The Journey to Istanbul

Published: October 9, 2015 - 13:29 Updated: October 13, 2015 - 16:45

The author, Turkey’s ambassdor to India, Dr Burak Akcapar, revisits India’s medical mission to Turkey 

More than a month into heavy fighting in the Balkans, Dr Ansari was reporting by end November 1912 that their “mission of mercy” was ready to deploy to Turkey. He assembled “eight fully qualified medical men, five with European qualifications and three holding Indian Degrees and Diplomas.” Three of these doctors were to join the Mission in Istanbul from London. Additionally, there were eight dressers and nine male nurses to travel from India with the mission. One of the male nurses would also take over the task of the manager and accountant of the mission. Dr Ansari pointed out particularly that “we could take many more male nurses if we wanted, but we find nine are ample for all our requirements”. Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, in his memoirs, would recall years later that he was recruited for the mission in Aligarh while playing tennis: 

The Indian medical mission in Turkey

I was playing tennis in front of my room, bare-headed, bare-footed, my hair all dishevelled, I heard Rahman (Siddiqui) calling me, accompanied by a well-dressed,  handsome gentleman standing by his side. I was introduced … to Dr Ansari. I expressed my joy and admiration for him, for having undertaken the responsibility of leading the Medical Mission. He told me that he had come to Aligarh to find some young men to go with him to help him discharge his duties … By the evening  I had made up my mind  to join the mission. 

Several others were to join the Mission from the Aligarh College. But in his letters, Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari proudly noted that.. 

“Ours is a truly All India Medical Mission, as we have got representatives from every province of India. It is very gratifying to notice that the men who have joined the Mission are from the cultured middle and higher classes, representing the flower of Mohammedan youth, who are fully alive to the responsibilities and nature of the work with which they are entrusted. I have the fullest confidence that all the men will do their duty to the best of their abilities and prove worthy of the trust which their co-religionists have placed in them by sending them as their representatives in the Mission”. 

As several members of the Mission did not have prior medical or paramedic training, Dr Ansari was to train members of the Mission on daily routines during the journey aboard the ships. 

The uniforms of the Mission were selected with particular attention and purpose by Dr Ansari.  While he goes into details as to what every member of the team was supplied with, he makes a particular note of the Jodhpur breeches which ‘‘have been selected from the point of view of comfort and utility, but also to impart to the mission uniform a distinctively Indian character’’. The mission members would also wear a badge on the left arm with the Red Crescent, one on either side, with an inscription in Arabic that read ‘The Indian Medical Mission’. The only distinction between the doctors and the dressers was the brown leather belt with pouches that would be worn by the doctors. 

Dr Ansari decided not to carry the medical supplies and instruments from India to Turkey. Instead he sent a list to the Indian Muslim jurist and political leader Syed Ameer Ali in London, “giving him full particulars of the quality of instruments, appliances, dressings, disinfectants, tinned provisions and other invalid foods to be sent straight to Constantinople, as to reach there before us’’. The list that Dr Ansari sent to Ameer Ali was ‘‘based on the one prepared by the great English experts for field hospitals in the South African war, only minor differences being made owing to difference in climate, and season of the year’’.  Ameer Ali was , however, requested to consult expert opinion in London to select the best and cheapest material in the market. The purpose for ordering the equipment and supplies from London was to allow team members to travel light with only their own personal luggage. However, the team nonetheless appears to have carried some bandages, dressings, disinfectants and minor surgical instruments that were donated by a company from Calcutta. 

At that stage, the team was ready to deploy but waiting for their passports. Dr Ansari was reporting that they had heard rumours that the Government of India, the term used at the time to refer to the British Empire’s representative in India, would not permit the mission to proceed to Turkey. But he quickly refuted these rumours and stated instead that the Viceroy had promised to request the British Ambassador in Istanbul and Agent General in Cairo to assist the mission. The later memoirs of Chaudry Khaliquzzaman also collaborates the support received from the British authorities. He relates, for instance, that the members of the Mission were received by the British Viceroy Lord Harding just before they departed from Bombay. 

The journey from the United Provinces to the port of Bombay was nothing short of a triumphal procession. Thus, Wasti writes, ‘‘A huge crowd of well–wishers saw the train off from Lucknow with poems, prayers and tears, the venerable Shibli Nu’mani was there at the station, and Maulana Mohamed Ali himself was to escort the Mission by train to Bombay. A similar reception took place along the train’s route to Bombay at Bhopal. 

The Mission left Bombay with a hearty farewell aboard the Italian vessel Sardegna on 15 December 1912. The ship also carried Her Highness the Maharani Holkar of Indore and her suite of ladies going to Europe. They were to pass through Aden and reach Suez on the morning of 26 December. From there on, the Mission took the railway route to Alexandria through Ismailiya and Banha. The Mission received much consideration and support from the Egyptian officials and people: “The Customs Officer who was an Egyptian gentleman showed his appreciation and sympathy and only opened a box or two probably in order to swear he had gone through the formality. A small crowd of Egyptians had gathered there and they were very enthusiastic and showed us every courtesy and consideration”. That said, the trip from Suez to Alexandria also had its challenges. In addition to the expensive freight charges and food at the hotel, Dr Ansari  writes that the journey from Islamia to Benha was a little more cramped though the scenery around made up for the discomfort in the train. The change at Benha was accomplished under stress of time and a jabbering crowd of porters who wanted ‘Baksheesh’ (tip) from every single member of the Mission.  The final stretch of the train ride was from Banha to Alexandria on the same day. The train was “most congested but full of very sympathetic Egyptians and Turks”. The Mission almost had its luggage sent to Cairo instead of Alexandria but was saved by the intervention of Dr Ansari and the British captain who was assigned by the occupation forces in Egypt to assist the Mission. After touring the city to inspect the alternatives, the Mission decided to check in at the 18th-century seaside Hotel Metropole at a discounted rate. 

The next morning in Alexandria, the Medical Mission had the opportunity to meet the Turkish refugees from the Balkan Wars sheltered at a Khedival palace at Ras-el-Tin. They were told of the atrocities perpetrated by the Servians in throwing always from the windows the Turkish sick and wounded, there to die of cold, starvation and disease … a good many other inhuman deeds done by the Balkan armies during their occupations of Salonica and Kavalla, amongst them the murder of the weak  and innocent women and children, the insults and injuries to the women, the spoliation, burning and looting of their hearths and homes  and the unspeakable miseries caused to these innocent non-combatants. 

These depictions, writes Dr Ansari, went straight to the hearts of the Indian Medical Mission and reinforced  their determination to help the wounded in the war.


The author, Turkey’s ambassdor to India, Dr Burak Akcapar, revisits India’s medical mission to Turkey 

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