USI-ICWA INTERNATIONAL SEMINAR ON GALLIPOLI, APRIL 2021
Respect and admiration for those who have lived and died for their country rests deep in our souls. It is therefore a profound honour to be here today as we recall the contribution, valour and sacrifice of those who gave their today for our tomorrow at Gallipoli over a century ago.
- I would like to compliment the USI and the Indian Council for World Affairs for this initiative of holding this seminar in these very challenging times impacted by the pandemic. The Participation in this seminar by some distinguished speakers to include High Commissioners Ambassadors and a large number of renowned writers, eminent historians and military veterans has lent great substance to the proceedings conducted over the past two days. While many stories would still remain hidden in the crevices of history the efforts of the USI and the ICWA are indeed praiseworthy.
- It is well accepted that Gallipoli had a significant impact in shaping the contemporary histories of Turkey Australia and New Zealand. Even the impact of the Great War on the Indian National Movement has been duly acknowledged.
The Larger Context: WW I in Perspective
- The First World War was a watershed event in world history. It impacted the social and political map of the world. The Indian Army of that era was the largest Voluntary Army in the world and it saw action in Europe Asia and Africa.
- The Indian soldiers fought for the prestige attached to the honourable profession of arms. They willingly made the supreme sacrifice for the izzat and honour of their regiments. Hindus Muslims Sikhs and Christians fought shoulder to shoulder in trusting comradeship then as they do today.
- I cannot help but emphasize that of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who took part in the war 74,000 were killed in action and many more were wounded. Indian Army soldiers earned over 9200 gallantry awards of which 11 were Victoria Crosses.
- Even the end of World War-1 did not see the end of fighting for those men who survived. They were then also in varying degrees involved in the 3rd Afghan War in 1919 and the Waziristan campaign 1919-20.
- The Gallipoli Campaign therefore is just one of the many campaigns fought by the Indian Army during the Great War.
Highly Optimistic & Ambitious Planning
- Gallipoli was a costly campaign in terms of the tragically high number of casualties to both sides. From an Allied perspective it was certainly not the best planned and resourced given the complex terrain and strong opposition. Writing about this amphibious campaign of the Mediterranean Expedition Force under General Hamilton the British historian John Keegan notes that “In retrospect, it is possible to see that Hamilton’s plan could not work nor could any other with the size of force made available to him”. Yet another historian Peter Hart calls Gallipoli “one of a series of ‘Easterner’ adventures launched without proper analysis of the global situation ignoring the logistics realities and underestimating the strength of the opposition ”
- It was not the first time, nor the last that hugely optimistic and overly ambitious planning and execution would fail the men. But the battle of Gallipoli is not about poor planning alone that is only one part of the story. It is also about the grit and resoluteness of the soldiers who found themselves away from their native land, in unfamiliar surroundings. These hardy men of great honour carried out repeated assaults in the face of effective enemy fire even when the chances of success were grim.
The Indian Soldier at Gallipoli
- With a salary of a mere Rupees 11 a month a pair of uniform and three meals a day the story of the Indian soldiers in Gallipoli is therefore one of great inspiration. Of the approximately 15,000 Indian soldiers who took part in this campaign there were four Gorkha battalions one Sikh Infantry battalion the 14th Sikh the hardy gunners of the 7th Indian Artillery Brigade medical units and many thousands of mule drivers as part of the Mule Corps.
- General Hamilton the Commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force tasked with the campaign at Gallipoli had earlier in his service seen the Gurkha Infantry soldier and he knew their abilities in the hilly country. It therefore comes as no surprise that before the launch of the campaign he put in a letter of request to Lord Kitchener for a Brigade of the Gurkhas for Gallipoli. He wrote and I quote “ The scrubby hillsides on the south-west faces of the plateau are just the sort of terrain that these little fellows are at their brilliant best.... each little “Gurk” might be worth his full weight in gold at Galllipoli ”.
- The Gurkha Battalions made a mark for themselves and showed that when in capable hands they could overcome all challenges. The renaming of the 300 feet high cliff in Cape Helles Sector which was captured by the Gurkhas in the initial days as Gurkha Bluff - a name that mariners can find on their charts even today is a tribute to their heroic deeds.
- This takes me to an interesting anecdote from a book giving a short history of the 5 Gurkha Rifles and it goes:
“Nk Dhan Singh Gurung in charge of a covering party that went off track was captured by the Turks. Seizing his opportunity he jumped off a cliff survived and reached the beach where he ran out of luck and was re-taken. That did not dampen his resolve he yet again broke loose and plunged into the sea. For the uninitiated of the many things the Gurkhas are known for swimming definitely is not one of them. But this was Dhan Singh Gurung. Weighed down by his uniform and equipment and under heavy fire, out in the blue sea he swam, and swam and then turning parallel to the coast continued till he landed within the confines of the British lines and duly reported for duty”
- Many such stories never find their way to the official history books. But they are recounted with great pride in the Army units by the subaltern to the new rookie and of course he adds some flavour of his own.
- The sturdy 14 Ferozepore Sikhs one of the few single class Battalions at Gallipoli lost 75% of their men and almost all their officers in a single attack. Such was the intensity of the engagements.
- Talking of the Mule Corps the Mule Drivers were the single largest component of the Indian Army at Gallipoli. The Mules were the mainstay of the supply arrangements for the entire force in the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Without them the operations across the arduous hilly terrain and through the dense scrub land could never have gone in. They neither let out any battle cries nor made any heroic assaults. They silently loaded their carts, and went about their daily business moving up the narrow tracks risking wounds and death from shells machine guns and snipers. They brought up rations and ammunition but most importantly they brought hope to the soldier on the frontline.
- Military campaigns for sure leave indelible scars over the lands where they are fought. The role played by each side was pivotal in its own way. The sheer joy of soldiering led these men to achieve rare feats of gallantry in far off lands. The Indian Army and India as a nation duly acknowledges the heroic deeds of each soldier who fought valiantly for what he believed in.
- Times have changed. Today the greatest adversaries of the Great War are the best of allies and partners collaborating with each other to promote peace and harmony across the world. This is the power of reconciliation. There is nothing that exemplifies this spirit better than the inscription on the monument erected by Turkey at Gallipoli which reads and I quote ‘Those heroes who 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 far away 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 shall become our sons as well.’
- Having lost close to 60,000 men in the campaign and yet write an epitaph like this is truly exemplary. There is a lesson in this for all of us and that is to have good relations with all and to live in peace and harmony.
- What is also equally intriguing is the friendship and camaraderie that developed between soldiers from faraway lands who had nothing in common least of all the language they spoke and yet they could well understand each other. Among the numerous things that the Indians and ANZACs shared at Gallipoli were the rations where the Indian staple diet of Dal & Roti was quite popular amongst the ANZAC soldiers.
- Diaries photos and letters of ANZAC soldiers who wrote endearingly about their Indian mates serve to be valuable resources for us. Accounts of bravery of an Indian soldier Karam Singh who continued to give fire orders to his troops even after he had been hit by an artillery shell and blinded by it; and the story about the famous Australian John Simpson popular in Australian folklore as Simpson and his donkey staying 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 are some accounts that have been the outcome of years of research by some Australian scholars.
- These bonds of friendship which go back to the fields of Gallipoli must not only be commemorated but maintained and strengthened. The initiative of the Indian Government and the Government of Turkey to place artifacts uniforms and old weapons of Indian soldiers at the Gallipoli museum on the Mediterranean shores to highlight their contribution is a step in this direction.
- To conclude my talk I wish to bring out that the First World War was a unique overseas exposure for the Indian soldiers. The world came to know what India and the Indian soldiers were all about. In fact, in recognition of the efforts of the battalions of what later was designated as the PUNJAB Regt to undertake sea voyages despite religious taboos it was awarded the badge of Galley with the motto ‘Khuski Wa Tari’ (readiness always evinced). It is the only Army unit to adorn a naval symbol. This exposure to other independent people like the Turks who were shaping their own destiny gave a nascent sense of Nationalism to our troops.
- So when these soldiers returned home after the War their experiences and stories would form a catalyst to India’s Independence Movement. This rise in National consciousness would lead to greater and more widespread desire for the right to selfdetermination & Independence. The events that followed are testimony to the rise in Indian Nationalism after the war.
- I would say that of the many campaigns of the Great War Gallipoli is significant not only from an operational perspective but also from a ‘peoples’ perspective’. The campaign beautifully captures the various shades of the human nature in the midst of a raging war.
At one time they are together fighting heat and flies and a dysentery epidemic and in the next season they find themselves in rain snow and freezing temperatures frozen to death in their cotton uniforms.
- In this context this Seminar is important in not only highlighting India’s contribution to the Great War but equally in bringing out how soldiers from different parts of the world with different cultures but shared values became friends with great camaraderie with one another.
- In the end all that remains for me is to compliment the USI & the ICWA for meticulously piecing together the different dimensions of this campaign and inviting highly accomplished speakers to generate much interest and attention from the audience.
- I also wish to thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity and honour to share my views.
Thank You and Godspeed “JAI HIND”