, alongside Twelve Tree Copse Memorial that commemorates the New Zealanders killed in the sector.
India Gate, a prominent landmark in Delhi, one of the largest war memorials in India was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (who designed several buildings including the Lutyens Palace). Originally known as All India War Memorial it commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the erstwhile British Indian Army who lost their lives fighting for the British Indian Empire, or more correctly the British Raj in First World War and three Afghan Wars. Names of those who sacrificed their lives at Gallipoli are also engraved on this memorial.
Indian soldiers were not eligible for the Victoria Cross until 1911; instead they received the Indian Order of Merit, an older decoration originally set up in the days of the East India Company rule in India. The honour of being the first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) in any conflict went to Khudadad Khan, 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis on 31 October 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium. He was followed by 13 more Indians to be honoured with same award in First World War.
Anzac Day is seen and celebrated as marking a very important event in Australia and New Zealand’s history. Official publications state that the Gallipoli campaign helped New Zealand define itself as a nation, in that, after Gallipoli New Zealand had confidence in its distinct identity and pride in the international contribution it could make. Further, it is also held that the mutual respect earned during the fighting formed the basis of the close ties between Australia and New Zealand.
India’s contribution is acknowledged in the several war memorials and battle honours bestowed on battalions and regiments, also in several personal accounts and books with a deep sense of comradeship with the Indian soldiers. However, in contrast, the spirit of Gallipoli as seen in the Anzac and the comradeship that developed thereafter seems to overlook the contributions of Indian troops. There could be many reasons for this unintentional amnesia. Foremost will be the fact that as an erstwhile colony India’s contribution was taken for granted and with no independent political resonance to back it up.
Next, Indian Army in its history from 1757 to 1914 had on many occasions suffered heavier casualties where whole battalions were wiped out. Thus Gallipoli was not such a major mile stone for the Indian Army as it is for Anzac. Further during the Great War 1914-1919 much heavier casualties were suffered in France and Flanders. It is in recorded history that 69 Punjabis and many other units during the Battle of Loos, on 25 Sep 1915 went into attack in the morning with 800 bayonet strength and by evening muster the tally was less than 150. The ferocity of First World War was much more than anything so before or after, and the Gallipoli campaign was one of many that the Indian Army went through.
Indian, Australian and New Zealanders have had a long history of joint military operations. After Gallipoli, in the Second World War the Indian Army was to number nearly 2 million men- the largest volunteer force in the history of human conflict. It was natural that the Indian troops would take to the field with their old Anzac companions. They did so in the battlefields of North Africa and later in the fierce fighting to roll back the Germans in Italy, in Burma and the Pacific theatre.
Indians and Anzac, who fought alongside in Gallipoli had much more in common than merely being comrades in arms. They served like in the Charge of the Light Brigade … ‘not to reason why, but to do and die …’ Anzac day needs to remember the Indian mates who served in Gallipoli.
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