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National Commonwealth Military Day

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a national day to raise awareness of the contribution of Commonwealth countries in military action of Great Britain and the Overseas Territories; and for connected purposes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise an important issue for many Members of the House. I am grateful for the support I have received and hope to gain more support as I push this project forward.

Britain owes a debt of gratitude to the Commonwealth countries and those who have contributed to its military history. For centuries, that contribution by men and women, young and old, has shaped the nature of the British armed forces and their achievements. Of course, I am moving this motion on Commonwealth week, and I am delighted to note all the hard work that goes into this celebration, but I would like to push it forward with the formation of a new day. Sometimes unwittingly, these achievements, and the debt that the nation owes, are forgotten. History is written by the victors, they say, yet many acts of bravery have disappeared from our country’s consciousness, which, I believe, does a disservice to the memories of those who have served and protected our island nation.

The Government need to take more active steps to ensure that we recognise and reward those contributions, just as we honour those who are born on these shores. That is why I propose to create a day to commemorate contributions made by members of the Commonwealth in military action. It would be a day to consider not just the contribution to the world wars, but to look further back, a day for schools to encourage and teach alternative accounts of war and a chance for us to draw together communities whose families fought for Britain and countries across the globe that still contribute to our military and civilian life.

This national Commonwealth military day should include three distinct commitments. First, I hope for a ceremony to commemorate these contributions, although we should not limit our recognition to the two world wars. Secondly, I would like to encourage schools to take a view of these alternative historical viewpoints and to take the time to reposition an understanding of how modern Britain has come to take the shape it has. Thirdly, I would like the Ministry of Defence to review cases where heroism has been overlooked in a manner not befitting the contributions made. To demonstrate the importance of this issue, I shall draw the House’s attention to examples of bravery and valour that are, sadly, less known than they should be.

The first figure, who now lies in St Mary’s cemetery in Kensal Green, was not a soldier or sailor, did not fight with musket or blade and was not a military strategist or a straight shooter, but her contribution to the Crimean war came from a compulsion to aid the wounded and sick in the face of discrimination. Mary Seacole is often known as “the other Florence Nightingale”, but her dogged determination to care for British troops overcame the prejudice ingrained in our society at the time. Rebuffed in her attempts to join the nursing unit that had travelled to the Crimea—now part of Ukraine—and to gain charity funds, she travelled to the battlefields and financed her project herself. Her dedication to saving lives gained her prominence in contemporary London, but she was never formally recognised for her contribution and has only found recognition in recent years. The Mary Seacole award is an NHS award fund for specific health care projects that aim to improve the health outcomes of people from black and minority ethnic communities, but her story is less known outside health care professionals.

The second example concerns the battle of Saragarhi in 1897. This is a relevant example of a contribution made and swiftly forgotten. On 12 September, 21 members of the 36th Sikhs regiment were guarding the signalling post of Saragarhi between Fort Gulistan and Fort Lockhart when they were besieged by some 10,000 Afghan tribesmen. Saragarhi is recognised by military historians as one of the great last stands, with all 21 men choosing to fight to the death. When news of the battle reached this House, so extraordinary was the tale and so valiant the actions that the Members in this Chamber rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation. All the men were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, first class, which at the time was the highest gallantry award given to Indian troops. It was not until 1911 that Indian troops qualified for the Victoria Cross.

More than 4 million men and women from Britain’s colonies volunteered in the first and second world wars. For many Members, this is an issue of great pride. Indeed, the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), Jawala Singh Khela, fought in the still relevant theatre of Basra, in Mesopotamia, in the first world war.

As many of my hon. Friends will know, some of my main interests include British military history, football, beer and business. It is therefore of great significance to me to bring to the House’s attention the story of Walter Tull. I fully expect his name to come to further prominence this year, as a campaign for recognition of his achievements is taking place. Although he was born in England to an English mother, his father was from Barbados. As a footballer, he suffered considerable prejudice for his heritage, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, before enlisting in the Army at the outbreak of world war one. Despite the ingrained prejudice that dictated that a man could become an officer only if he was of entirely European descent, Walter Tull became just that.

Walter Tull fought and died on the western front in 1918, during the last German offensive. He was recommended for the military cross for his gallantry and coolness under fire, but the medal was never awarded. Ninety-five years on from his death, he has become the unlikely subject of a new play by Michael Morpurgo, author of “War Horse”, and there is a petition for him to be finally awarded the recognition he deserves. To make the argument to review Walter Tull’s case all the more compelling, there is now even an ale brewed in his name by a Northampton brewery.

My initial interest in this issue came many years ago, when I visited the largely forgotten western front battlefields of 1915 at Loos and Neuve-Chapelle with the late, great military historian Professor Richard Holmes. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan fought and was wounded in the arm at the battle of Loos. Neuve-Chapelle was one of the first organised attacks, in which the Indian Army played a significant part. Today there stands the magnificent and imposing Indian memorial, dedicated to the 4,500 men killed in action and the hundreds of prisoners of war who ended their days in German prisoner of war camps, down coal mines a long way from home. Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a great job maintaining the Indian memorial, it receives very few visitors, which is a great shame.

These are just a few examples of the phenomenal contributions made to the Britain Isles. I sincerely hope that these lesser known stories will allow us to reflect on the histories that are less well remembered. To better remember how we became the nation we are today, it is essential to look at the nation we once were. That is why I believe we should have a day to commemorate the contribution of Commonwealth countries to British military campaigns.

Question put and agreed to.


That Graham Evans, Paul Uppal, Rebecca Harris, Richard Harrington, Andrew Rosindell, Julian Smith, Keith Vaz, Seema Malhotra, Valerie Vaz, Mr Pat McFadden, Mr Virendra Sharma and Christopher Pincher present the Bill.

Graham Evans accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 147).