Remembering the Ottoman Empire’s forgotten Indian Allies

Published 14.02.2015 00:00
Updated 14.02.2015 01:15

The government of India might want to invest more in history education for its students. A poll conducted by YouGov in 2014 found that one in four Indians believes India fought against the UK in World War I. Yet, during World War I over a million Indian Army soldiers from what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma served the British Empire. The largest portion of this force some 700,000 would be sent to support the British invasion of "Mesopotamia". During the four years of World War One, over one million Indian troops served overseas of these some 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded. The India Gate one of the iconic structures which greets visitors to New Delhi was built to note their sacrifices.

While one in four Indians maybe wrong, their inclinations are not entirely incorrect. During World War I, scores of Indian Army soldiers mutinied against or deserted from the British military. Some did so out of a sense of nationalism and others out of disgust as being used as cannon fodder for a European war. For many South Asian Muslims the thought of going to war against the Ottoman Caliph was repulsive and lead some to defect to the Ottomans.

The website for Britain's Sikh Museum contains a critical letter sent to a Muslim soldier serving in France in March 1916 that explains the distaste many South Asian Muslims toward serving Britain against the Ottomans: "You are entangled in a war in which no victory has been gained nor can any be gained in the future. What you ought to do is raise your fellow caste-men against the English and join the army of Islam (the Turks)."

February 15th, marks the hundreds anniversary of the Singapore Mutiny, one of the most important events of World War I in Asia and one of the largest pro-Ottoman mutinies of World War I. On that date 820 Indian soldiers of the 5th Light Infantry mutinied against their officers and spread across the city nearly seizing it. They seized weapons and even freed German prisoners of war. Yet, the rebels lacked clear leadership and soon warship's belonging to Brittan's wartime allies arrived to help the British recapture the city. The French landed a force of 190 men, The Orel a Russian warship landed 40 men and two machine guns. A Japanese shorep arty was bolstered by auxiliaries drawn from Singapore's large Japanese population. In one of the early uses of motorized vehicles in combat, colonial forces used automobiles to patrol the island. Some of the mutineers attempted to flee to the nearby Malay Peninsula or to blend in with Singapore's multi-ethnic population.

The Germans and Ottomans developed a similar tactic during World War I and funded a number of dissident groups. Yet, these are less well known than British efforts such as the British funded "Arab Revolt" against the Ottoman which involved a British officer named T.E Lawrence perhaps better known as "Lawrence of Arabia". Imperial Germany encouraged the Caliph Mehmet the V to declare a "lesser jihad" against the French and British. German agents also promoted the false rumour that Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam. More successful were German efforts to fund the Ghadar Party founded in the United States prior to World War I by Indian nationalists.

The Ghadar party would be linked to the Singapore mutiny by British colonial authorities. Ghadarists were a multi-ethnic and included South Asians of many faiths. Indeed, the multifai th character of the Singapore rebellion was noted by the Ottoman Consul General Rıfat Efendi in Batavia who filed a dispatch on the rebellion, "the truth is that an Indian Muslim, in the afore mentioned city and Indian Muslim soldiers have declared major Jihad for the greater Islamic state against the British and also including the Hindu soldiers arriving from Singapore as well those Muslim civilians according to the intelligence that I have received" he wrote.

The Singapore Mutiny was not the only pro-Ottoman mutiny of World War I. Less than a year later a similar mutiny erupted in the winter of 1915-1916 when over 400 members unit the Indian Army's 15th Lancers, another majority Muslim unit refused to fight their Ottomans co-religionists during the Mesopotamia Campaign. Unlike in the Indian Army troops in Singapore the 15th Lancers were not raw recruits. The 15th Lancers had been involved in heavy fighting against Germany in 1914 in France at important battles including Neuve Chappelle, Aubers, Festubert, Loos and Messines Ridge among others. After the mutiny, the unit was sent to patrol bandits in Persia and reorganized after the war.

In 1915, Ottoman forces lay siege to the city of Kut. During the siege scores of Indian Army troops facing starvation in the garrison of all faiths deserted to Ottoman lines. When Kut surrendered in April 1916, the Ottomans captured 13,000 prisoners. A large number of Indian prisoners were formed into the Ottoman Indian Volunteer Corps. Indian Army soldiers who defected to the Central Powers would fuel the growing struggle for Indian independence. Following the war, Indian Muslims launched the Khalifat movement (1919–1924) to protest the disbanding of the Ottoman Empire and to protect the Caliph. Mahatma Gandhi and the predominantly Hindu Congress were early supporters as they interpreted the movement as being fundamentally anti-colonial. The warm relations between Indian Muslims and the Ottoman Empire would help pave the way for the warm relationship between Pakistan and Turkey today.

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