The Gallipoli Campaign and the story of the unknown Indian soldiers


The past century had been a century of wars, devastation and also the formation of independent countries around the world. Even a hundred years later, details about certain historical events remain sketchy. One such rather unknown fact, has been the large number of Indian soldiers, who were part of the British Indian Army in the historic  Battle of Gallipoli.

The Battle of Gallipoli or the Gallipoli Campaign, was a campaign of the First World War that took place on the Gallipoli peninsula, from 17 February 1915 to 9 January 1916. In a bid to weaken one of their opponents in the war, the Ottoman Empire, the Entente powers- Britain, France and Russia, attempted to take control of the straits that provided a supply route to Russia. They launched attacks on Ottoman forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles in February 1915, and followed it with an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula two months later, in April 1915.

Gallipoli – A Campaign of much significance

The campaign ended in a disaster for the Allied powers, but is considered to be a defining moment in the history of Turkey. This campaign laid the foundation of for the Turkish War of Independence and the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. It also helped Australia and New Zealand to forge their own national identities, but the stories of the countless Indian soldiers remain unknown, even though historians estimate, India sent 1.3 million soldiers to the First World War, as part of the British Indian Army.

In March 1915, a fleet of British and French battleships – Irrestible, Inflexible, Queen Elizabeth and Charlemagne, tried to force their way through the Dardanelles Strait towards Constantinople. However, they had to deal with a bombardment by the Turkish shore batteries on the either side of the strait. Within a span of three days, most of their battleships were either sunk or rendered unusable.

Following this, in April 1915, Britain decided to land soldiers for the next part of campaign. These soldiers were for the most part, colonial troops, drawn from the Australian and New Zealand Corps or ANZACs, along with a sizeable number from the Indian subcontinent. The objective was to land these soldiers on the west coast of Gallipoli in order to capture the peninsula and moving north to capture Constantinople. Thus on April 25 1915, the ANZACs landed on the beaches of Gallipoli under the cover of fire provided by the troops of the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade.

The Unknown Soldiers of Gallipoli  

Though the presence of Indians in the battle has been rather unknown, but according to Australian Military historian Professor Peter Stanley, in his book, Die in Battle, Do Not Despair, there were 16,000 Indians at Gallipoli and 1,600 perished in the fighting. According to Professor Stanley, a crucial role was played by the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, along with the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade composed of the 14th King George’s Own Ferozepur Sikhs ( 4 Mech today), 1/6 Gurkha Rifles ( now Royal Gurkha Rifles ), 69th Punjabis ( 1 Guards ) and 89th Punjabis ( 1 Baloch, Pakistan Army).

Apart from the mountain artillery brigade, there were also the much important, mule transport. The Mule Corps comprised of 650 men and more than 1,000 mules to transport supplies to troops on the peninsula where motor transport was impossible. According to historians the Mule Corps established themselves in an area known as Mule Gully, which came under constant sniper and machine gun fire during the day, thus making the transport possible, only during the nights, with much difficulty.

Along with the contribution of the Mule Corps, it were the Gurkhas who stood out in the campaign. Here, Professor Stanley, points out an interesting observation. Drawn mostly from north India, most of the soldiers of the Punjabi battalions were Muslims, and the British generals, backed by their colonial politics and mindset, withdrew them, on the ground that being Muslims, they may have qualms about fighting the troops of the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Gurkhas were deployed. Another advantage with the Gurkha regiments was the terrain. The hilly terrain of Gallipoli was suitable for the Gurkhas as they were trained in mountain warfare. The Gurkhas, soon captured a hilly feature in May- known as the Gurkha Bluff in their honour, and by August, they had crested Sari Bair ridge. They had to withdraw in the end, as they came under heavy shelling by the Royal Navy, who mistook them to be Turks.

An Opportunity to the Present from the Past

The Gallipoli campaign went onto have a huge significance for Turkey, along with the emergence of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand. For India and its unknown soldiers, it is a testament of its colonial past, where people became soldiers and casualties  in faraway wars and countries.

A famous quote, largely attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in connection with the Gallipoli campaign, highlights the alikeness of the soldiers- the Turkish as well as the ‘other’ after the war –

“ Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

While there are a few questions raised by historians, regarding the exact date on which Ataturk might have said these words, but they can be seen as a huge marker for history, politics and diplomacy. These words beautifully appropriates history and a shared past, where cultures and people continuously collided. However, even through the devastations of the wars, the composite culture have always shined through.

For a fact, the contribution of the Indian soldiers in the numerous campaigns of the British Indian Army have largely been unrecognized. Even then, the presence of the Indian soldiers in the campaign of Gallipoli, even though on the side lines of opposition, can offer some crucial lessons in the shared history and past of both the countries- Turkey and India. Even after more than a hundred years, it is historical events like these, which are opportunities that can be taken, so that cultural diplomacy, people to people contact, through scholars and greater in-depth research can be undertaken.

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