Leslie Griffiths on the importance of ensuring a full and proper commemoration of those involved in the First World War
When we ask Ministers if they are planning to commemorate the contribution made by Empire and Commonwealth troops during the First World War we already know the answer. They will give a resounding ‘Yes’ and point to the government’s record to date – all the events and memorials, both here and across the world. And they will no doubt refer to the money allocated for further programmes and activities that heighten the profile of service men and women from Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean, East and West Africa and, of course India. We applaud this commitment.
We will also be careful to remind ourselves that it was not just British troops on the Western or Eastern front who fought those remorseless battles in the war that didn’t manage to end all wars. As Baroness Warsi has previously reminded us, it wasn’t just Tommies but Tariqs and Tajinders too. Echoing Mahomet Kemal Ataturk, who reminded us that it was Mehmets as well as Johnnies who made the ultimate sacrifice. People of all faiths and none, and from across the Commonwealth and beyond gave their all. We simply must remember them.
Our commendation of the government must, however, be qualified. There is a distinct irony in sounding this note as on the question of immigration, Ministers have repeatedly shown a cold indifference to the efforts of people from what was then the British Empire. The very same countries whose war efforts we all want to commemorate. Crude criteria have been evolved and responsibility outsourced – with it becoming less possible for people visit the UK regularly to attend family events or strengthen twinning relationships. One only has to say “Windrush” to capture the sense of frustration and injustice that reign in these matters.
It is disturbing that Ministers can’t see the connection between these actions. Thanks are due to people from the UK’s former dominions and colonies for the suffering they underwent and the courage they displayed. But this surely cannot be separated from an obligation to treat present day citizens of those same places in a fairer, more transparent and more generous manner. I don’t much believe in making apologies for historic injustices or in giving thanks for the sacrificial acts of a century ago, unless there is a “cash value.” Put another way, it should amount to an ongoing commitment to honour Commonwealth citizens.
Once the First World War was declared, the opening and final shots were fired in different parts of Africa. A great deal of fighting in or around various German possessions were scattered across the continent. Combatants in those distant battles, together with the hundreds of thousands of porters and bearers, tend to disappear from the grand narrative of ‘The Great War’. They were recruited in the early stages and commandeered as time wore on. And the land, harvests, animals and food of countless farmers was also taken in order to feed the regular army. In commemorating those on the front line, we must not forget those in the supply lines – too often the forgotten heroes of those distant battles.
So let’s commemorate and give thanks. But let’s also ensure that we do not drop our gaze from the unfashionable, unnoticed contributors to a war whose centenary we are currently so aware of.
Lord Leslie Griffiths of Burry Port is Shadow DDCMS Minister in the House of Lords
Published 4th June 2018