Think Piece: India’s unsung heroes acknowledged at last
Many may not be aware that on Anzac Day 2015 a significant thing happened. Veterans, and some of the direct descendants of Indian servicemen who fought at Gallipoli, joined the Anzac Day March in Adelaide, South Australia for the first time.
This year too, Veterans from the South Australian Indian Defence Veterans Association, Vice President Dr Col Shiva Shankar and Dr Col Anupama Shankar, with their son Dr Arjun, took part in the Anzac Day March in Port Augusta joined by onlookers from their respective communities.
At this year’s Dawn Service in Adelaide, as President of SAIDVA, I was very proud to have laid the wreath honouring my Indian countrymen. My wife and daughter along with Veterans such as Commander, Subroto Ghosh; and his daughter Vaishali; Captain Pradeep Bhardwaj; descendant Job Samuel and his son; descendant Davinder Singh and I, took part in the Anzac Day March, which was indeed a moving experience.
The statistics on the number of Indian servicemen and women who have fought in allied forces have been more accurately reflected in recent times, after decades of effort on the part of historians such as Squadron Leader Rana TS Chhina (Retd) and Professor Peter Stanley to put them right. They and others like them have persistently and patiently brought the truth of our unsung Indian heroes to light.
Up until recently records showed that 15,000 Indian soldiers took part in the Gallipoli Campaign. Of these it was believed an estimated 1,400 were killed, with another 3,500 wounded. In fact, revised records show there were 16,000 Indian servicemen at Gallipoli, of which 4,100 were wounded and 1,600 killed.
The Indian contribution made under British Colonial rule at Gallipoli was made by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, which included the 14th Sikh Regiment. This regiment was virtually wiped out on 4 June, 1915 at the Third Battle of Krithia. It was these men that General Sir Ian Hamilton refers to in his diary entry about this battle.
The 7th Mountain Indian Artillery Brigade made up of the 26th Jacob’s Mountain Battery and the 21st Kohat Mountain Battery, were the only artillery of British India who fought under ANZAC command at Gallipoli.
The accounts of heroism and sacrifice made by both Sikhs at the Third Battle of Krithia, and the Gorkhas (or ‘Gurkhas’ as they are alternately referred) at the climactic Battle of Sari Bair, are unparalleled.
Australia and India have a shared history at Gallipoli. There were in fact at least 19 Sikhs enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in WWI.
Approximately 1.2 million Indians volunteered to fight for the British Indian Army in WWI, making them the largest volunteer army in the Great War. While Sikhs only make up 2% of India’s population, 22% of the British Indian Army were Sikhs. In World Wars I and II there have been more than 83,000 Sikhs killed and over 109,000 wounded, fighting for the allied forces.
At Gallipoli there were also the associated Indian support forces, which included a field ambulance section, ordinance field park, supply section, post office and mule transport. These supporting Indian units were second to none in the face of the innumerable challenges Gallipoli presented; sharing in the travails and vicissitudes of the ANZAC forces in equal measure.
Napoleon once said “the army marches on its stomach”. This sentiment was proven beyond doubt at Gallipoli. Those who managed and implemented the logistics at Gallipoli in circumstances far beyond our imagination sustained the ANZAC and allied forces there. Plus, it was Indian forces that stood alongside Anzacs as they stuck to the last, projecting the false front and confusing the enemy while the Allies were extricated from the peninsula.
It is an awe-inspiring and moving sight to see the people of different nationalities come together on Anzac Day in Australia; the Youth Vigils and Dawn Services, which lead to the Anzac marches held in almost every capital city and regional town across the country are uniquely Australian. They increase in potency every year, as more and more Australians pay due homage to the sacrifices made by their forebears.
In this way too, Indians looked for appropriate recognition of their contribution to the Allied forces. By joining the Anzac Day march in 2015 we received this acknowledgement. As a veteran I can reveal that it is nothing short of mesmerising for us and our descendants, to take part in this march of remembrance; to have the sacrifices of our forebears also appropriately honoured.
This Centenary of Anzac is of immense significance to all Indians and Indian Veterans in particular. As the murky statistics become clearer and as new stories of valour unfold we feel vindicated in our efforts to achieve recognition. These countrymen have waited a long time for their stories to be told.
A national commemoration of this scale lends a humane touch to our collective memory. It enables us to recount the wartime sacrifices made by all servicemen and servicewomen including in particular those unknown soldiers’ stories that may never be told, but whose sacrifices nevertheless deserve our respect and thanks.
The Gallipoli Campaign is an indelible part of India’s modern history and a history we share with Australia. Those Indians and Australians who fought side by side at Gallipoli may have been strange mates at the time – brought together from diverse continents with different languages, cultures and nationalities to fight side by side, as one force, with a singular determination and a common goal. It is with certainty our two nations are no longer strangers, and our common history at Gallipoli, no longer in the shadows.
Lest we forget.