- 100 years since Gallipoli: Ceylon’s role remembered
Laura Davis, British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Maldives, has recalled the historical ties between the UK and Sri Lanka in her latest blog titled ‘100 years since Gallipoli: Ceylon’s role remembered’. Following is the full text of her blog:
On Saturday 25 April, I laid a wreath at the Borella Kanatte Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Colombo, at one of the two events organised that day by the Australian High Commission to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Allied landings at Gallipoli during the First World War. It was an opportunity to reflect again on the strength and breadth of the historical ties between the UK and Sri Lanka.
We didn’t just lay wreaths at the Cenotaph. We also went to the graves of three soldiers who had fought at Gallipoli but are now buried in Colombo. These young men had been injured in battle, were treated in the UK, but then died on the hospital ship taking them home. The details of their brief lives were poignant reminders of the disruption of war, and we paused to think also of the families who might never have seen where their sons were buried.
The fighting men of Ceylon also played an important role in the Gallipoli campaign, as bodyguard and escort to the General Commanding the ANZAC Corps.
The first Sri Lankan contingent to head overseas during the First World War was the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps. This was a volunteer regiment from Kandy made up of tea and rubber planters. As early as the autumn of 1914, eight officers and 221 soldiers sailed to Egypt, and were attached to the 1st Battalion Wellington Regiment as a part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).
In April 1915, between 80-130 troops from the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps were attached to the 1st ANZAC Corps as a bodyguard and escort to the General Commanding the Corps, Lieutenant General William Birdwood. The Planters landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula between 25 April and 1 May 1915 at the Ari Burnu beach-head, later known as Anzac Cove. They stayed there throughout the campaign – which lasted nearly nine months and cost over 100,000 Allied dead and a further 100,000 wounded – until the beachhead was evacuated in November 1915.
Three riflemen are buried in the Commonwealth War Grave at Beach Cemetery Gallipoli. Following the Gallipoli campaign, the Planters’ overseas contingent was disbanded and nearly all its soldiers were commissioned and absorbed into the British Army.
The Planters sustained heavy losses throughout the First World War, with 80 believed to have been killed and 99 wounded. In total, around 2,000 volunteers from the Ceylon Defence Force are estimated to have served with the Imperial and Allied forces. Four hundred and forty two died, and their names are all recorded on the war memorial outside the public library in Colombo.
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well – Kemal Atatürk’s words engraved on a memorial at Anzac Cove