World War I is widely perceived as a pointless conflict that destroyed a generation. Petty squabbles between emperors and elites pushed naive young men into a nightmare of mud and blood that killed millions and left the survivors scarred and embittered. But a new book argues that view was largely constructed from the 1960s onwards and fails to consider myriad positive experiences that continue to shape our lives today. This edited extract from Experience of a Lifetime illustrates one overlooked aspect.

Indian and New Zealand troops first met in the Great War - indeed, ever - when the first contingents of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt in December 1914. As the Australasian ships steamed up the Suez Canal, they passed the camps of the Indian formations deployed to protect the vital waterway. Anzac diaries and letters testify to the effect of this encounter with the military force of the empire.

Australasian troops saw Sikhs and Gurkhas as they passed through the canal, the former "fine tall men", the Gurkhas "very smart and soldierly". Although most were seeing "Indians" for the first time, many recognised Sikhs, Pathans and Gurkhas from sources such as illustrated newspapers, cigarette cards, and the popular literature of empire, from G.A. Henty and W.H. Fitchett to Rudyard Kipling, which many had imbibed from boyhood.

Indian muleteers and drivers turn up often in Anzac letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs, although usually anonymously. But in the diary of Lieutenant Colonel William Malone there is a detailed account of his meeting with an Indian driver, which is not only the longest single anecdote recorded by an Anzac diarist, but also one of the few that names the Indian, and the only one that includes a photograph of him. At Cape Helles, the day after the costly and, as it turned out, futile attack which the New Zealand Infantry Brigade made in the Second Battle of Krithia, Malone sheltered for the night amid an Indian transport dump. He crawled into a shelter between piles of ammunition boxes and other stores, encountering in the dark a man who welcomed him, silently gave him room and even pushed a blanket over him. Malone "snuggled up against the man" for warmth.

After waking, dry despite the rain that fell overnight, Malone crawled out and told an officer "what a Christian I'd struck", asking him to pass on two shillings to his benefactor. When the man then emerged, Malone was astonished to find that "he was an Indian as black as the ace of spades!" He was "so very black, with gold earrings!" Malone told his 8-year-old son, Denis.

Lieutenant Colonel William Malone with Naran Sammey. Photo / Thornton Communications
Lieutenant Colonel William Malone with Naran Sammey. Photo / Thornton Communications

"Fancy my surprise! Didn't I laugh," he wrote, expressing surprise that Sammey was "so nice and clean ... and very tidy".

Presumably with the supply and transport corps officer acting as an interpreter, Malone learned more about the man, named Naran Sammey.

Unlike most of the mule corps men, he was not a Sikh or (the majority) a Punjabi Muslim, but a Hindu from Madras, a cooper - one of the tradesmen each supply unit needed to maintain mules, carts and equipment. Malone gave Naran Sammey the two shillings he had promised, recorded the encounter in his diary and wrote home about it.

A few days later he met Naran Sammey again and had his photograph taken with him, promising to send him a copy of the photograph when it was developed.

The entente that grew between the Anzac and Indian troops on Gallipoli is one of the most striking features of the relationship between the two.

It was not what either might have expected. The Indians' officers were apprehensive at their men working so closely with Australasian whites. "We at first thought that the Anzacs might ill-treat our drivers as they don't care much for the native in their own country," wrote George Aylmer, a mule transport officer. He and his fellow officers were agreeeably surprised to find a "tremendous camaraderie between them".

The positive relationship is documented by the existence in photographic collections in New Zealand of literally dozens of images showing New Zealand and Indian troops mixing.

While some suggest that the New Zealanders considered themselves the superior party - they are the ones taking the photographs, in a more-or-less anthropological spirit - the images also show men interacting as friends, even as equals. What the Indians felt about the relationship is, however, impossible now to judge. Unlike the Australasians, they were generally illiterate or, if they did record their impressions of their encounters with European troops, those documents either have not survived or exist in family collections in Nepal or in the Punjab.

New Zealand soldier
New Zealand soldier "Blandford" (centre) with Sikh soldiers at Gallipoli. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The muleteers' camp at Anzac lay off a track leading to the beach, and they often hosted casual visitors, drawn either by curiosity about the Indians or reports of the Indians' generosity in serving snacks and tea. Many Anzac diaries and memoirs refer to men obtaining food from nearby Indian units as a relief from the monotonous (and, in the heat, sickening) diet of bully beef and hard biscuit. Frederick Senn, a New Zealand engineer, described in his "Gallipoli recollections'" how he ate "a small windfall of rice scrounged from the Indian Mule Camp" to combat a bout of diarrhoea as the summer advanced.

The mule corps officers' mess cook, Kagan, produced "stews and curries of quite extraordinary excellence" from tinned rations flavoured with spices from the muleteers' stocks.

Into a burning summer the entente between the mountain gunners and the Anzacs remained, as Arthur Fergusson wrote, "simply perfect".

"They were always hanging around chatting to our fellows," he recalled, "though how they communicated was a marvel". Anzac visitors actually became something of "a nuisance at times". Infantrymen with time on their hands and a taste for dhal and chapatis would loiter about the gun positions, disclosing their locations to Turkish observers. At one time the battery commanders had to post armed sentries to prevent thoughtless Anzacs giving the game away. John Treloar commented that "the camaraderie between these little fellows and our Australians was, I believe, grand".

As well as sharing food, Indian troops and followers exhibited aspects of the culture of their homeland. An Otago infantryman, George Cloughley, described how later in the campaign New Zealanders would "gather in little bunches and sing and yarn by the hour" - presumably in the rest areas by the shore. Nearby, probably in Mule Gully, "the Indians used to hold concerts on their own and make a most unearthly noise".

Men from half a dozen regions of northern India could have produced this music: all "unearthly noise" to unaccustomed ears.

While the soldiers of New Zealand and India who served on Gallipoli came from societies and armies that contrasted in virtually every way - amateur-professional, citizen-subject, enfranchised-unfranchised, literate-illiterate, and so on - they shared crucial characteristics that may explain their unexpectedly positive relationship. Both were members of volunteer armies, all were British subjects and, above all, they were soldiers, sharing the hazards of service on the peninsula. While they may not have shared language, beliefs or dietary customs, they bonded on the intuitive level that they all faced the same dangers, of wounds or death. Anzac observers repeatedly stressed the professionalism and bravery that Indian soldiers displayed, and that respect seemed to be sufficient to bridge the racist gap created by the sense of superiority that European soldiers brought with them to the peninsula.

Emblematic of the encounters between New Zealanders and Indians is the way William Malone and the mule corps cooper Naran Sammey shared a blanket and a dry shelter, "snuggling up" for warmth together on a rainy night in May at Cape Helles. The two - who could not speak each other's language - shared a human moment. Naran Sammey had a story he may have told his fellows around the Indians' campfire, of how he shared a blanket with a sahib, a colonel! Did he know that Malone was from New Zealand? What effect might that meeting have had on him?

It would never have occurred in India; but on Gallipoli, and in the war, relations between Indians and sahibs began to change. Malone, a man of his time, was surprised to find himself so close to a black man, and to find him "so nice and clean ... and very tidy" - qualities that his Wellingtons knew their colonel valued especially. Malone, who died on Chunuk Bair on August 8, had little opportunity for encounters with Indians to affect his thinking.

But it is possible - and deserves investigation - that the contact between New Zealand Pakeha troops and non-white troops of the empire challenged and perhaps even altered their thinking about the proper relationship between what they would have called the coloured races of the empire.

• Edited extract from Experience of a Lifetime, People, Personalities and Leaders in the First World War, published by Massey University Press, RRP $39.99.