Neglected no longer: Indians on Gallipoli

By Peter Stanley

The Gallipoli campaign is familiar to virtually anyone who has any interest in the Great War. Most people know something of the campaign’s optimistic intent, the disastrous landings in April 1915, the dogged Ottoman defence, the dramatic failure of the evacuation and the surprisingly successful evacuations late in1915 and in January 1916. In Britain, Australia and New Zealand they surely know of episodes in the campaign – the heroic slaughter at Lancashire Landing, the story of ‘Simpson’s donkey’, or the tragic failure of the New Zealanders who in August glimpsed the Dardanelles from Chunuk Bair. Thousands of books have been published on the campaign – the book catalogue alone of the National Library of Australia includes no fewer than 800 books with ‘Gallipoli’ in their titles. In Australia and New Zealand, of course, Gallipoli is so important that 25 April became a national day of remembrance.

Looking down from Gurkha Bluff, which the 1/6th Gurkhas seized in a daring attack in May 1915.

For India the Gallipoli story is very different. While a handful of regimental histories appeared between 1930 and 1948 in which their service on Gallipoli appeared as a chapter, not a single book dealt with the Indian experience of Gallipoli between 1915 and 2015. Until my book Die in Battle, Do not Despair: the Indians on Gallipoli, 1915 was published by Helion, we did not even know how many Indian troops served in the campaign. (Until research for Die in Battle… it was confidently asserted – including by me – that about 5,000 Indians served – in fact the figure was about 16,000: it took a century to establish that.)

The view of the Dardanelles glimpsed briefly by the 1/6th Gurkhas on the morning of 9 August 1915, as seen by Peter Stanley in conducting fieldwork on Gallipoli in 2014.

As an Australian military historian I had often written about Gallipoli. In the course of a career mostly spent either at the Australian War Memorial (Australia’s national military museum, where I had been Principal Historian) and latterly as an academic at UNSW Canberra, I had published half-a-dozen books dealing with Gallipoli – notably Quinn’s Post, Anzac, Gallipoli (2005), the first ‘biography’ of a place on Gallipoli. Having long been interested in the Indian Army, I knew that Indian troops had served there: one of my earliest articles had been on the Indian mountain gunners who had served with the Anzacs. I had planned a book on the subject, notionally called ‘Sahibs and Sepoys on Gallipoli’, long deferred until in 2013 I became Research Professor at UNSW Canberra and was at last able to implement my plan.

Peter Stanley’s laptop, when he was writing the last pages of Die in Battle… on Gallipoli in July 2014. 

The difficulties of researching Indians on Gallipoli partly explained why a book on the subject had taken so long. Military history tends to reflect national agendas (my Quinn’s Post was unusual in spanning the ‘Anzac’ experiences of Gallipoli) and few non-Indians seemed interested in India’s Great War. (Actually, few Indians seemed interested in India’s pre-1947 military history, but that is another story …) But the sources for this book needed to be sought in Britain, India, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. The official records, including the war diaries, were held in the National Archives in Britain, and the Gurkha Museum in Winchester and the National Army Museum in London held vital sources. The National Archives of India held other official records, while the Gurkha Museum in Pokhara, Nepal, was also useful – and it was necessary to visit both Nepal and the Punjab, to see the regions where most ‘Indian’ troops originated. (While the mountain artillery, the supply and transport troops and one of the infantry battalions were Sikhs or Muslims from the Punjab, four ‘Indian’ infantry battalions on Gallipoli were Gurkhas.)

Balbir Singh Banwait, the son of a Sikh who served on Gallipoli, introduced himself to Peter Stanley in a Gurudwara in Sydney, providing invaluable family stories for Die in Battle…

Almost no sources had been created by Indian other ranks (though their British officers had written prolifically); a problem common to those trying to understand the non-European experience of war. But as an Australian historian, I knew that valuable insights into the Indian experience of Gallipoli could be found in the letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs of the Australian and New Zealand citizen soldiers who had served alongside them, and the archives and libraries in both countries provided crucial evidence.

Finally, having written about battles (and indeed published a guide to battlefield research – A Stout Pair of Boots, 2008) I knew that another visit to Gallipoli was necessary. In August 2014 I was able to spend several days re-visiting Gully Ravine, Mule Gully, Hill 971 and Hill 60, checking the sources and what I’d made of them against the ground. No wonder it had taken so long to be able to tell this story!

Peter Stanley greeted by senior staff of the Gurkha Museum in Pokhara, Nepal, while researching Die in Battle… in Janary 2014.

Now Helion is re-issuing Die in Battle, Do Not Despair as a paperback. I was already delighted that in 2017 an Indian edition appeared in association with Primus Books of New Delhi, and now the paperback will, I hope, bring the story of Indians on Gallipoli to yet more readers, wherever they may be.

Prof. Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra has published 40 books, mostly in military history. Three of them have been published by Helion: A Welch Calypso (ed., with Tom Stevens, 2014); Die in Battle, Do Not Despair and ‘Terriers’ in India: British Territorials 1914-19 (2019) He is now working on John Company’s Armies: the Military History of British India 1824-57