Question for Short Debate
With the announcement of a significant programme of activities and commemorative events next year, more than £50 million of government funding being made available—and many arguments about the scale, nature and purpose of marking this anniversary—historians, other scholars, politicians, culture commentators and members of the general public have all joined the fray, making for a fascinating and lively debate.
Of course, commemorative events are nearly always contested and throw up all sorts of unexpected and, indeed, unintended consequences. In 2007, many of us were involved in commemorating the abolition of the slave trade on British ships and there was certainly plenty of controversy there. But reasoned, vigorous discussion is a healthy sign and I welcome the public debate that continues to develop about how we mark—or not—the triumphs and tragedies represented by and flowing from World War I.
In 2007, one of the key issues to arise was how the stereotyping to which many of us are subjected today springs from assumptions and misrepresentations embedded in British history centuries ago: we have been defined by stifling categories, with our histories in this country and elsewhere all but ignored.
In the 1980s, when I first conducted sessions with school students on historical figures of African descent from Roman times through to the Second World War, a young boy of Caribbean ancestry told me that we were making it up. If what we said was true, he argued, then why were there not books and television programmes on the subject? I am pleased to say that over the past 40 years, certainly in terms of scholarly works, there has emerged an ever-growing body of books and learned essays that continue to add to the sum of our knowledge about our presence and agency in British history. The Black and Asian Studies Association has been one of the key organisations in this regard, with innovative research and website materials by the Runnymede Trust most welcome too.
We should bear in mind that it was only as recently as 2002 that the tremendous effort of colonial troops from African, Asian and Caribbean countries was finally officially recognised with the creation of the memorials on Hyde Park Corner. I am delighted to take this opportunity to salute the diligence of my noble friends Lady Flather and Lord Bilimoria for their unstinting hard work on that project, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, for contributing to debates and Questions and thus making sure that our place in history is not forgotten.
Although we have moved on from the 1980s, there is still so much ignorance. I have noticed recently how well educated, intellectually curious people react when I speak about the subject of our debate today. They are amazed and often want to know more, but even if they do not intend to follow up the matter, they usually say something like, “Why were we not taught about this at school?”. If we look for a moment at the scale, we must wonder why so little of this history is known. Some 1.5 million volunteers came forward from India and were in action on the Western Front within a month of the start of the war. India’s contribution was not confined to the army or to combat. The Royal Indian Marine and the Indian merchant services had equally crucial roles. From the African countries of Nigeria, Gambia, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya and what were then Rhodesia, Nyasaland and the Gold Coast came the 55,000 men who served in combat and the many hundreds of thousands more who served as carriers and auxiliary troops.
From the Caribbean islands came vocal and financial support for Britain’s war effort. Ambulances, maintenance costs and approximately £2 million—£60 million in today’s money—were given to the British Government. More than 15,500 men of the British West Indies Regiment served with the Allied Forces. We should remember that it is not just in terms of military and support services that sacrifices were made. Food and other forms of production were disrupted in those countries and the safety and security of their populations were jeopardised.
Thanks to their commitment to education in the broadest sense, museums, other cultural organisations and the voluntary sector are expert at examining these less well known histories through a variety of analytical prisms. For example, the Imperial War Museum is conducting a research project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council entitled “Whose Remembrance?”, which will investigate how local communities are addressing the colonial experience during the two world wars.
As a commissioner with English Heritage, I am pleased to say that English Heritage has grant-aided the repair of the grade 2 listed Muslim Burial Ground at Woking, where Indian troops who died in the Indian Military Hospital at the Brighton Pavilion were laid to rest. This complements the grade 2 listed Chattri memorial in Brighton, erected where Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died in the war hospital there were cremated. A further designated memorial to Indian troops is at Barton on Sea in the New Forest, where a grade 2 listed obelisk commemorates a convalescent depot for Indian troops. English Heritage has also funded investigative work on the SS “Mendi”, the troopship carrying more than 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps that sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917 with the loss of more than 600 lives. A meeting of interested parties has recently been convened to discuss ways in which the “Mendi” dead might be remembered and the site appropriately managed. Research is also ongoing at Orford Ness in Suffolk regarding the sea defences constructed there by a Chinese labour battalion; again, it is worth noting that most of the 140,000 men who came from China to work for the French and British actually did so on the Western Front.
Now here is the difficult part: there are plenty of challenges as well as opportunities. Simply pointing out how heroic the combatants from what were then British colonies were is not, on its own, enough. To gloss over the racism and discrimination that manifested itself in a variety of ways, for example in the division of labour and the allocation of resources for fighting, would be to hide the truth. Although racism still permeates our society and there is still much work to do on this issue, to say that nothing has changed would equally be to deny reality. Relevant here is that the Armed Forces have been striving for many years to demonstrate in practical terms their positive approach to equality of opportunity and diversity in their institutions.
I believe that most, if not all, noble Lords present here today understand the need to ensure that our citizens, particularly the younger ones, from every cultural and ethnic background have a firm grasp of the complex ways in which our heritage and histories are interwoven. A sense of belonging must be predicated on the keen sense of how we and our ancestors have all contributed to the making of contemporary Britain.
I have noted that a number of government responses to questions about the commemorations have emphasised the educational dimension. There are aspects of the programme that suggest some exciting opportunities to engage young people with the human stories behind the historical headlines, which I welcome. There are several references to activities in partnership with a range of Commonwealth countries and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I again welcome. However, while the concept of the Commonwealth may make sense to us here, that is not necessarily the case for many young people. I thank the Minister for our helpful conversation earlier this week. Will he tell us how the Government intend to ensure that the material that they will be generating resonates in a profound way, encouraging analysis, critique and, yes, perhaps some uncomfortable conversations with young people—especially, but not exclusively, those of African, Asian and Caribbean descent? Of course, the most obvious way of effecting this would be in some way to recognise this material in the national curriculum.
We are not talking here about what some insist on calling “political correctness”, a term which is particularly unhelpful in this context but which was used recently to justify the removal of Mary Seacole from the national curriculum. After a petition signed by more than 35,000 people, she was restored to her rightful place. I hope that sequence of events was a clear demonstration of the importance of this issue of the recognition of the role in British history played by African, Asian and Caribbean people.
Finally, one Indian soldier, doubting that he would survive the conflict, consoled himself in his writing with the thought that his name would be,
“written in letters of gold and inscribed in the list of the brave”.
I hope that, whether that man survived or not, at least symbolically we will acknowledge him and all those women and men from across the world who played their part in that most difficult, desperate and often tragic theatre of war.
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for proposing this topic for us to discuss. I agree with her that every such commemoration raises a lot of controversy, but it also exposes a lot of ignorance at the same time. Someone, perhaps to take a radical stance, has called it a “European civil war”. That may sound like brave talk, but it was not just a European civil war. A lot of the rest of the world was fighting on one side or the other in the war.
We need to be reminded of the history, at the top as well as the bottom, of how the war was fought. One of the most unique aspects—certainly it was not repeated in the Second World War—was the formation of the Imperial War Cabinet. The fact that it was formed, including people such as Jan Smuts from South Africa and Satyendra Sinha—who later became Lord Sinha of Raipur, the only hereditary Peer of Asian origin—representing various parts of the empire and deciding about the war, is not very well known. We ought to be able to commemorate that as a constitutional innovation as well as an historical event.
It is true that this practice was not followed in the Second World War. Despite that, the empire as it then was—or the Commonwealth—contributed to the Second World War. As the noble Baroness said, on the Indian side perhaps up to 2 million people participated in the war. As noble Lords know, throughout the history of the British Empire in India, the Indian army was paid for by the Indian taxpayer; it was never paid for by the British taxpayer. In the First World War, not only was all the additional recruitment paid for by the Indian taxpayer, India alone raised £2 billion—I think. I will check; I have written it in my own book, The Rediscovery of India, so I can check that. I do not know whether India was ever repaid, but we will pass over that.
One really ought to recognise that when Britain was fighting the First World War, and indeed the Second World War, there was a tremendous contribution from the rest of the empire in terms of soldiers and resources. India was an especially big supplier of raw materials and resources for fighting the war, and that contribution was vital to that effort. I am really pressing for recognition of the efforts of the top as well as at the bottom, because one ought not to forget that the institution of the Imperial War Cabinet was a remarkable constitutional innovation and we ought to commemorate that.
That said, although the celebrations will not go on to what happened after the war, the First World War had a profound influence on the British Empire. The movements for national liberation got a great fillip from the soldiers who had come to Europe and fought the war. When the soldiers saw that their masters were just about as good as they were in fighting, and not a superior race, they realised that humanity is much more alike than not. That message was carried much more thoroughly by the war into the minds of ordinary soldiers who had come from agriculture or other industries. We ought to recognise that that was in some sense a creative contribution from what was a destructive war.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful for this initiative on the part of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, because she has drawn attention to a really vital theme of the commemorations next year. It is particularly good that in the plans already announced by the Government, the Commonwealth element is very pronounced. The commemorations will begin just after the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and there is a firm emphasis there. I was with the Gurkha association just over a week ago and I was forcefully reminded of the fact, which has already been stated, that there was a huge contribution of people from the Indian subcontinent both at the top and right the way through the war effort. It was very large indeed.
The theme plays in very different ways in different places. The First World War was a vital element of nation-building in some parts of what is now the Commonwealth. In other places, it was an episode of colonial oppression; we had some very helpful lines from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on that. I have had the privilege of conducting a service at the Memorial Gates, which she has already mentioned, every year for the past 10 years. The establishment of those gates is, as the noble Baroness said, down to the initiative of my noble friend Lord Bilimoria and, especially, the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. I am very sorry that she is not here to make a contribution because it has been an extraordinary experience, year after year, to be reminded of the huge contribution made by people from the Caribbean, especially, and from Africa as well as India. The annual observances at the Memorial Gates are on Commonwealth Day itself, somewhat before the August celebrations or commemorations. Can the Minister say whether there are any plans to use that location in August for acts of remembrance?
It is absolutely clear that, in contemporary Britain, we are now in the process of developing a truthful narrative that weaves in the contribution of many different communities to the history and flourishing of this country. This is a huge opportunity because, of course, so often we try to involve the young in the values and ethos of our society by mentioning the great universals such as tolerance, courage and respect, and all those things that we absolutely believe in. But unless they are embedded in convincing narratives and in communities, they do not have the power to transform lives. It is in that context that the remembrances and commemorations of next year will be very important as we develop the narratives and identify and celebrate the communities that play such an important part in the evolving story.
Churchill’s Britain no longer exists. There is an evolving story of these islands, and that will be an important part of developing that narrative. I declare an interest as a patron of Remember WWI, a consortium of community organisations seeking ways of stimulating grass-roots participation in the centenary. We cannot change the past, but it is a serious responsibility how we choose to remember it, because that remembering is itself extraordinarily creative and has an impact on the present. The theme of World War I is so large and the suffering involved so great that, as well as the proper emphasis of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, on life at the top, it is important to balance the great events with getting behind the columns of what Siegfried Sassoon memorably called “these intolerably nameless names” on thousands of war memorials. All sorts of resources are being developed to rescue those names from anonymity. We ought to look at that in relation to Commonwealth memorials as well. The faith communities internationally—because these are all international connections—are well placed to contribute to such an initiative.
In conclusion—I imagine that there is total unanimity among your Lordships on this—I hope that at no point in the commemorations will we seek to obscure the present urgent need to strengthen our links in a very new world with those who were fighting on the other side. It would be appalling if this was an occasion of ramping up any kind of animosity against, for example, Germany. In London, we have a special link with Berlin, and I have accepted an invitation to be there for some of the days in August 2014, as one tiny way to try to ensure that the commemoration does not turn in that adverse direction.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate, which was introduced so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey. I will concentrate on the Caribbean and introduce the subject of World War II. One cannot overstate the enthusiasm and willingness of individuals from across the Caribbean to play a key role in Britain’s two world wars. To them, Britain was their mother country; to them, it was part of their heritage. Their collective loyalty to Britain manifested itself in many, many ways. Thousands risked their lives in service, some so anxious to serve that they lied about their age, often undertaking the most demanding and dangerous jobs against the elements of a climate truly alien to them. This loyalty was unrelenting.
Donations, which came despite communities’ own severe hardships, included aeroplanes and ambulances. Villages across the islands took down the gates and railings that protected their homes and contributed them to what was then known as the war effort. Women’s groups and schoolchildren knitted caps, gloves and scarves to keep the service men and women warm. To date, the sacrifices of those men and women have never truly been recognised—not with any tangible acknowledgement of their contribution. They are not even allowed to march as a group to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, something for which they have been fighting for a very long time.
History has shown us how these people were treated with shameful hostility. It is not within the capacity of this debate to fully appreciate the extent of the racism they encountered. I am reminded of the front page of the People. It showed a black man, calypsonian, with a blonde on one arm and a brunette on the other, with a caption reading, “Would you like your daughter to marry one of these?”—an insult to those who risked their lives and are still risking their lives for Britain. We are talking about those who gave everything to protect the values that too often we take for granted, that we share as an intrinsic part of this country’s heritage. Today’s Question is important because when the UN declared 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent, the Minister’s response to my Oral Question showed that Britain was not prepared to make any effort to recognise their contribution. His answer said absolutely nothing.
During the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the Government completely ignored Caribbean nurses, the 16 to 20 year-olds who came to serve in the National Health Service. They were the pillars of the NHS. It was left to a voluntary organisation to make representations to Buckingham Palace directly. Her Majesty willingly gave her consent and medals have been struck for the best of the bunch. I declare an interest as a patron of that organisation.
Finally, I encourage people to take their children to the Museum of London in Canary Wharf. It tells the story of the marvellous contribution that was made. Some of your Lordships will remember that Mr Peel was responsible for setting up the police force. However, the Thames River Police was the first force, which was set up in the docks on the backs of the Caribbean enslaved. When the ships came in, the cargos were looted by the people of the East End. The magistrates set up the police force, and that is the foundation of today’s police force in England.
I look forward to the Minister’s response giving me some hope that the injustices suffered will be rectified by including those who are still alive and still hurting in the celebrations. I am sure that everyone here would like to participate in the plan.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, for securing this timely debate. My grandfather was one of the 15,601 men and women of the British West Indies Regiment who served with the Allied Forces in the First World War. He was a Jamaican; indeed, Jamaica contributed two-thirds of those West Indian volunteers. Others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Grenada, Guyana, the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent. More than 1,200 of those Caribbean servicemen were killed or died, while more than 2,500 were wounded. Eighty-one medals were won for bravery and 49 men were mentioned in dispatches. My grandfather said very little about his First World War experiences, describing them only as “horrific”.
My father was not deterred and joined the Jamaican Army. He was then transferred to the British Eighth Army, fighting in Italy in the Second World War. Again, my father was very reluctant to talk about what he saw of combat. But his medals, which he left to me after his death, spoke volumes. Ironically, although my father became experienced enough in the British Army to train white soldiers to become officers, because he was black he was not allowed to become an officer and attained only the rank of sergeant.
I pay tribute to the British and Caribbean Veterans Association, which tries to keep the memories of these brave men and women alive to this day. It has a simple mantra, but it is one that says it all: “We were there”. The King’s African Rifles were the largest force of African troops in British Africa. First formed in 1902, the force saw action throughout the continent during the war, especially in east Africa. The West African Frontier Force, formed in 1900 was comprised mainly of African troops and consisted of the Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment, the Gold Coast Regiment, the Royal Sierra Leone Regiment and the Gambia Regiment. Much like the descendants of the West Indian Regiment, descendants of the African regiments who fought in both world wars today form the bedrock of membership of Britain’s black-majority churches.
On 11 October last year, the Prime Minister said that the objectives of next year’s anniversary are as follows: to honour those who served; to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us not as a monument to military glory, but as a record of toil and sacrifice. After all, the good book does say, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Ultimately it has to be discussion and diplomacy, not wars, that move our world forwards. I am glad to hear that the Government intend to use a variety of means to achieve these objectives next year, but I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Young, when she says that these issues need to be on the national curriculum.
Much has been said about Britain’s disaffected youth, and in particular black youth. It is my personal view that part of that disaffection is a feeling of not belonging to Britain, and I suspect that the majority of these young men do not know that their ancestors played a full part in the First World War and the Second World War. That is why young children need to know about their own heritage, and that those valiant soldiers were not only white. As the years pass by, it becomes increasingly important that the Government’s initiatives should ensure that the contribution of people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to British efforts in the First World War is recognised.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, for introducing this debate. I am sure that noble Lords have seen the mural in the Royal Gallery by Daniel Maclise. In the mural a black man is pointing to one of the marines who shot the great admiral. Only a few inches away is an Arab gentleman on Nelson’s ship. This is simply to point out that blacks, Asians and Caribbeans played an important role not only in the First World War and the Second World War, but in the Napoleonic wars. I cannot produce the facts and figures, not because they are not available, but because this is not the time. The history pre and post the Napoleonic wars shows that the role played by Africans and Indians was very considerable. This would seem to suggest that the liberty and democracy that this country rightly enjoys are things to which other communities have contributed.
During the two world wars, which is what we are here to discuss, some 5 million Indians, Caribbeans and Africans participated. More than 130,000 people died, and 42 of them fought so gallantly that they were awarded the Victoria Cross. As my good and noble friend Lord Desai pointed out, it was not just a question of people dying, it was a question of how money was raised and loans were made, as well as the ambulance corps and voluntary groups to which Indians contributed in large numbers, including Mahatma Gandhi. He was opposed to war, but because he had benefited from the British empire, he felt an obligation to help in any non-violent way he could. Let us not forget that.
In the light of all that, I want to raise three questions. What are we commemorating? Why are we commemorating, and how should we do it? I am not entirely sure that we are clear about our answers to any of these three questions either today or through the monuments that we have built. Let us take the First World War, whose centenary falls next year, and to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London rightly referred. In my view and that of many historians, the First World War was unwise in its conception, incompetent in its conduct—ordinary soldiers said that it was like lions being led by donkeys—and the post-war settlement was brutal, leading to the Treaty of Versailles and what happened after that.
It shook the European consciousness so deeply that it discredited Europe in the eyes of lots of people, including those in India and elsewhere. They thought, “If Europeans can engage in that kind of brutality and that kind of war, they are not entitled to talk of European civilisation”. It also disillusioned large numbers of people within Europe about the kind of society that they had created and led to interwar movements that paved the way for the Second World War.
What are we commemorating? In my view, we should be commemorating the fact that war is not the answer to many of our intractable problems; that it should not be romanticised, because it involves an enormous amount of suffering; that, wherever possible, there has to be an alternative way than violence of dealing with conflicts; and, equally importantly, that our political leaders can be extremely incompetent and are not always to be trusted. A recent example is that it has taken them 10 years to realise that the Americans should be talking to the Taliban. Hundreds and thousands of lives could have been saved if something that many of us have been talking about had been realised earlier. Just because this happens to be a life on the other side of the world, they think that they can gamble, take things for granted and continue to make mistakes.
For me, the most important message of the First World War is that our leaders are not as bright as they think they are. They are capable of more stupidity than ordinary human beings. In fact, if any manager of a company had handled his affairs in the same way as some of our Prime Ministers and presidents have handled the great affairs of their countries, they would have been sacked a long time ago. That, to me, is one of the important lessons of the First World War, along with many others.
So why should we be commemorating those things? It is for three reasons. First, so that we can do justice to the victims; secondly, so that we do not repeat the mistake and so that these things are burnt into the consciousness of ordinary human beings; and, thirdly, that we recognise the solidarity of the Commonwealth because it has contributed substantially to the exercise.
How should we commemorate? I am not entirely keen on statues, monuments and memorials. We walk by statues. What do they tell us? Statues are mute and do not tell the story. The story has to be told. Therefore, I should have thought that the commemoration could take a form such as a national day of reflection on what happened and why, and which we should get our schoolchildren to recognise through the school syllabus. There could be an annual televised lecture which becomes a national event, where people talk about these things in their hearths and homes. There could be an essay competition in schools. As the right reverend Prelate rightly said, we should help to construct a new national narrative in which the Commonwealth contribution is fully appreciated. More importantly, for me, as we are talking about the Commonwealth contribution, how can we link up with other Commonwealth countries to commemorate this? It is not just about commemorating what they did for us but, rather, doing it jointly.
Finally, I recognise that six out of seven speakers so far this afternoon are from within the Commonwealth and only one is British, in the colour sense—that is, white. That tells us something. If we value the Commonwealth contribution, I should have thought that people in equal proportion across the colour boundaries would have joined in, but it is only one versus six. Therefore, it is important that we take the subject far more seriously than we seem to have done.
My Lords, I am grateful to speak in the gap. As it happens, our elder daughter is on a school visit from Wellington College to Ypres in Belgium as we speak. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for initiating this debate and for her excellent speech. I emphasise one of the points that she and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made, which is that our students must learn and must know.
For six years, I was privileged to be the chair of the commemoration committee of the Memorial Gates, which were founded by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. I am sorry that she is not here, because it was thanks to her that those gates were erected, and they are a memorial to the contribution of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who served in World War I and World War II. In the First World War, 1.5 million men from the Indian subcontinent served, and 70,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, I do not think that our children realise that in the First World War, the Indians were not allowed to become officers.
The only Indian officers were the doctors. It was only after the First World War that people such as my grandfather, the late Brigadier Bilimoria, was allowed to be commissioned at Sandhurst. In the First World War, even my tiny community, the Zoroastrian-Parsee community, had doctors who served; doctors like Captain Baputi Chenoy and doctors like Major Ravenshaw Kapadia, who was given the Military Cross.
In the Second World War the contribution from the Indian subcontinent was even greater. It was 2.5 million volunteers—the largest voluntary army the world has ever known. My own late father, Lieutenant-General Faridoon Bilimoria, was from the 5 Gurkhas. The uncle of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London served in the 5 Gurkhas and made the ultimate sacrifice in the Second World War. My father’s battalion 2/5 Gurkhas was awarded three Victoria Crosses.
All I would request is that the Minister takes the message that our children must realise that we would not be enjoying the freedoms and all the benefits that we have today without the service—without the sacrifice—of the millions of volunteers from south Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean. Our children must learn; they must remember; they must appreciate; they must be inspired; and they must never ever forget.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, of Hornsey, and all who have spoken in this debate for making it a very special moment. It has been a wonderful short debate, dealing with very important issues and it has been very moving to listen to all the points that have been made. I also thank the Library for a very good research note, which has obviously influenced a number of people’s contributions and indeed has worked into mine as well.
When the British Government declared war in 1914, they did so on behalf of the empire and not just of the UK. It is right that the forthcoming World War I celebrations recognise the voluntary participation of so many people then living in the empire and the considerable sacrifices that were made throughout the war. In the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, “Our boys weren’t just Tommies—they were Tariqs and Tajinders too”. Of course, they were not just boys either, although that is another story.
As many noble Lords have said, the figures are not well enough known. As my noble friend Lady Howells said, some contributions are still not being properly acknowledged. There were some 1.5 million men from the Indian subcontinent. It is worth pointing out, as has been mentioned, that participants from the Indian subcontinent won 13,000 medals, including 12 Victoria Crosses. The Caribbean supplied 15,000 soldiers who made up the British West Indies Regiment and there were around 55,000 soldiers from Africa who mainly fought in that continent. As the right reverend Prelate reminded us, there were Gurkhas, as always. When people go to the major war graves in the Low Countries, the lasting memory that we have in these endless fields, beautifully maintained as they should be, is the moving sight of the rows of crosses, but search harder and you can find the memorials to the 47,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who died on the Western Front. There are Sikh memorials, Jewish and Muslim graves, as well as the grave markers of members of the Chinese Labour Corps.
The centenary that we are commemorating must engage with many national and international levels. It is hoped that—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said—there will be activity in many places around the Commonwealth. In our own country, given the diversity and the challenges that exist in the moment, we should use this commemoration to bring every one of Britain’s communities into some form of discussion and knowledge about the event because so many of their forebears were involved in the First World War.
Having said that, it is important that the First World War be remembered for more than the industrialisation of death that it caused. I hope that the Minister will accept that it will be important to ensure that the commemoration of the centenary is respectful, thoughtful and reflective, without in any way glorifying the nature of the war and the appalling human sacrifice that took place; a commemoration, not a celebration.
There is a huge opportunity here if we can but grasp it. The Imperial War Museum will play a pivotal role; the National Army Museum and local museums will play their parts. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund will give £6 million to projects marking the centenary. So it would be really good if the majority of those funds could be reserved to help local areas and communities explore their history and heritage so as to better understand the war’s impact on their communities—to create a truthful narrative, as suggested by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London.
The Government have laid out three themes for the commemoration: remembrance, youth and education. That seems to be about right, but I hope there will also be an opportunity to reflect on why the war was waged and to recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, that we would not have freedom today had it not been for the courageous sacrifice and service of those brave individuals then. It is important that we understand why so many Tariqs and Tajinders, as well as Tommies, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for that ideal, and what the significance of that coming together of the empire means today and in the future.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us, much has been achieved in terms of knowledge and understanding of the contribution made by people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to the British effort in the First World War. As she also reminded us, there is much more to discover and understand about the impact of all this not only in the trenches and on the battlefields but in the outposts of empire. The human and political strands must be woven into the commemoration. I look forward to hearing how that will happen from the Minister.
My Lords, first, I add my own thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity again to discuss these important commemorations.
The First World War is integral to our history. The Government are committed to commemorating its centenary appropriately. The scale is overwhelming: over 16.5 million deaths, military and civilian, with 1.25 million from Britain and its then empire, colonies and dominions alone. Let us not forget, either, the many more who returned home physically and mentally wounded. More countries were involved in the war than not, from the vast Indian subcontinent to the small island of Nevis. All should be remembered for the part they played, and I assure your Lordships that they will.
Those contributions were as diverse as the countries involved. Many countries provided not only troops but porters, engineers and medics, among others. The noble Baroness, Lady Howells, particularly mentioned the Caribbean. I found out that men travelled from there at their own expense to enlist. In Africa, Asia and the Caribbean there were significant financial contributions both centrally and from citizens who raised large amounts, at a time when they were already feeling economic hardships at home. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who referred to the Indian Army being paid by Indian taxpayers. He also mentioned the donations in kind, as did a number of other noble Lords, with each country giving what it could. Whether wood, fruit, sugar, rum, aeroplanes or whatever it was, those were great contributions.
Remembering these contributions is not new for us. I am particularly sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, is not with us today and I wish her a speedy recovery. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, she had so much to do with the Memorial Gates, as did he. That inscription on the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill is in memory of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean. It is as meaningful today as it ever was, while the nearby pavilion includes the names of 23 gallant men from those regions who were awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One, alongside those from the Second World War. I am sure that the gates will be used over the four years of commemorations. I rarely part company with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, but these memorial places are not necessarily there for their stone but because they are a focal point for people to gather in a meaningful way.
The centenary gives us a new opportunity to mark these important contributions. Commonwealth representatives will be invited to stay after the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games to attend a service of commemoration at Glasgow Cathedral on 4 August next year. It was right that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London referred to this, because it will be followed by a wreath-laying service at the city’s cenotaph.
The nearly 230,000 deaths among military personnel from countries now within the Commonwealth are well documented. However, the speed with which some of them entered the battlefield was extraordinary, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, mentioned, for the British Indian Army arrived in France on 26 September 1914 and was engaged in fierce fighting at Ypres the following month. Their heroic exploits are rightly commemorated at Neuve Chapelle, where a memorial stands as an enduring testament to the men from the modern-day sub-continent who also served with distinction at places like Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Indeed, we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Taylor of Warwick, of their own families’ service. Men from across the African continent contributed, whether it was the Egyptians helping to guard the Suez Canal, then British Nigeria contributing to the German surrender at Duala, or the South Africans seizing Delville Wood with great loss. There were many more occasions such as this across the Commonwealth.
Turning to the Caribbean military contribution, the British West Indies Regiment’s actions in Palestine caused General Allenby to note that:
“All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations”.
The names of those from all parts of the Commonwealth who died at the Western Front and beyond are recorded in those immaculately tended cemeteries and memorials of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, one of our invaluable partners in this programme of commemoration. Funded proportionately in relation to war casualties by its member nations, our Government provide some 78% of the commission’s funding. Many of its cemeteries will provide a poignant backdrop to centenary events around the world, and they are also providing wise counsel to us.
What the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said about Commonwealth partners was important. It is essential that the entire Commonwealth plays a full part in the centenary commemorations. The Prime Minister’s special representative, Dr Andrew Murrison, has held a number of meetings with the Commonwealth high commissions in London to share our plans and invite their involvement. There are plans for a plenary session involving all high commissions in the autumn, and there have also been discussions with groups including the Commonwealth Secretariat.
It was absolutely right that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, referred to my noble friend Lady Warsi. As part of her energetic efforts to highlight the contributions of the Commonwealth, she visited the Grootebeek military cemetery and the First World War graves of soldiers from her parents’ home village in Pakistan. Similarly, we can all be inspired by the First World War centenary to gain a greater understanding of our roots. Indeed, one of the key aims of the battlefield visits project in England, and now in Scotland, is that pupils are given the opportunity to learn about the role of the Commonwealth and former empire countries which fought in the war.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, made some particularly poignant comments about history and its teaching. It has also been said that education and youth are absolutely key to our efforts. What the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said about that was equally moving. Even before the recent launch of the small community grants scheme, the Heritage Lottery Fund is playing a key role in connecting communities with their First World War past; the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, mentioned this particularly. They have given early support towards a number of projects which highlight the role played by the African, Asian and Caribbean Commonwealth soldiers in this critical phase of British history. The right reverend Prelate mentioned nation building. This was important for that reason as well.
Through measures like the battlefields visits programme and the HLF-supported projects, not only will we gain a better understanding of our past but, collectively, a strengthened feeling of national identity in today’s Britain, whatever our cultural or ethnic background. There is no doubt that this country could not have prevailed in the First World War without the support and sacrifice of the Commonwealth countries. As we came together then, so the centenary will give us an opportunity to come together again to reaffirm our shared values. The noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, spoke movingly about them. Those values have been forged through experiences that will not be forgotten and they should bind us together inseparably. Recognition of the important role that men and women from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean played is an integral part of the Government’s plans for an inclusive commemoration.
The commemoration will not gloss over the horror of the First World War or, indeed, who won. I think I would need an hour to digest and satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, in his questions around what, why and how, but they are particularly important as many people discover things about that war through listening to different historians—I have yet to meet historians who take the same line, and no doubt we will hear a lot from them. We will also want to come to our own judgments, and that is why the Government are not planning anything along one theme. It is for people to discover for themselves and it is why the battlefield visits are going to be so important. Over the next four or five years, two pupils and a teacher from every secondary school will go and see the Western Front for themselves. I would also like to reassure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and all other noble Lords that the Government approach the commemoration in a spirit of reconciliation, acknowledging that loss and suffering recognise no national boundaries and that those who were once our adversaries are now our partners in building a better world.
Committee adjourned at 4.56 pm.