Lest We Forget: Indian ANZACs and their contributions

From 1914 to 1918, approximately 12 Indian Australians and up to 15,000 to 16,000 British Indian soldiers, comprising Gurkhas, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, fought at Gallipoli.

As we gather today (25th April 2024) to pay tribute to the brave soldiers who have served and sacrificed for Australia, I, as an Indian Australian, am compelled to reflect on the profound connection and significant contributions of Indians to ANZAC Day.

Image: Indian soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign (Source: Australian War Memorial)

For the uninitiated, the ANZAC Day marks the landing of their troops, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in 1915 during the First World War.

The Gallipoli campaign bore witness to remarkable acts of bravery, not only from ANZACs but also from Indian soldiers whose seasoned combat skills set them apart. Unlike many ANZACs who displayed incredible courage despite limited battle experience, Indian soldiers brought with them a wealth of training and battlefield knowledge.

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Regrettably, the narrative of Indian involvement at Gallipoli has been largely overlooked! As aptly noted by Rana Chinna, a military historian who has researched Indian soldiers, the Gallipoli campaign has been overshadowed by an almost exclusive focus on Anzac memory, particularly European soldiers, neglecting the diverse contributions of individuals from various backgrounds.

It’s crucial to recognize that beyond the well-documented tales of heroism, over 400,000 individuals, including those of Asian, Mediterranean, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Indian descent, volunteered in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during First World War.

In his enlightening work, “Die in Battle, Do Not Despair – The Indians on Gallipoli, 1915,” Australian historian Prof. Peter Stanley unveils the valor of Indian troops who stood shoulder to shoulder with their Australian mates throughout the Gallipoli campaign. This mateship exemplified the true spirit of brotherhood amidst the horrors of war.

Image: Indian Sikh soldiers watching Turkish prisoners in a compound, Gallipoli, Turkey, August 7, 1915. The compound was just across a gully from the rear headquarters of the 1st Australian Division. Photograph taken by Rev Ernest Northcroft. Ref: 1/2-077922-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

From 1914 to 1918, approximately 12 Indian Australians and up to 15,000 to 16,000 British Indian soldiers, comprising Gurkhas, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, fought alongside Allied forces at Gallipoli. Their sacrifices, often overlooked, saw almost 1,400 Indian soldiers laying down their lives and thousands more wounded.

The Indian contingent, comprising infantry and mountain brigades, medical units, and mule drivers, played a pivotal role in supplying crucial provisions to all Allied troops. Their dedication and bravery were acknowledged by Australian soldiers, who praised their ferocity and loyalty to the Empire.

Image: Indian gunners during the Gallipoli campaign (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Private Charlie Beherendt’s observation that “The Indians fight like tigers and are a great unit to the Empire” underscores the respect earned by Indian troops on the battlefield. Despite prevailing prejudices, Australian stretcher bearers extended gestures of solidarity and friendship to their Indian comrades.

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Image: Indian and Australian troops even lived and camped together at times during the Gallipoli campaign (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The lesser-known accounts of Indian Australians like Davy Singh, Ganessa Singh, Hazara Singh, Juwan Singh, Nain Singh Sailani, Sarn Singh, Desanda Singh, Gurbachan Singh, Johar Singh, Linna Singh, Nundag Singh, and Sirdar Singh further illuminate the diverse tapestry of Australia’s military history.

Archival records show that five of the Indian-origin soldiers were recruited in South Australia, four in New South Wales, two in Western Australia and one in Victoria. The Indian troops were involved in many of the key Allied actions of Gallipoli including the battles of Gully Ravine, Gully Spur, and Sari Bair.

In 1917, two Hindu ANZAC soldiers namely Private Nain Singh Sailani and Private Sarn Singh were the first two Indian soldiers to make the supreme sacrifice while serving as members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the Western Front. Their courage and sacrifices, amid the challenges of war, serve as poignant reminders of the multicultural fabric of our nation.

Image: Indian-Australian Anzac soldiers (Source: Australian Indian Historical Society)

Private Nain Singh Sailani’s journey embodies the essence of sacrifice and dedication. Arriving in Western Australia in 1895, he embraced the life of a labourer in Perth. However, his sense of duty propelled him to enlist in the AIF at the age of 43, in February 1916. Joining the 44th Battalion on the Western Front, he faced the harrowing realities of trench warfare in Belgium. Amidst the chaos and danger, he valiantly participated in trench repairs and supply movements. Tragically, his bravery was cut short on 1st June, 1917, as he fell during a trench raid, bravely confronting the enemy.

In 2023, in honour of Private Nain Singh Sailani and recognising the sacrifice made by Anzacs from the Indian community during World War I, Nelson Avenue in East Perth was renamed Sailani Avenue.

Image: The Minister for Lands Hon John Carey MLA and the Indian Consular General, Amarjeet Singh Takhi, joined City of Perth Lord Mayor, Basil Zempilas, to officially unveil the Sailani Avenue street signs (Source: City of Perth)

Private Sarn Singh’s story is one of resilience and courage. Settling in South Australia’s Riverland as a farmer, he answered the call to arms at the age of 38, enlisting in the AIF in May 1916. Joining the 43rd Battalion, he marched into the fray on the front lines. During the assault on German positions at Messines Ridge on 10th June 1917, he met his end in a hail of enemy artillery fire, bravely defending his comrades and the ideals for which they fought.

Image: Private Desanda Singh (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Private Desanda Singh’s tale is one of perseverance and service. A beloved figure in South Australia, known for his distinctive gold and blue turban, he enlisted in 1917 as a travelling salesman turned soldier. Assigned to administrative duties with the 3rd Light Horse, he exemplified dedication until his discharge in 1918. Returning home, he continued to contribute to his community, trading as a hawker until at least 1946, a testament to his enduring spirit and commitment to his adopted homeland.

Image: ANZAC JAWAN CENOTAPH in Cherrybrook, NSW (Photograph: Ronald L McIntosh, 2021 / https://www.warmemorialsregister.nsw.gov.au/memorials/anzac-jawan-cenotaph-cherrybrook)

In the last decade, the Indian-Australian community has been doing a number of initiatives to promote awareness about Indian ANZACS.

The inauguration of the ANZAC JAWAN CENOTAPH in Cherrybrook, NSW, in 2018, symbolizes the enduring bond between Australian and Indian soldiers. The inclusion of the Ashoka Chakra alongside the Australian Army Rising Sun Badge pays homage to the shared heritage and sacrifices of both nations.

Image: Australian and Indian soldiers manoeuvre towards an objective during a training activity at Garden Island in Western Australia as part of Exercise Austrahind 2023 (Source: ADF)

In the realm of military manpower, the numbers speak volumes. Consider this: the Australian Defence Force (ADF) stands strong with around 60,000 dedicated individuals across its three services. Now, juxtapose that against the sheer force of the Indian Army, a colossal behemoth boasting a staggering 1.2 million personnel.

The ADF is seeking to increase its own numbers by around 30% by 2040. The defence forces of the two nations take part in key bilateral exercises such as AUSINDEX, MALABAR, MILAN, AUSTRAHIND, and PITCH BLACK. In addition, Inaugurated in 2023, the General Rawat India – Australia Young Defence Officer Exchange Program offers the opportunity each year for fifteen young officers from across Army, Navy, and Air Force, to learn more about each other’s training, operational environments and culture. 

In 2023, 15 ADF officers travelled to India and in 2024 a similar number of Indian Armed Forces officers will travel to Australia, to study Australian Defence capability and culture. By exchanging insights, strategies, and best practices, Australia and India can enrich each other’s approaches to military training and cohesion while staying connected to the collective mission.

It’s worth noting that many veteran Indian defense personnel spend extended periods here with their children who are either Australian residents or citizens. The resolute spirit of these Indian military veterans attending ANZAC Day parades across Australia is truly heartening. In a nation where the heroes of Gallipoli hold a place of utmost honor, witnessing the participation of these soldiers serves as a poignant reminder of the shared values of courage, sacrifice, and mateship.

Building on a long history of defence cooperation, their presence on ANZAC Day not only pays tribute to the gallant soldiers of Gallipoli but also strengthens the bonds of friendship and solidarity between India and Australia.

In commemorating the ANZAC Day, let us not forget the invaluable contributions of individuals of Indian descent, whose courage and resilience have left an indelible mark on Australia’s military legacy. Their stories enrich our understanding of diversity and the evolving face of our nation’s past and points a way to peaceful future!

WATCH: Empire & Commonwealth: Gallipoli (National Army Museum, London)

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