The recent 84th Thessaloniki International Trade Fair was the location for a special exhibition by the Hellenic Ministry of National Defence, recognising the role of troops from the Indian sub-continent who came to Greece during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915-16. The exhibition was visited by the Greek Deputy Prime Minister Panagiotis Pikrammenos.
Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 15,000 service personnel from the Indian sub-continent served in the British forces during the Gallipoli campaign. These ranged over infantry regiments, artillery forces and transport units – not to mention the main sailors who served on the ships plying the northern Aegean during the campaign. Later in the war, many more troops from the Indian sub-continent would also serve on the Thessaloniki Front which extended across northern Greece.
It was my pleasure on behalf of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee to assist the Hellenic Defence Forces in the selection and curation of a series of archival images, taken during the campaign, documenting the role of these forces, for display during the exhibition. The photographs are also reproduced in my new book – ‘Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed’.
The photographs selected focus on the presence of these troops on Lemnos, many taken by Corporal Albert Savage of the 3rd Australian General Hospital. While many of these images show them on Lemnos following the evacuation of Gallipoli, these troops also came to the island as they made their way to and from the Peninsula, as they returned sick and wounded and as they buried or cremated their dead on the island.
These images showing their camps, their kitchens and other activities. Some show their departure for Gallipoli, aboard the troopships in Mudros Bay, amongst a mountain of army baggage and supplies. But they also show the interaction between Australians and Indians on this northern Aegean Island.
One of the most poignant images is that of Australian and a Silk soldier resting on their journey from the piers of the Turks Head Peninsula to their camp near the village of Sarpi, the whole scene dominated by the presence of the latter on a horse, the Australians sitting or standing around him. It reveals not only the connection between these soldiers from across the world but also their fatigue following months of fighting on the Peninsula.
The troops that returned to Lemnos after the end of the campaign were relieved to be there but were massively reduced in number and devastated by the ravages of war. I believe that these conflicting emotions are reflected in many of these images.
The presence of these troops on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign is also reflected in the many graves and memorials to their dead that are contained in Lemnos’ war cemeteries. East Mudros War Cemeteries is the location of two memorials, containing the remains of many of them – Hindu and Muslim – who were cremated and their remains interred here. There are also a number of individual graves of Indian sub-continent soldiers and sailors.
It was during the research for my book that I came across an account of a Sikh cremation ceremony, witnessed by an unnamed Australian hospital orderly serving with the 1st Australian Stationary Hospital located in the East Mudros area, as he walked among the cemetery graves on an evening in June 1915, which was published in the Register newspaper in Adelaide. This digger wrote: “At one end of the ground a little company of Sikh soldiers is tending a pile of glowing logs, among which are being cremated the bodies of two of their companions who were killed at the front …”
The Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee is holding discussions with representatives of Melbourne’s Indian community with the aim of staging a local display of these images, possibly in conjunction with the RSL.
The presence of these soldiers amongst the Australians on Lemnos was noted at the time both in photographs and in accounts published in Australia. Brought to light today, these images reinforce the multicultural aspect of Australia’s Gallipoli story that is often overlooked and which can provide an opportunity to broaden community appreciation and involvement in local Anzac services.
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It is not too farfetched to speculate that the descendents of some of these soldiers are living in Australia today, creating a living connection between not only Australia and Indian sub-continent through Anzac, but also Greece. These links should be better appreciated and commemorated.
Committee Vice-President Christina Despoteris was instrumental in facilitating this important exhibition in Greece, working with Captain Anastasios Michelis of the Hellenic Navy, to bring it to a reality. This exhibition is another example of the Committee’s extensive work promoting the Hellenic link to Anzac in Greece as well as Australia.
For those interested in reading more about the Indian presence during the Gallipoli campaign, I would recommend Australian historian Mr Peter Stanley’s recent publication – ‘Die in Battle, Do Not Despair: The Indians on Gallipoli, 1915’ – published by Helion in association with the United Services Institution of India.
* Jim Claven is a historian, freelance writer and Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He is the author of ‘Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16’, that was recently published by the Committee. Copies of the book can be purchased by contacting Committee President, Mr Lee Tarlamis – email@example.com.