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

Henry Wilson – the backstabber’s backstabber – or soldier-diplomat?

By John Spencer

No study of the British Army’s senior command in the Great War is complete without a reference to Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Like the villain in a Victorian melodrama he usually makes an early appearance, then skulks in the background only to reappear in the final act to stab his friends in the back. There is no doubt that Wilson was, and remains, a Marmite-character, but was he quite so black as his enemies painted him?

Wilson died before he could tell his own war story, and his reputation was shredded by a well-intentioned biography initiated by his widow and written by a friend and colleague, C.E. Callwell. That book was based in large part on Wilson’s detailed and highly entertaining diaries, in which every evening this most political of soldiers recorded his thoughts on his friends, his enemies, and war policy in general. Unfortunately for his reputation, Wilson’s often intemperate late-night scribblings found their way into the biography, much to the irritation of his contemporaries.

For those who disliked or distrusted Wilson (or both), here was proof-positive of his Janus-like character. For his friends and admirers (and there were many), it was disappointing to find themselves criticised behind their backs. Here, surely, was the ‘real’ Henry Wilson. The late Keith Jeffery’s excellent political biography (Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, 2006) was a much more balanced account of this fascinating man. Notwithstanding Jeffery’s work, Wilson is still too many a one-dimensional character; untrustworthy, flippant, ambitious, admirer of politicians. The antithetical British army officer.

I encountered him first while studying Britain and the Great War for my master’s degree at Birmingham University. When I was considering a doctorate, he seemed like the ideal candidate. But what was there to say that was new? Viewing Wilson’s diaries at the Imperial War Museum it became clear that there was, in fact, quite a lot.

Although Wilson’s first biographer had squeezed the diaries for many a juicy reference, there were plenty more for the picking. Writing in the 1920’s, when many of the main characters were still alive, Callwell had understandably often anonymised his references, and skated over others. Pouring over his less than copperplate jottings, it soon became clear to me that there was far more to Wilson than the glib characterisation which had served as a shorthand for his character for almost a century.

Wilson wrote up his journal each evening after dinner. He usually used a W.H. Smith page-a-day hardback diary and, if what he had to say took more than the supplied page, he continued on any spare page elsewhere in the diary, or in a separate notebook. [A note here for researchers: Wilson’s diaries were microfiched in the dim and distant past and it is impossible to tie the daily diary with the additional notes’ pages in this format; remember to ask to examine the originals!] What became clear early on was that Wilson’s grumblings and criticisms were his way of ‘venting’ his feelings after a busy day – very much like modern fancy for late-night social media rants which, in the cold light of day are often regretted, and rarely acted upon. Wilson was writing for himself, not for public consumption; if he couldn’t grumble in his journal, where could he do it?

The diaries, his official papers, and those of his contemporaries together revealed a much more complex character than I had originally expected. Certainly, Wilson liked politicians (or some of them), and some of them liked him. But he was no fool, and no dupe. Henry Wilson was, unlike many officers of his rank and class, happy to mix with the ‘frocks’ and in so doing hoped to further both his career and his view of how the war might be won.

As if a cheeky ease with politicians wasn’t enough to place him in bad odour with his fellow officers, Wilson was also seen as a ‘Francophile’. This label was appended to Wilson because he spoke the language, and in the pre-War period had make it his business to study the French army and make friendships with French officers. These skills meant that for much of the war his main contribution to the British effort was not strategic command, but inter-allied liaison. Wilson was a friend, and sometimes adversary, of Ferdinand Foch. In the final 18 months of the war both men finally achieved great power and influence over their respective countries’ war policy.

This role as ‘soldier diplomat’ dominates Wilson’s War and will, I hope, add a new dimension to our understanding of a complex, yet fascinating soldier who had a far greater impact on British military policy both during and after the Great War, than many might originally believe.

My research has now returned to that other enigmatic and fascinating Great War general, Sir William Robertson. I have contributed chapters on ‘Wully’ to Spencer Jones’s three collections of writings on the Great War, all published by Helion. I am now working on the fourth, Robertson in 1917, the year in which the bluff Chief of the Imperial General Staff clashed directly with Henry Wilson; two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.

You can now buy ‘Wilson’s War. Sir Henry Wilson’s Influence on British Military Policy in the Great War and its Aftermath’ here.

The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the 20th Century

By Jim Storr

‘The Hall of Mirrors’ is perhaps the first analysis of the wars and warfare of the 20th century as a whole.

What can we learn from war, and warfare, in the 20th century? Surprisingly, the question has not been addressed.

After the First World War four empires ceased to exist. Eight new countries were born in Europe. After the Second World War, Japan and Germany renounced militarism and ceased to be major players on the world stage for decades. The border of Russia effectively moved 800km west, to the Oder (if not the Elbe). War is hugely important. It is not futile, although it sometimes seems so to those taking part.

But how effective, for example, was the allied Combined Bomber Offensive in the defeat of Germany in the Second World War? There is, in practice, no real consensus. How did the western navies win the Battle of the Atlantic, when there were far more U-boats at sea late in the war than in the early years? There is very little discussion, and apparently no agreement, as to how the western allies defeated Germany in north west Europe in 1944-5. Was it just superior numbers? (No.) Yet all of those campaigns took place over 70 years ago. Why are those questions unanswered?

Some of the book’s findings are quite startling. For example, the so-called ‘Falaise Pocket’ of August 1944 was misunderstood by the senior commanders involved. The critical period was 16-19 August 1944. But was the pocket to be closed along the line of the River Orne, or the River Seine?

In practice thousands of Germans escaped across the Orne. The great majority of them, and many others, also escaped across the Seine. 23,000 vehicles were also evacuated.

‘A wide ranging and thought-provoking analysis of warfare in the last century, outlining enduring and essential lessons. Reading it will make you reconsider what you thought you knew.’

General Sir Rupert Smith KCB DSO OBE QGM

‘A highly stimulating, thought-provoking analysis of warfare in the twentieth century … clear thinking, full of insights and never shy of controversy.’

Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely KCB MC

I’m the author of two other books. ‘The Human Face of War’, based on the doctoral thesis I prepared under the guidance of Professor Richard Holmes, was published in 2009. ‘King Arthur’s Wars’, which provides a revolutionary re-assessment of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England, was published by Helion in 2016. A revised paperback edition is available now.

I’m not an historian. My first degree was in civil engineering; my master’s is in defence technology. I see myself as an analyst. I try to follow the evidence, wherever it may lead, and no matter how uncomfortable that may be. I also try to think critically what the evidence tells us.

Although British, I could be considered a bit of a globetrotter. We lived in four different countries (and England!) before I went to university. I then served as a Regular infantry officer for 25 years. My service took me to many different countries. Since leaving the Army I’ve worked as a consultant, writer, researcher and analyst. I’ve taught and lectured in several countries.

I’ve now started work on my next book, which will look at the tactics of the unfought battles of the Cold War. After that I’m thinking about a book on command: the organisations, structures, processes and people.

The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the 20th Century can be ordered here.