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The Sikh Heroes of Gallipoli







This year, April 25 marks the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) troops in Gallipoli, a military campaign during WW1 which lasted eight months and claimed at least 125,000 lives on that front alone.

Many regard April 25, 1915 as the day that Australia truly forged its national identity, rather than 1 January,1901, when Australia federated as a nation.

And as Australians prepare to mark this centenary with great respect, to honour those who fell in battle, the contribution of Sikh troops in Gallipoli is also being remembered. 

The troops in Gallipoli included the 14th Sikh Infantry Battalions from Punjab, which suffered 80% casualties in June 1915 alone.

As well, Punjabis helped in transporting British and other Allied forces. Several thousand Punjabis are listed as having served as mule drivers.
The vital contribution of the Sikh soldiers to the Gallipoli campaign has been largely overlooked until now – and the well known Australian historian and researcher Prof Peter Stanley is about to change that, with his latest book “Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915”.

In addition to the thousands of Sikhs from Punjab at Gallipoli, there were at least a dozen Sikh-Aussie soldiers who took part in WW1 as Anzacs – meaning that they enlisted as soldiers in the Australian Imperial Forces. But none of the dozen or so Aussies took part in the Gallipoli campaign, since they joined the AIF after 1915. Even so, their names are inscribed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and they are paid homage to, as Anzac troops.

A private collector in Canada has preserved two medals awarded to Private Ganessa Singh, a Sikh Anzac, who returned safely back home to South Australia after completing his deployment in WW1. But as mentioned earlier, none of the Sikh-Aussies fought in Gallipoli.

Unfortunately, none of their personal experiences of the Sikh soldiers seem to have ever been documented. This may be attributed to the adage that those who create history seldom have the time to write about it, or, as Stanley believes, many of them “were either illiterate and didn’t maintain any records, or if they did, those records haven’t survived”.

Which is why their stories have never been accurately told - until now!

He adds, “To understand the [Sikh] experience of Gallipoli, you must search the Anzac records – the diaries, photos and letters of Anzac soldiers who wrote endearingly about their [Sikh] mates”.

Stanley asserts that the close ties between Australia and the Sikhs from Punjab can be traced back to the landings at Anzac Cove, where Australians and Sikhs stood together resolutely, shoulder to shoulder. 

Traveling to New Zealand, Punjab, India and Nepal to obtain more records, Stanley found that 16,000 Sikh and Gurkha troops from British India fought alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli, of whom 1600 became casualties of war.

Stanley's book lists the names of these 1600 fallen, predominantly Sikhs and Gurkhas, who were also cremated in Gallipoli after they fell.

Trawling through the Anzac records, Stanley found multiple mentions of the bravery of a Sikh infantry man named Karam Singh. Many Anzacs wrote about Karam Singh with great awe, who is said to have continued to issue orders to his troops, even after he had been hit by an artillery shell and blinded by it.

Stanley tells us that even the most famous Australian Anzac John Simpson Kirkpatrick (popular in Australian folklore in the saga of ‘Simpson and His Donkey‘), used to stay with the Punjabi mule drivers in the battlefields of Gallipoli, because he preferred the fresh food cooked by the Punjabi troops much more than the bully beef that was supplied in the Australian rations.  There are mentions of Simpson enjoying “chapattis” and freshly cooked curries, just two weeks before he himself succumbed to the war.

Letters sent by Anzacs show that they had the highest regard for the courage and professionalism shown by the Sikh troops. One Anzac even sent a photo with his Sikh mate, which was published in the Sydney Mail in 1916 with the title “Best Chums”. The two Australian soldiers pictured in that photo, were killed soon after in action, but it is truly significant that they posed for a photo with a Sikh soldier in the battlefields of Gallipoli, and sent it back home to introduce him to their families “as a mate”.

Says Prof Stanley, “That photo truly stands out for me,” adding, “the true friendship between [Sikhs] and Australians can be traced back to the fields of Gallipoli -- a friendship that must be commemorated in this centenary year”.

Professor Peter Stanley currently works at the University of New South Wales, and previously, worked for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for nearly three decades. He has authored many books already and his new book  “Die in Battle, Do not Despair, The Indians on Gallipoli 1915” will be released shortly – first in London, then in Australia on August 6, and later in New Delhi.

To hear the author’s audio interview with Professor Stanley, please CLICK here.

[Courtesy: The Hindustan Times. Edited for]
April 25, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), April 25, 2015, 4:17 AM.

We owe Sikh soldiers and their contribution through history, a great debt as we live and breathe today in relative peace and freedom in the civilized world.

2: RP Singh (Palo Alto, California, USA), April 26, 2015, 5:41 AM.

It is important to remember that this 'sacrifice' did nothing to help the Sikhs or further the Gurus' message.

3: Brig. Nawab Singh Heer (Ret.) (New York, USA), April 26, 2015, 10:30 AM.

We must not always relate all sacrifices to gains/loses. We as true Sikhs of the Guru fought for the Allies for "Sarbat da Bhalla". Our sacrifices are being recognized the world over and we must not lose heart. Our contribution to History are beginning to be recognized. Imagine, the 14th Sikh Regiment was specially brought since Britishers were not making any headway. When the 14th Sikhs came it turned the tables and history proves that the sacrifices of the Sikh soldiers and British officers were out-doing each other.The Battle of Gallipoli and the Battle of Saragarhi are Jewels in the history of Sikhs. We must be proud of this fact.

4: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, USA), April 27, 2015, 9:03 AM.

So many Sikhs soldiers died in wars around the world -- fighting to defend other peoples and countries -- including World War 1 and II and the present conflict with India/Pakistan. But the historians have not given due coverage of their achievements and contributions. On the other, in civil society, even today they are fighting for their right to their religious identity, complete with turban. The leadership of Sikhs must be replaced with qualified and younger men and women who can put the community before self.

5: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), April 27, 2015, 11:48 AM.

During my short stay in South Africa during the Apartheid era, i came across a few settlers from Australia and New Zealand. Some of them were veterans of World War II. One was at the project site with me. Seeing me, he often exclaimed: "You were the ones who kicked Italian butts in the African sector of the World War." At that time I was not aware of the Sikh role in the African sector in WWII. His praise for the bravery of Sikhs gave me immense pride and inspiration.

6: Roopinder Singh Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), April 28, 2015, 1:47 PM.

If the Sikhs did not have the Kirpan (Grace and Honour - 'kirpa', 'aan') and were not trained in weaponry, they would not have the respect that they do worldwide.

7: Gurpreet Singh (Bombay, India), April 28, 2015, 6:47 PM.

I second Roopinder Singh ji's comment #6. It is only with our Guru Gobind Singh ji's Amrit and kirpan that we have had the spirit of courage, bravery and the audacity of daredevilry which is for what Sikhs have been known for in the entire world. I am in Mumbai but whenever our senior managers, who are normally people of other nationalities, when then they are in India, they easily recognize me as a Sikh and comment that Sikhs are very brave people. With their positive attitude, Sikhs are capable of rising to any challenge and can rise from even dust at any point of their lives, but only due to the grace of our Gurus. Hail our Gurus!

8: Kaala Singh (Punjab), April 29, 2015, 9:12 AM.

Along with bravery, an intelligent strategy is required. Bravery alone did not help the Sikhs retain their empire against the brilliant strategy of the British. Had the Sikhs channeled their energies for their own interests instead of becoming global gun-fodder, they could have at least secured a part of their ancestral homeland. This is not to belittle the bravery of our ancestors who proved their military prowess in every battlefield; I was just thinking if we had brilliant minds along with such unparalleled bravery, what would we have achieved by now.

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