Battle of Gallipoli and the Sikhs

This was one of the battles of World War – I and was fought between the Central Powers (consisting of Ottoman Empire, German Empire, and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies of WW- I (United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire). The British Empire had the support of the forces of Australia, India, Newfoundland, and New Zealand with it. The Allies wanted to force their trade route from the Mediterranean sea through the Dardanelles Strait to the Black sea abutting upon Russia and capture Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) for strategic reasons. Gallipoli is a peninsula connected by land to the European part of Turkey with its other three sides in the waters of Dardanelles strait which lies completely in the Turkish Empire. The period of the proper battle is considered to be from February 1915 to January 1916.  However, a number of important events took place between August 1914 and December 1915.

Events leading to the Battle of Gallipoli

It all started in August 1914,  when First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, confiscated two Ottoman battleships, under construction in the United Kingdom. The German warships in the Mediterranean reached the Dardanelles in response and in October the Ottoman navy raided Russian Black Sea ports. Soon the Royal Navy bombarded the Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles strait. The United Kingdom then declared war on Turkey and attacked the Dardanelles in February 1915, under the command of General Sir Ian Hamilton.

The defeat of the Allied at Gallipoli Peninsula

Turkey defeated the British and French fleet’s attempts to force their way through the straits. Three British battleships were sunk by mines and three more were badly damaged. In April 1915, British and French forces made amphibious landings on the Gallipoli peninsula. They landed in Cape Helles while the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), along with the Indian army, landed in the Anzac Cove. Under the command of Mustafa Kemal, the Turks mounted a counter-attack. British and French forces suffered about 4,000 casualties. French submarines were also mined and sunk in the straits. However, the Turks also suffered heavy casualties. By August 1915 Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, drove the Allies off the heights, forcing them to evacuate in January 1916. Winston Churchill was demoted after this defeat of the Allies.

Role of the Sikhs in the Battle of Gallipoli

The Sikhs were part of the British Indian Army and about 5000 of them were fighting in support of the Allied Powers. They served with honor at Gallipoli along with the ANZACS from August 1914 onwards. However, their contribution has been relegated largely to a passing reference in most accounts of the campaign, though they suffered thousands of casualties during the campaign.  To quote one example of their bravery, Havildar Waryam Singh was awarded the 1914 -15 ‘Gallantry Star’ and the ‘Allied Victory Medal’ for assisting in World War – I.  Many others received Indian Distinguished Service Medals and Indian General Service Medals. The ‘14th Sikh Regiment’ and the ‘Ferozepore Sikh Regiment’ lost, respectively, 379 and 380 men on June 4, 1915.

Memorial to Gallipoli Heroes

According to a retired Indian Commander, Rana Chhina, “The average Indian is almost ignorant about Gallipoli as a Campaign during World War – I”.  A Plaque at a hospital in Ferozepur, where some of the injured soldiers were brought for treatment,  commemorates the sacrifices of the 14th Sikh Regiment at Gallipoli.  Another such memorial stands at Patiala (photo), in remembrance of the warriors of the erstwhile Princely State. The devotion of Indian troops to duty and exemplary valor are described in the book  “Die in Battle, Do not Despair” by Peter Stanley.

Tributes paid to the Sikh soldiers by General Sir Ian Hamilton are quoted here.

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