In Flanders Fields; and elsewhere too

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on the often ignored contribution of people from Africa, Asia and Caribbean during World War I

When the British government declared war in 1914, it did so on behalf of the Empire – not just the United Kingdom. So it is right that next year’s centenary commemorations of World War I recognise the voluntary participation of the many people then living in the Empire, and the considerable sacrifices that were made throughout the war. As Baroness Warsi has correctly put it, “Our boys weren’t just Tommies, they were Tariqs and Tajinders as well”.

Some 1.5 million men from the Indian sub-continent served in the war within the Indian army – mainly in the Middle East, but also in Belgium and France. Between them, they won 13,000 medals, including 12 Victoria Crosses. The Caribbean supplied the 15,000 soldiers who made up the British West Indies Regiment – two thirds were from Jamaica, the rest from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Guyana, The Leeward Islands, and St Lucia. There were around 55,000 soldiers from Africa – mainly Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya – who mainly fought against the German African colonies. And as always, there were Ghurkhas.

When you visit the major war graves in the Low Countries, the lasting memory you have in these endless fields of graves, beautifully maintained as they should be, is the rows of crosses. But search further and you can find the memorials to the 47,000 troops from the Indian sub-continent who died on the western front. And there are Sikh memorials, Jewish and Muslim graves, and the grave markers of members of the Chinese Labour Corps.

The centenary we will commemorate next year must actively engage on many national and international levels – and, I hope, all around the Commonwealth. In our own country, given its diversity and our current challenges, we must involve all of our communities because so many of their forbears were involved. 

It can be argued that World War I was the single most significant event of the 20th century. As such, it is something we must continue to learn from while at the same time educating each new generation of children. But the war must be remembered for more than the industrialisation of death that followed in its wake. And the commemoration must be respectful, thoughtful and reflective, without glorifying the nature of what happened and the appalling human sacrifice that took place. 

There is a huge opportunity here if we can grasp it. The Imperial War Museum will play a pivotal role; the National Army museum and local museums will play their parts too. In addition to the £9 million already donated, the Heritage Lottery Fund will give £6 million to projects marking the centenary. It would be helpful if the majority of these funds could be reserved to help local people explore their history and heritage to better understand the war’s impact on their area and communities. 

The government has laid out three themes for the commemoration: remembrance, youth and education. While that feels right, I hope there will also be an opportunity to reflect on why the war was waged – to recognise that we wouldn’t have freedom today without the courageous sacrifice and service of so many brave individuals from across the world. Only then can we understand why so many Tariqs and Tajinders, as well as Tommies, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Only then will we understand the significance of the coming together of the Empire, and what it means both now and for the future. 

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th June 2013

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