Lest we forget: Remembering Sikh soldiers on Gallipoli

Anzac Day is commemorated every year on 25 April to mark the landing of Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) troops on Gallipoli in 1915, in the Turkish peninsula. This military campaign during WWI lasted eight months and claimed at least 125,000 lives. Many Sikhs paid the ultimate sacrifice on Gallipoli too, including 80% of the soldiers of a single Sikh battalion.

The Indian troops in Gallipoli comprised Gurkha and Sikh battalions from India, and thousands of mule drivers who literally “moved” the British forces and their allies.

But their vital contributions to the Gallipoli campaign has been largely overlooked. Now, Australian historian and researcher Prof Peter Stanley has published a book, Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915 that helps provide the missing link, and commemorates the Indian (especially Sikh) contribution on Gallipoli.


The three subedars

Although there were at least a dozen Indian Australian soldiers who took part in WWI as Anzacs – meaning that they enlisted as soldiers in the Australian Imperial Forces, but none of them took part in the Gallipoli campaign, since they joined the AIF after 1916.

Even so, their names are inscribed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and they are paid homage to, as Anzac troops. A private collector in Canada has preserved two medals awarded to Private Ganessa Singh, described as an Indian Anzac, who returned safely back home to South Australia after completing his deployment in WWI.

But as mentioned earlier, none of the Indian Anzacs fought in Gallipoli.


Medals awarded to Private Ganessa Singh, a Sikh Anzac

According to Professor Peter Stanley, there were four Gurkha battalions, one Sikh infantry battalion (of 14th Sikhs which suffered 80% casualties in June 1915 alone) and many thousands of Punjabi mule drivers in Gallipoli. Unfortunately, none of their personal experiences seem to have ever been documented.

This may be attributed to the old saying that those who create history, seldom have the time to write about it, or as Stanley believes, “Most Indian troops were either illiterate and didn’t maintain any records, or if they did, those records haven’t survived.”

Which is why their stories have never been accurately told – until now!

He adds, “To understand the Indian experience of Gallipoli, you must search the Anzac records – the diaries, photos and letters of Anzac soldiers who wrote endearingly about their Indian mates.”

“The close ties between Australia and India can be traced back to the landings at Anzac Cove, where Australians and Indians stood together resolutely, shoulder to shoulder”


An article by the author which appeared in Hindustan Times, Chandigarh

Stanley asserts that the close ties between Australia and India can be traced back to the landings at Anzac Cove, where Australians and Indians stood together resolutely, shoulder to shoulder. Travelling to New Zealand, India and Nepal to obtain more records, Stanley found that 16,000 Indian troops fought alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli, of whom 1600 became casualties of war. Stanley’s book lists the names of these 1600 fallen Indians, predominantly Gurkhas or Sikhs, who were also cremated in Gallipoli after they fell.


Three wounded Sikh soldiers on board the hospital ship Glengorm Castle

Trawling through the Anzac records, Stanley found multiple mentions of the bravery of an Indian infantry man named Karam Singh. Many Anzacs wrote about Karam Singh with great awe, who is said to have continued to issue orders to his troops, even after he had been hit by an artillery shell and blinded by it.

Stanley tells us that even the most famous Australian Anzac John Simpson Kirkpatrick (popular in Australian folklore as Simpson and his donkey), used to stay with the Indian mule drivers in the battlefields of Gallipoli, because he preferred the fresh food cooked by the Indian troops much more than the bully beef that was supplied in the Australian rations. There are mentions of Simpson enjoying “chapattis” and freshly cooked curries, just two weeks before he himself succumbed to the war.

Letters sent by Anzacs show that they had the highest regard for the courage and professionalism shown by the Indian troops.

One Anzac even sent a photo with his Indian mate, which was published in the Sydney Mail in 1916 with the title “Best Chums.”


Best of Chums, an article that appeared in the Sydney Mail in 1915

The two Australian soldiers pictured in that photo, were killed soon after in action, but it is truly remarkable that they posed for a photo with a Sikh soldier in the battlefields of Gallipoli, and sent it back home to introduce him to their families “as a mate”.

“That photo truly stands out for me,” says Prof Stanley. “The true friendship between Indians and Australians can be traced back to the fields of Gallipoli — a friendship that must be commemorated in this centenary year.”

Professor Peter Stanley currently works at the University of New South Wales, and previously, worked for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for nearly three decades. He has authored many books already and “Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915.”


14th Sikh battalion troops in the trenches on Gallipoli in August 1915. (State Library of South Australia)

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