Badges of Honour: Ex army men reinforce Anzac ties

How members of the Indian community are reinforcing the Gallipoli connection
Attired in a resplendent green sari and proudly wearing quite a few medals on her right, Anne Kaushal joins a sea of people on this wet and pouring Saturday. She has come all the way from Canberra to be a part of the Indian army contingent under the Commonwealth banner taking part in the Anzac Day parade. It has been a ritual she has been following since 2007, the year she stepped into the shores of this ‘beautiful country’.

For those not aware, the military protocol followed worldwide allows widows to wear their deceased spouse’s medals on the right, the left reserved for retired and serving personnel. Kaushal who lost her husband, an Indian naval officer, to bone cancer, says she is possibly one of the youngest widows in the parade. “For me being a part of the Anzac Day parade is honouring the defence forces all over the world and honouring my husband’s memory. Because I was married to him I have a deep appreciation for people who work in the defence and their commitment to the respective countries they work for.”

There is a certain earnestness in her face as she gushes, “Every year I wear a sari and people want to take photographs. They are curious about my dress, my story but people also know why I wear the medal on the right. It needs a fair amount of strength to come out and do this because you are addressing the memories full on. I stand tall in his memories.”

And there are others like her who feel equally honoured on this day. Take Major General (retd) Ranjit Nadkarni, a celebrated Indian army officer, who believes that as a soldier it is important to maintain ties with the past. “These are the ties that bind you from generation to generation. From that point of view it is very important that we old timers take part in the parade.” And he is particularly happy that a few younger Indian officers have come forward to march. In all, about 12 Indian army officers who fully served the army, have taken retirement and now settled in Australia were part of the Indian contingent this Anzac Day, Saturday, April 25.

Post the ceremony, Col (retd) Samir Roychowdhury, the man behind the scenes, is overwhelmed. “We were given a place where we should collect and given an order of march by the organisers. We had the banner of India and the Indian Flag in front of us. It was part of the Commonwealth forces. We marched from Flinders Street to the Shrine of Remembrance. We felt very proud that we were representing India in a foreign country and were a part of the Commonwealth forces. We were excited to march holding the Indian flag high.”

As the contingent reached the Shrine, they turned their eyes towards the right in true military style to pay homage to the dead heroes. “In true military tradition, this show of respect is acknowledged by the guards who are there at the Shrine. They salute you back with the weapons,” says Col Roychowdhary.

This April 25th marked the 100 anniversary of landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. On this day the Australian War Memorial hosted two ceremonies of national significance to commemorate the courage and sacrifice of those who have served Australia during periods of war and peace.

For the Indian participants it was a show of respect for not only the Australian and New Zealand troops who fought and died at Gallipoli but for the many Indian soldiers too who took part. Unfortunately, says Gen Nadkarni, “It is not universally known in Australia that Indian troops also took part in the battle of Gallipoli and suffered high casualty.”

According to Gen Nadkarni and Col Roychowdhury, in April 1915, Indian expeditionary force “G” was sent to reinforce the Gallipoli campaign. It consisted of the famous 29th Brigade serving away from its parent 10th Indian Division. The brigade was despatched from Egypt and attached to British 29th Division which had been decimated in earlier battles.

The Indian brigade was held in reserve for the second battle of Krithia advancing on the left; the brigade was quickly halted along the Aegean seashore where the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles managed to advance. The 14th Ferozepure Sikhs (Royals) advancing along the floor of Gully Ravine was almost wiped out, losing 380 men out of 514 and 80 per cent of their officers.

The brigade was next involved in the battle of Gully Ravine and here the 2/10th Gurkha Rifles managed to advance half a mile. The brigade next took part in the battle of Sari Bair under the cover of a naval bombardment. The 1/6th Gurkha Rifles assaulted and captured the hill, which was then shelled by the Royal Navy. With their casualties mounting and under command of the Battalion medical officer they were forced to withdraw to their starting positions. With the failure of the assault at Sari Bair, the brigade suffered a loss of 1358 men and 3421 were wounded.

Gen Nadkarni and Col Roychowdhury state that the Allied forces that landed in Gallipoli to fight the Turkish Ottomans in 1914 consisted of a massive Indian contingent of 16,000 Crack Indian soldiers who fought gallantly along with the Anzacs for the entire eight long months of close battle. Indian soldiers embodied on the same theatre as part of British offensive.

Later on, soldiers from India served alongside Australian/British troops in Egypt, Sinai Peninsula and Mesopotamia in World War I and also in Malaya, Singapore, North Africa and Burma in World War II and were awarded several decorations for distinguished services of the highest order.

Indian forces, say Gen Nadkarni and Col Roychowdhury, comprising mainly Sikhs, Punjabis and Gurkhas go on very well and developed a very positive relationship with Anzac troops. The Anzacs were highly impressed with the Indian valour, comradeship and total dedication with high military morales and found mention in war despatches.
Therefore taking part in the Anzac Day celebration is very important, says Gen Nadkarni. “If this historical perspective is not passed on it will die. And this is what we in India need to learn what is happening here in Australia. When you see school children being taken to the Shrine there is so much awareness being created which is not there in India. We must learn from them.”

Gen Nadkarni, who was born in Mumbai, joined the National Defence Academy and graduated from there in 1964. He then went on to the Indian Military Academy and got commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Maratha Light Infantry in December 1965. From 1965 till February 2004, he served with the Indian army and retired as a major general having served 38 plus years.

After retirement, he migrated to Australia as his wife’s family were based here. Today as guest lecture at the Australian Defence College in Canberra, his services are valued especially coming from a battled hardened army such as the Indian army. “It keeps me busy and I pass on whatever I have learnt in my army service.”

He has been associated with Anzac Day parade for the past three years. “Earlier there were a lot of older officers from the British times but they have now passed away or become too old. So we have taken over. That is why it is important to pass on the tradition to the new lot, younger officers who have come here,” he stresses.
Similarly Col Roychowdhury who joined the Indian army in 1964 after finishing a Master’s degree in Allahabad University served all over the country and retired in 1994. He migrated in Australia to join his wife who was already employed as a child specialist at the Royal Melbourne hospital. Since then he has been organizing the Anzac Day participation of Indian retired officers and keeping a patch of history alive.

“When I came here in 1994, the Indian consulate at St Kilda was not here. It was an honorary counsel,” he recalls, crediting a certain Commandant K G Menon from the Indian navy who fought in the 43-44 operation in the South China Seas for having revived the tradition of sending a contingent for the Anzac Day parade.

All these officers proudly wear medals for their distinguished services. It is, after all, something they have qualified for with their names and numbers well inscribed.

Indeed retired Indian officers in Melbourne are a motley group. But they meet informally once in a while. “This way we keep alive our memory of the Indian army. What we are missing there we are trying to revive here,” says Col Roychowdhury.

It is said that the after the First World War, returned soldiers sought the comradeship they had felt in those quiet, peaceful moments before dawn. It is evident that this comradeship is something that is universal and days such as Anzac are a great testimony.

In the words of Kaushal, “I am so amazed by the turnout of people even on a day like this when it is pouring, the commitment of what the Australians and everyone here to do an Anzac day parade is very touching. It is so beautifully organized; the service brings a lot of the memories.” For her and others and for us laymen too, the brave stories of war are a source of enduring pride. By Indira Laisram