John Tulloh. Gallipoli: Lest we forget the British promise to the Indians.

 

One hundred years on, many Australians probably still regard the
Gallipoli campaign as an event involving only Australia and, to a lesser
extent, New Zealand. We hear mainly legends, tales of derring-do, myths
and maudlin sentimentality about the Australians who fought there. We
hear next to nothing about the others who also participated in this futile
exercise.

It was, of course, an international campaign led by Britain and
France. They suffered more deaths than the Anzacs. As a German general
commanding a Turkish division observed: ‘Seldom have so many
countries of the world, races and nations sent their representatives to so
small a place with the praiseworthy intention of killing one another’. That
amounted to about 130,000 on both sides.

Little reported among the mix were the soldiers from the Indian
Army. India has every reason to commemorate the Gallipoli centenary
with both pride and anger. Like the others, the Indian troops made a
magnificent contribution in trying to dislodge the Turks. But Britain broke
a promise in the process and literally made India pay for it.

According to the veteran Indian newsman and scholar of modern Indian
history, Prem Prakash, London made a pledge to Mahatma Gandhi
to grant India dominion status in return for rallying support for the war
effort and contributing troops. Gandhi responded enthusiastically because
he saw this as the simplest means to become a dominion within
the British Empire without further ado. It was something he had been
agitating for and which the colonial authorities were loath even to consider.

India contributed 15,000 troops to the Dardanelles. But once World
War One was over, Britain had second thoughts about its promise. Gandhi
had to continue agitating for almost another three decades, including
time in jail, before he got his wish only to be assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

India’s price for its effort was two-fold. One was a loss of 1358 dead
and 3421 wounded, according to the Australian War Memorial. The other
was getting a large bill from London for its troubles at Gallipoli and on
the western front as well. It paid up.

The Indians were ‘the forgotten soldiers of history’, says Indian military
historian Wing Commander Rana Chhina in his appraisal of Gallipoli.
‘The average Indian is (virtually) ignorant about Gallipoli as a campaign
in World War One’. The same about the Indian involvement can probably
be said about the average Australian. The only known permanent tribute
is a plaque at Ferozepur in the Punjab, from where many of the WW1
soldiers came.

India deployed ‘some of the finest classes of its fighting men at Gallipoli’,
according to Wing Commander Chhina. They included the formidable
Sikh warriors and the ferocious Gurkhas led by British officers.
One officer actually drew his ceremonial sword as he led Gurkhas in a
charge against Turkish positions. Unlike so many of the Anzac troops,
the Indians were all professional soldiers and steeped in the British military
system.

But there was far from unity in the ranks. Some Moslem troops deserted
as they did not see why they should be fighting other Moslems.
Others were exploited by Indian activists pushing the ideal of a pan-Islamic
movement with the aim of international solidarity and unity of all
Moslems. One Indian battalion, the 89th Punjabis, had predominantly
Moslem soldiers and it was felt prudent to divert them from Gallipoli to
France to fight other British enemies.

The Indians fought elsewhere in the Gallipoli peninsula before teaming
up with the Anzacs in August, 1915. There was friendship in their
fraternisation and they often shared food rations. It was said the Indian
roti and daal appealed more to Australian tastes than their standard bully
beef and biscuits.

An important Indian contribution was the Mule Corps. Given the lack
of roads and the hilly and precarious terrain of the Gallipoli peninsula,
motorised transport was out of the question. More than 1000 mules and
10,000 tons of fodder were brought in from India. The mules were used
to ferry supplies. They and their handlers were the unsung heroes, said
Rana Chhina. Just as with the Australian Light Horse animals, the surviving
mules were shot when the Indian troops evacuated Gallipoli in December,
1915. They did not want them to fall into the hands of the
Turks.

Spare a thought also for the 89th Punjabis. They sailed from India in
late 1914 and did not reach home until nearly six years later. They
fought for the British Empire in more theatres of war than any other Allied
battalion. But the reward for them and all other Indians was not
what Gandhi had expected from what he thought would be a grateful
Britain. It proved to be an empty promise.

Prem Prakash says he combed the archives of the India Office in
London to try to find ‘a serious enough reason’ for Britain to have reneged
other than ‘India was not ready yet’. Perhaps it was simply a matter
of the unthinkable: losing control of the strategic jewel in the crown
of the British Empire.

John Tulloh has a 40 year career in foreign news.

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