Today, the 11th of November, is Remembrance Day, marking the Armistice that ended the First World War, a time to reflect on the fallen in that and so many other conflicts. In Australia this year, it also happens to be a day to look to the nation’s future in Asia, since a major conference of the Indian diaspora is getting underway here in Sydney (see my opinion piece on India-Australia relations in The Australian today). The date is not the only thing these two events have in common.
This year I was privileged to learn of an extraordinary thread of military history connecting the nation’s past and its multicultural, Indo-Pacific future. Australians, and even more so Indians, tend to forget that they have long been comrades in arms. Indians fought and died alongside Australians from Gallipoli to Tobruk.
And although Australia’s military history, and the ANZAC legacy, has long been seen as principally the preserve of Anglo-Celtic Australia, there were always some fascinating exceptions, precursors of the inclusive democracy that has become one of this nation’s great strengths and that today’s Australian Defence Force increasingly reflects.
As this country prepares to mark the Centenary of ANZAC, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, has introduced a powerful new element to the narrative that institution tells. At the museum’s Last Post ceremony at the end of each day, the story is given of one individual from among the more than 100,000 Australians service personnel who have died in war.
Earlier this year, I visited the War Memorial with a colleague, Indian scholar and Lowy Institute nonresident fellow Raja Mohan. Here is the remarkable story we heard at the end of that day, as prepared by AWM historian Meleah Hampton:
Private Nain Singh Sailani, 44th Battalion
Today, we remember and pay tribute to Private Nain Singh Sailani.
Nain Singh Sailani was born in Simla, India, in 1873. Very little is known about his arrival in Australia, although he may be the N. Saliaani who arrived in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1895. He would have been 22 years old.
Sailani worked in Western Australia as a labourer, and used the Perth General Post Office to receive his mail. He was friends with Mr Cyril Coleman, a tobacconist in Perth, whom Sailani nominated as the executor of his will.
Sailani volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in February 1916 as a British subject. He was 43 years old when he was allotted to the 44th Battalion, and went on to have a clear military record except for one training accident in early 1917.
Otherwise he earned no particular censure or praise, but instead was one of thousands of Australians and new Australians who served their battalion quietly. In the period Sailani was with the 44th Battalion in France, they were mostly involved with either holding the front line, or in working parties in or near the front line. Working parties could be particularly dangerous, as they had to work under enemy fire, either repairing or constructing trenches, or carrying ammunition and supplies to the front.
In late May and early June 1917 the battalion was involved in working parties for more than a week in the area around Ploegsteert Wood. On 1 June 1917 the whole Australian front line and reserve area came under heavy German artillery and machine-gun fire. Somewhere in this fire, Nain Singh Sailani was killed in action.
There are no records of the manner of his death, nor was his mother, Ranjore Singh, in Simla sent any details. However, he was clearly a remarkable man. Not only did Sailani, an Indian man, enlist and fight as a private in the Australian Army during the period of the White Australia Policy, but he did so at the age of 43. He arrived in France during one of the harshest winters on record, and yet there is no record of him visiting hospital for any reason, unlike the many stricken by influenza or pneumonia. The silence of his records remains a testament to a strong man. Nain Singh Sailani was buried as an Australian solider in the Strand Military Cemetery in Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium.
His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, along with more than 60,000 others from the First World War.
This is but one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Private Nain Singh Sailani, and all of those Australians who have given their lives in the service of our nation.
Photo by Flickr user Prescott.