The First World War (1914-18) broke out in Europe, but its impact was felt across the world. Huge multi-national armies were pressed into service and the technological and industrial prowess of the major belligerents made the war more deadly and prolonged. More than 15 million people lost their lives. It brought untold suffering and made people believe, albeit temporarily, in the futility of war.
Many of those young soldiers who died, did not say their ‘last-goodbyes’ in Britain or Europe. They did so in the villages, farmlands, factories, dockyards, foundries, and mining towns across India and Australia. The demographics of the Great War are uncanny. The bulk of the soldiers who fought for the British Empire came from India- the largest volunteer force sent by a colony. Australia too sent a huge contingent of soldiers and suffered heavy losses. India and Australia, therefore, are old friends in the songlines of history.
In India, the war unleashed a fierce, anti-colonial movement that demanded independence from Britain, a substantial revision from earlier demands which had only asked for Dominion status-- similar to Australia and Canada. Australia, on the other hand, entered the war on the side of the British as a willing partner and was a full dominion. Yet the war managed to change its relationship with Britain in a significant manner.
Australia witnessed its own political ‘revolution’ of sorts. It marked the birth of a modern national identity for a country that was seen by many as an extension of the Empire. Although, it continued to be an ally, a sharper sense of ‘Australian’ identity was crystallised—the beginning of the ‘ANZAC tradition’-- one that was shaped as much by the horrors of war as it was by bitter-sweet imperial encounters in the trenches, ravines and hospitals where they fought, buckled or recovered from their wounds.
Britain’s success in keeping the memories of this conflict alive and the absence of the ‘Great War commemorative tradition’ in the Indian subcontinent (India, for the first time, officially acknowledged the role of its soldiers and made modest attempts to mark the centenary) has meant that not many people have looked at the alternative geographical and political imprints of the war.
The reasons for this disconnect are instructive. We have few histories that tell us about how soldiers from the non-white dominions fought and lived during those years. A small corpus of literature is beginning to emerge, but some of it only fills the ‘India-needs-to-be-there’ quota of international history. This ends up objectifying our pasts even more. Indian soldiers, like men of other nationalities, fought alongside other soldiers and a more comprehensive history of the First World War should really be able to tell us what this collective soldiering meant for the empire. A bigger picture can offer a more layered view of the complicated nature of imperial armies.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Gallipoli in 1915. The British, decided to end the stalemate in Europe by opening a new front against the Ottomans, in a peninsula squeezed between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles strait in present day Turkey. The Gallipoli campaign was undertaken by the ANZAC forces and the British together. The Indian Army too formed an integral part of this campaign. The campaign bears testimony to the complex nature of the British imperial military architecture at this time and exposed the fractured and inconsonant craft of tactics and organisation within it.
The tragic failure of the Gallipoli campaign resulted in a large number of casualties and tested the combat planning capabilities of Senior British General Staff. Nonetheless, within the First World War ‘telephone directory’, the Gallipoli campaign acts as an exchange- linking up several important connections. First, it illustrates the shared histories of Indians and Australians as they suffered the Turkish onslaught together. Australian archival correspondence of the period reflects the warm friendships that were formed between Gurkhas, Sikhs, Australians and New Zealanders in a time of adversity. It is easy to imagine that people from the two countries who found themselves banded together to fight a war which did not concern their territories must have thrown up some interesting talking points.
Secondly, it also uncovers the sensitive and rare transnational networks of interactions. Indian and Australian camaraderie at Gallipoli was part of a larger constellation of international, non-imperial exchanges that were made possible in several theatres. Indians and Africans, Australians and Samoans, French and the Iraqis, Syrians and British, Turks and the Greeks, and so on-- paint a picture of a global narrative of the war that the 21st century history of a 20th century event should compel us to take note of.
Much of the sensitivity to history also develops unwittingly in this digital age. So for instance, a random sampling of New Delhi’s young adults will tell you that the three most frequently broadcast visuals on prime-time TV belong to an Australian tourism promotional clip, a major South Asian airline that’ll fly you there, and-- MasterChef Australia. Most will also know who Gary Mehigan, Matt Moran and Matt Preston are. I for one, first heard about Gallipoli while watching (as part of an enforced -- but eventually, willingly succumbed to -- daily household ritual) Mehigan and Preston helping themselves to a few ANZAC biscuits that they had asked the contestants to bake and variations of which soon started to appear in some South Delhi bakeries, days after the episode was aired. A bit of online research yielded a wealth of information to a college student like me (later discovered that Preston is the son of a famous naval historian).
It is important to emphasise that our modern day staple of diplomatic and ‘strategic partnerships’ are made out of older recipes which were written when a new world order emerged out of the undemocratic, political stasis of late 19th century Europe. The south-south partnership that has made considerable gains in resolving issues of global importance can play an even bigger role in the future. India and Australia have deep historical ties and are vibrant members of the commonwealth, most vividly evident in the neighbourly precincts of their respective High Commissions in London. It is important to study those connections today as millennials of the 21st century remember the sacrifice of the millennials of the previous century.