Question for Short Debate
My Lords, 2018 is the centenary of the final year of the First World War, in western Europe at least; fighting continued for some time elsewhere. Since 2013, commemorative debates have been held in your Lordships’ House on various aspects of that terrible conflict. Subjects have included the origins of the war; the long, blood-soaked battles of the Somme and Passchendaele; and, by way of contrast, the rich cultural legacy in literature and art that the war bequeathed to posterity. I hope that later this year we will have a full debate to mark the centenary of the Armistice on the Western Front. However, before that point is reached, I thought that it might be appropriate to consider the immense contribution made by troops from the countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth, the latter name coming into widespread use during this period. I am grateful to noble Lords across the House who will be contributing to this debate.
The deeds of conspicuous valour performed by Empire and Commonwealth troops were followed with close interest by the retired military commanders, colonial governors and administrators who were prominent in this House at that time. Looking back after the fighting was finished, David Lloyd George, whose great statesmanship emerged so clearly during the second part of the war, concluded that without these brave men from beyond our shores, victory might well have eluded us.
“Had they stayed at home”,
“the issue of the war would have been different and the history of the world would have taken a different course”.
None of this was foreseen. Lloyd George and his fellow Liberal Ministers in Herbert Asquith’s Cabinet would have been astonished if they had been told in August 1914 that the Empire and Commonwealth would play a central part in the conflict. No preparations were made for their involvement; no provision for them was included in the plans for warfare. Even the five self-governing dominions, which thought of themselves as Britain’s partners in a free commonwealth, were completely ignored.
At the outset, the British Government were concerned solely with the threat that German aggression had created in Europe. Not an inch of new territory was to be acquired, the Cabinet decreed. Some 440 million people, the subjects of George V, the King Emperor, found themselves at war by his decree. The 10% who lived in the United Kingdom were expected to determine its outcome.
Everything changed when it became clear that Britain and her allies stood no chance of securing the swift and decisive victory they had confidently anticipated. The moment of truth arrived quickly in the autumn of 1914. It was then that Britain became fully conscious of the immense asset that its Empire and Commonwealth represented. With the unexpected prospect of a long war before them, the British Government recognised in particular the potential benefits of two great strokes of good fortune that they enjoyed. The first was the existence of a large army on the other side of the world. India had over 150,000 men under arms and the capacity to recruit many more. A contingent was rushed to the Western Front to help stem the crisis which had arisen there. Lloyd George paid them a tribute that they deserved for the way they,
“helped us to defend the water-logged trenches of Flanders through the miserable winter of 1914-15”,
when Lord Kitchener, the war supremo who had had experience in India, had only limited success in his efforts to supply them with suitable food.
Although struggling to maintain its morale in wretched conditions, the Indian Corps contributed notably to averting disaster during battles around Ypres in 1915, which were close-run things. Thereafter, the Middle East became the principal arena for Indian arms. The huge new imperial domain, wholly unforeseen in 1914, that Britain acquired from the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s unexpected ally, owed more to the soldiers of India than to any others. The conquests of Mesopotamia and Palestine were achieved mainly by Indian units fighting alongside troops from many other places, from Belize to Fiji and Hong Kong, under British command. Their victories helped redeem the disaster of Gallipoli and the humiliating surrender of 13,000 men at Kut, in the arid, inhospitable land of what is now Iraq, in April 1916. A British soldier wrote:
“Is this the land of dear old Adam?
And beautiful Mother Eve?
If so, dear reader, small blame to them
For sinning and having to leave”.
Indian soldiers bore the brunt of these grim conditions. Altogether, nearly 1.3 million of them fought, representing a 10th of the Empire’s war effort.
Britain’s second stroke of good fortune was the remarkable, spontaneous enthusiasm exhibited at the recruiting offices of the Empire, which were deluged with volunteers. The Australian Prime Minister said:
“Our duty is quite clear: to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons”.
Within 10 days, New Zealand dispatched an expeditionary force of 8,000 men. Within two months, 31,000 Canadians had been recruited, drilled and sent to Europe. They were the vanguards of the mighty dominion contingents, whose enormous sacrifices on the Western Front won them lasting respect and gratitude. By the summer of 1918, Canada and Australia had each established its own army corps under outstanding national commanders. Their rigorously trained men—better, said many, than the English—were at the forefront in the Battle of Amiens and other great breakthroughs in the last months of the war. They were lauded as some of the best shock troops in the allied armies.
There was a tendency at the time to give the contribution of the dominions undue prominence. Lloyd George provided a just assessment. He wrote:
“It is not too much to say that without the 1,400,000 fine men who rallied to the flag from the Dominions and the 1,300,000 who came to our aid from India the Allies would not have been able to bear the strain of this gigantic struggle”.
There were others to whom the allied cause was also deeply indebted. As well as serving in their own continent, soldiers from Africa joined men from the West Indies in the Middle East; on the Western Front they undertook back-breaking duties. Lloyd George wrote:
“We recruited numbers of labour battalions for the work of transport, supply and construction. Their toil alone enabled us to throw up with much speed new defences and fresh roads and railways”.
What he did not record is that many endured racial insult and abuse. Today, we look back on their vital role with the greatest admiration and thanks.
The Government’s impressive programme of First World War commemoration has been commended, and rightly so, for promoting a fuller recognition of the contributions made by Empire and Commonwealth troops, and for encouraging pride in their achievements among men and women of all races today. Can my noble friend provide details of how these admirable aims are being pursued in this final year of commemoration? Does he agree that there is ample scope for more work in a number of areas—for example, to secure a fuller understanding of the campaigns in the Middle East, which had such fateful consequences for the region and the world?
Traces of the First World War abide in far-flung places, large and small.
“In memory of the brave sons of Smith’s Parish”,
proclaims a plaque in the little country church of St Mark’s, Bermuda,
“who risked their lives in defence of the Empire against the unscrupulous German foe”.
Their Empire proved transient. Germans have long ceased to be foes. But the memory of bravery, and the honour that is due to it, must endure for ever.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lexden on introducing this debate and share his hope that the Government will arrange to commemorate the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth troops during the First World War. It is estimated that about one-third of the troops raised by Britain were from what was then the Empire: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, the Caribbean, Africa, Fiji, Hong Kong and so on. In the short time available I shall say a very few words about the Australian contribution, which was enormous and, in the final weeks on the Western Front, some would say decisive.
Australia supported this country from the start. When warning of impending war arrived by cable in July 1914, the leaders of both political parties, then engaged in an election campaign, pledged to support, help and defend the mother country, in Andrew Fisher’s words,
“to our last man and our last shilling”.
The first Allied shot of the war was fired on 5 August by Australian artillery from Fort Nepean, Port Phillip, when the German ship “Pfalz” tried to leave Melbourne. The first Australian casualties were in September when the Australian expeditionary force to New Britain, in what is now Papua New Guinea, captured the German wireless station prior to capturing Rabaul and taking the surrender of German New Guinea.
On 1 November the first convoy of Australian and New Zealand forces, accompanied, it is said, by the largest embarkation of horses in the history of the world, left Albany in Western Australia for Egypt, where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was formed.
On 25 April, the ANZAC forces landed in Gallipoli and fought heroically with British, French and Indian forces in an eight-month campaign that was intended to shorten the war but ended in withdrawal. Some 7,600 Australians and 2,500 New Zealanders—a very high proportion of those engaged—were killed or wounded. Out of a total of 265,000 Allied casualties, 46,000 perished. During the next few years, Australia, with a population of less than 4.9 million, raised over 416,000 military personnel, all of them volunteers. Over 59,000 of them were killed or died of wounds and over 152,000 were wounded. The war enhanced Australia’s sense of nationhood, with the Commonwealth of Australia having come into existence in 1901. At the same time, it caused deep rifts in society.
In January 1918, the Australian Corps came into being in France under the command of Sir William Birdwood, who had commanded the ANZAC forces since Gallipoli. He was succeeded in May by General John Monash, an Australian of German descent. The corps consisted of 166,000 troops, equivalent to 9% of the British and dominion combat forces in France. An engineer by profession, Monash developed methods of combining the deployment of artillery, aircraft, tanks and infantry, which won important victories at Hamel and Mont St Quentin. With his troops, Monash had acquired a formidable reputation—a ferocious reputation to the Germans—and was knighted in the field by King George V in August, before spearheading the final assault on the Hindenburg Line, which led to the Armistice.
In a letter to a relative in 1914, Monash referred to Australia’s duty,
“to help the Empire to crush a peril which may mean the end of Australia as a free country”.
He and his countrymen did that, together with troops from many other nations. Their valour is commemorated annually on Anzac Day and Remembrance Sunday. The British Government have done much work, as have others, since 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the war. As we approach the centenary of the end of the war, it would be fitting, as this country occupies the chair of the Commonwealth, for there to be a special commemoration of the contribution and sacrifice of the Empire and Commonwealth troops.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing the debate and introducing it in a fine manner.
I will confine myself to India, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. As he said, the army originally had about 115,000 people. Eventually, 2 million Indian soldiers fought in the First World War. To begin with, the recruitment that took place in Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province was very successful. Later on, things got harsher and the bitterness in Punjab, which resulted in the firing into the Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919, was very much due to the pains of false recruitment in Punjab.
On a more normal note, India gave £100 million to Britain as part of its contribution to the war. That money was 30% of its debt, which was added to the burden. Of course, the Indian army was always maintained from Indian taxpayers’ contributions; every year, it cost between £20 million and £30 million to maintain the Indian army at war in Europe and elsewhere. In addition, £75 million was raised through private contributions alone in India to provide food for the Indian army and all the combatants from India. Silver coins were cast to pay the farmers, and that silver came from the US Treasury. India made a lot of effort to ensure that, whatever else it did, it came to the help of the Empire in its time of trouble.
Of course, in 1917, for the first time an Imperial War Cabinet was formed, by Lloyd George, in which India had its place. It was Lord Sinha, the first and only hereditary Peer of the British Empire, who became the Minister of State in the India Office. He also accompanied the Maharajah of Bikaner to the Versailles Peace Conference.
Apart from the Indian army, a lot of native kings joined the war on their own: Bikaner, Jodhpur, Patiala and Kishangarh all contributed their own armies—and themselves—to fight the war. It was a willing, total effort, and it needs to be remembered. Of course, we have the gates that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, had constructed on Constitution Hill, but we need a proper remembrance of the First World War. Gallipoli, for example, is remembered for Australians and New Zealanders but a lot of Indians died there as well. As I said when we had a debate on the Commonwealth, if, in the post-Brexit era, we need friends and we look to the Commonwealth for friends, we ought to be friendlier towards the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this important debate, especially in the light of the recent unfortunate events surrounding the Windrush generation. I declare an interest as a patron of the Windrush Foundation.
In the 1950s, when I was a child in school in Trinidad, each day we would line up in the playground, dressed in our neat school uniform and sing “God Save the Queen”. We were proud to do this as we had been educated to believe that we were British. We had learned all about British history, British heroes, poets and writers. We were never told anything about our African roots and how we came to be in the Caribbean. For centuries this was a similar experience for millions of people across the Commonwealth, who felt British, swore allegiance to the motherland and bravely fought for her security, safety and prosperity. Britain was confident it could call on fighters and protectors from what was then called the Empire.
World War I is often depicted as a war bravely fought by white soldiers, but a bit of determined research shows us that there were thousands of black and Asian soldiers in World War I. As the West India Committee archives show, the British Army has for centuries recruited soldiers from all corners of the Empire and transported them to far-flung corners of the globe to fight under the British flag. My family were part of that recruitment, and my two uncles fought and died for Britain in the Second World War.
When World War I began, many West Indians, from almost every British Caribbean island, patriotically volunteered to fight for Britain, joining the British West Indies Regiment. They were generally used as construction troops and field attendants. In doing so, they sustained heavy losses. In Palestine and Jordan the British West Indies Regiment saw front-line service against the Turkish army. In France, Egypt and Italy the men served in auxiliary roles. Although at first they had to face racial abuse, they soon became admired for their courage, physical strength and tenacity. Many received medals for bravery or were mentioned in dispatches.
By the end of World War I more than 15,500 West Indians had joined up and served with the allied forces. They experienced military service in Italy, Egypt, India, France, Belgium, Palestine and Iraq, as well as east Africa. Records show the British West Indies Regiment fought during the Somme offensive in September 1916. Although many died and many more were wounded or spent years as prisoners of war, their sacrifice was largely ignored. Most history books do little to acknowledge the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers in World War I.
Many injured soldiers were cared for by the heroic Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, whose long overdue statue I unveiled in 2016. It stands across the river from here, looking at Parliament from the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital. Some of the wounded Commonwealth troops she cared for were brought back to Britain to convalesce and many of them continued to live and work here decades before the “Empire Windrush” arrived in 1948 with Caribbean passengers, including ex-service men and women.
The contribution of Commonwealth soldiers is unquestioned and should be commemorated. In 2002 I produced a television programme about the construction of the Commonwealth Memorial Gates, which stand at the top of Constitution Hill. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, was instrumental in their creation. The gates are a beautiful memorial—a true legacy—and I suggest that it might be fitting to hold a commemorative service there this year, with the Prime Minister and other government Ministers attending. Will the Minister tell the House whether this is something the Government might consider?
Furthermore, it might be appropriate to use the 70th anniversary year of the arrival of the “Empire Windrush” as a focal point to recognise the dedication, bravery and sacrifice Caribbean and Commonwealth people have made and continue to make to Britain, by establishing 22 June as an annual “Windrush Day”. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lexden’s excellent Question mentions the First World War. My father—who fought in that terrible conflict—and his generation did not often talk about it, but when they did, they always called it the Great War. Of course, it was a world war. He volunteered in 1915 and, like more than 1 million others from all over the Empire, he served in the Royal Artillery.
In France and Belgium he was with a 9.2 inch Howitzer battery. You can see a 9.2 Howitzer in the Imperial War Museum and another carved full size in stone on the top of the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. It was a heavy gun and the shells weighed 290 pounds—a four-man lift, particularly if you were going to do it all day and all night. My father particularly valued the work of the West Indian soldiers who worked with him in the essential service of supplying ammunition to the guns—imagine the difficulties and dangers of bringing those shells right up to the front in the huge quantities required. More than 3 million 9.2 inch shells were fired during the war by British, Australian, Canadian and other—Indian, I think—artillery.
My father was wounded during the Third Battle of Ypres and after hospital in France—happily, in the casino at Le Touquet—he was sent to Palestine to join General Allenby’s successful army against the Turks. There again he served alongside many from Australia, New Zealand and India, as well as Arabs. Many of them had already served at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, at the cost of a huge number of lives.
In talking of the Indian troops who fought alongside us on the Western Front and elsewhere, I mention only Hodson’s Horse—now an armoured regiment in the Indian army—which, rightly, still celebrates annually its part in the important Battle of Cambrai in 1917. In total, 74,000 Indian soldiers died in that war and 11 won the Victoria Cross.
We should also recall the almost forgotten fighting in east and west Africa, particularly around the German colonies. I think the only media mention of any prominence was the excellent film “The African Queen”, which was set in Africa during the First World War. But there was much serious fighting of a more conventional kind involving the King’s African Rifles—over 30,000 strong—the Royal West African Frontier Force and others from South Africa and, again, India.
The Great War is rightly called a world war and Empire troops—Commonwealth troops, as we would now call them—played a large and vital role. We will remember them.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate and for his typically erudite introduction to it. He has enabled noble Lords to focus on an aspect of the conflict a century ago that has since received much too little scrutiny.
In 1914, 350 million people were citizens of the British Empire, only 46 million of them from the UK. It is often held that without the intervention in 1917 by the USA, Britain and its allies would not have won the war. I would contend that without the contribution of troops and support in many forms from the colonies and dominions of the Empire, the war would have been lost before 1917 arrived. When I studied the war at school there was not a mention of the involvement of non-white troops, far less the importance of their endeavours, so it is gratifying that in the centenary commemorations their service is being recognised, particularly in the Government’s imaginative programme of events for schools.
Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa together contributed 1.3 million men. The sacrifices and bravery of those troops, particularly on the Western Front, is rightly highlighted when some of the war’s most punishing battles are recounted and their dead remembered. My noble friend Lord Desai detailed India’s huge contribution with the largest number of men from the Empire—almost 1.5 million. Yet of their sacrifices and bravery, we have traditionally heard little. Why is it that only relatively recently have we learned, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, that it was Indian troops who stopped the German advance at Ypres in the autumn of 1914 while the British Army was still recruiting and training its own forces? Hundreds of Indians died then, as was also the case the following year at Neuve Chappelle. More than a thousand of them perished at Gallipoli on the altar of Churchill’s intransigence, while in Mesopotamia Indian soldiers formed a majority of allied manpower throughout the war.
Those colonial subjects and their feats remain marginal in popular histories of the war for the same reason that their very presence as combatants, at least in Europe, was controversial—the racism on which imperialism was built and sustained, and whose consequences, in some forms, endure to this day. This connects with the contribution of African and Caribbean soldiers to the allied cause, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, mentioned. A year ago, the first memorial in the UK specifically to these men was unveiled at Windrush Square in Brixton. It remembers their service in both world wars but racism at the time of the First World War was of such depth and strength that even senior army officers were uncomfortable about their deployment. The Times History of the War described it thus in 1914:
“The instinct which made us such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy”.
As mentioned, Indian troops were in action in France in the earliest days of the war, but although the British West Indies Regiment was enacted by Army order in 1916, black soldiers from the Empire were not deployed in European theatres. That was seen as unacceptable, after a scandal erupted in May 1915 when the Daily Mail—plus ca change, some may say—printed a photograph of a British nurse standing behind a wounded Indian soldier. Army officials tried to withdraw white nurses from hospitals treating Indians and disbarred them from leaving the hospital premises without a white male companion. That did not prevent the continued deployment of Indian troops in France and Italy, but black soldiers saw action only in the Middle East and in Africa. In total, 55,000 Africans and around 15,000 from the Caribbean fought, with many receiving awards for bravery, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said.
Although attitudes have certainly progressed, as the 70th anniversary of the arrival of MV “Empire Windrush” approaches—and given recent revelations of the appalling treatment of some of the Windrush generation—it is self-evident that the need for greater progress remains. The long-overdue exposure of the involvement of non-white members of the British Empire in the First World War has contributed to the process of re-examining what kind of people we are, and how our multicultural heritage has developed over the century that has followed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for this debate. I hope to highlight three or four examples of why we should commemorate the contribution of those who gave their lives to sustain our democracy all these years since the First World War.
I have visited many countries to see at first hand the work undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is an intergovernmental organisation of a number of member states whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain Commonwealth war graves. We can all take pride that this is done uniformly and equally, irrespective of military or civilian rank, race or creed. The commission is responsible for the continued commemoration of 1.7 million deceased military service members in 153 countries. We are grateful to the commission for undertaking this mammoth task and for the most beautiful way these sites are cared for, but I have another reason to thank the commission. Each grave is marked with a headstone. Each headstone contains a national emblem or regimental badge and the rank, name, unit, and date of death are inscribed above an appropriate religious symbol. The inscription on the headstone has helped to identify thousands of Commonwealth citizens.
Let me remind your Lordships about another important event which can easily be forgotten: the Battle of Haifa. On 23 September 1918, in what is believed to be one of the last cavalry charges in modern military history, Indian soldiers carried out an attack that allowed British forces to capture Haifa from the Ottoman Empire. As they did so, they also ensured the safety of Abdu’l-Bahá who was the son of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith. At the time, Major Wellesley Tudor Pole, one of the officers serving with General Allenby and an early British Baha’i, feared for the safety of Abdu’l-Bahá and his family and made a case to General Allenby that they should be protected.
It was under these circumstances that the dramatic Battle of Haifa unfolded, during which two regiments of Indian cavalry soldiers played a critical role in capturing the city from the well-entrenched Turkish and German soldiers. Though the Indian soldiers—the Jodhpur Lancers and the Mysore Lancers—were armed only with lances and spears and faced machine gun fire as they charged forward, their victory was unexpectedly swift, and Haifa was captured with relatively few casualties. The Baha’i communities of the UK and India are seeking to commemorate the Battle of Haifa 100 years on.
After the victory, large numbers of soldiers and government officials of all ranks sought interviews with Abdu’l-Bahá, delighting in his illuminating talks, his breadth of view and depth of insight, his dignified courtesy and his genial hospitality. So impressed were the government representatives by his noble character and his great work in the interests of peace and the true prosperity of the people that a knighthood of the British Empire was conferred on Abdu’l-Bahá. Baha’is now strive to cultivate hope for the future of humanity and to celebrate the endeavours of all those in the world who work to promote unity and alleviate human suffering.
I conclude with my third example. I came to Britain as a student in 1956. I had been admitted to Brighton Technical College. My regular walk to the college took me through the grounds of the Royal Pavilion. I was fascinated by its architecture, which resembled a temple in the heart of Brighton. I often stood by the gates to read the inscription. It was quite a revelation. In all, around 12,000 men were treated in the town from 1914 to 1916. In 1921, India presented Brighton with a new gateway for the southern entrance to the Royal Pavilion Gardens as a token of appreciation of the town’s care of its men when the Royal Pavilion had been converted into a hospital. There is a blue plaque near the Indian gateway honouring Subedar Mir Dast, who was awarded the Victoria Cross by George V. A further reminder is the Chattri on the South Downs where Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated. It is estimated that almost 75,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the First World War.
Let us not forget that this is only the opening chapter in the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers during the First World War, and let us remember the contribution they made.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for tabling this debate. I am also grateful to him for mentioning the word “Empire”. Mostly, we hear the word “Commonwealth” but not “Empire”. Those of us who were part of the Empire would like to be remembered as being part of it. I think that at that time the Commonwealth was only the dominions, and maybe not even all of them. It is extremely important not to start using the term “Commonwealth” all the time; a very large number of people who fought with Britain during the First World War were not from the Commonwealth because it did not exist.
I also need to tell your Lordships that my own father, who was a student here, volunteered in the Great War. Mahatma Gandhi had said that Indian students could help the war effort but they should not kill, so my father was a stretcher bearer and you can imagine where he was; he was of course in Mesopotamia. He would not talk about his war experiences. I think other people have experienced the same thing—the noble Lord, Lord Cope, mentioned his father—when parents had had experiences so unpleasant that they did not like to talk about them with their friends and families. My father told us only that he lived on bully beef from tins because that was all they got. Being a good Hindu, that must have been a bit difficult for him, but you have to eat something to live.
As has been said, the Indian standing army came as soon as the British Expeditionary Force failed in France. They were put on ships, not always with adequate clothing. They had left India in hot weather and arrived when the winter was setting in. We have to remember these things. Imagine how difficult it must have been for them to come from India on ships without knowing where they were going and without proper clothing. They played an important part and continued to do so.
What hurts me most is that we have not been able to get this into the school curriculum. Children still do not know why many Indians, Africans and West Indians came to this country. The arrival of many of us is rooted in the war service of our people. I believe that the time has come for the schoolbooks to contain a clear note about what the people of the Empire did during the war so that children start to understand why we are all here. Otherwise, they never will.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord who mentioned the memorial. I think it is important because it is the first memorial to Indians, Africans and West Indians, and I hope all noble Lords will go to see it. All the names of those who were given George Crosses and Victoria Crosses are in the roof of the chattri, the pavilion at the side of Green Park. I think that is extremely important. I did not do it by myself, let me tell you, but I was the catalyst. If I had not kept on and on, it would not have been there. You need one person who is difficult—otherwise, things do not happen. The idea that there might be a service at the memorial is a wonderful one, and I hope that one is taken.
Gallipoli has been mentioned. A huge number of Sikhs died at Gallipoli, but they have not been mentioned as a separate group. When the Jamaicans offered to join the armed services, it took them six months to be allowed to do so because of their colour. There was a huge amount of anxiety about people of different colours. Food was important and they found many things very difficult, particularly the climate. All of us had come from hot countries and we endured a great deal when we came to Europe. Really, there has not been enough done to remember us.
My Lords, I, too, begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for his excellent introduction and formidable speech on such an important discussion for this House. It is of great regret that, for so long, the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth forces has, with a few exceptions, been forgotten by many in the United Kingdom.
We approach the end of four years of commemoration—four years of events, speeches and religious ceremonies, all of which were important. However, I should like us now to focus on what ongoing commemoration should look like. Undoubtedly, a symptom of our retreat from empire and an understandable wish by some in the Commonwealth to move focus away from the colonial past, has been an understatement and lack of awareness of the sacrifice and bravery of imperial and Commonwealth troops. This has been especially true of the contribution of the non-ANZAC forces in the First World War.
I focus my remarks this evening on how we can create living memorials in commemoration of the millions of imperial and Commonwealth troops who served in the First World War, especially those whose contribution has been allowed to disappear from UK public consciousness. First, there is education. Like the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in my Scottish history curriculum, I studied the First World War every year at secondary school. I cannot remember any significant—if any—reference to the sacrifice of the wider Empire and Commonwealth.
I hope my noble friend can reassure your Lordships that a strong focus on the contribution of all imperial troops will continue in the curriculum from this year and that he will make this point not only to the Department for Education but, importantly, to the devolved Governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh, as well as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Young people throughout the United Kingdom must be aware of not only our part in the First World War but that of those across the world who contributed to our war effort.
Secondly, I ask that we continue to ensure that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission receives as much support as possible. It does a tremendous job in maintaining and caring for Commonwealth graves, irrespective of where the dead soldiers came from. In April, I had the privilege of being the guest of the Iraqi Government in Baghdad. Unfortunately, for security reasons, we were unable to visit the Indian army war graves, which, as we have heard, predominantly date from the World War I Mesopotamian campaign. It is incumbent on the Government to do all they can to ensure that the commission is given every support to continue its mission in some of the most difficult parts of the world.
Finally, I encourage the Minister to ask the Government to consider how they can use education programmes through the British Council network to reach out to the descendants of those who served in the First World War, to consider their sacrifice, the conditions in which they fought and the importance of remembering that sacrifice. It is inevitable that any reflection on the First World War, now that there are no living human memories, tends to focus on our immediate vicinity. That is correct; relevance is always important. However, I believe that through education here in the UK, investment in continuing memorials across the world, especially in less visited sides, and the opportunity proactively to promote the sacrifices made in individual Commonwealth countries, we will be able to achieve far more than we can through a number of events in a four-year period. I very much hope that the commemoration continues for the next century, and does not end on 11 November.
My Lords, as a young child, I lived on Plymouth Hoe and played with my brothers around the magnificent war memorial that stands there. I had no idea then of the significance of the foreign names that threaded through the British sailors’ names. Indeed, today we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for once again reminding us of the great significance of all those foreign names, be they of sailors, soldiers, airmen or non-combatants, who served so well throughout the First World War. We can never thank them enough, those young people who travelled thousands of miles from their homelands to fight a distant war.
My good friend, Shrabani Basu, in her fascinating book, For King and Another Country, reminds us of the huge contribution made by those who came from India—Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—already mentioned many times tonight. It was then, of course, an undivided India. In her research for the book, she came across a memorial near the village of Neuve-Chapelle in northern France, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie. It has inscribed on it “India 1914-18” in English, Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi. In that place, for three days in March 1915, Indian soldiers fought as a single unit and broke through the German defence for the first time. Carved on the same memorial are the over 4,742 Indian soldiers and non-combatants who died on the western front and have no known grave. They fought at Ypres, Givenchy, Loos, Festubert and the Somme. They went on to win 11 Victoria Crosses, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has said, and many other gallantry awards.
As well as the Indian contribution, they came from right across the Empire and beyond, from Canada—Newfoundland—Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. From Africa also came the east African carrier corps, who were mostly porters. Some 95,000 died, most from exhaustion from carrying heavy loads of equipment and ammunition vast distances and from the utterly inadequate medical supplies. The Reverend Nigel Cave, a respected war historian, told me recently that it took until the 1930s for the British Treasury to release the very modest amount of compensation due to the dependants of the African carrier corps.
They came from the West Indies, as noble Lords have said—all volunteers. A total of 11 battalions were raised. There was the Zion Mule Corps, plus several battalions of Royal Fusiliers who were Jewish. There was the Chinese Labour Corps, probably numbering 100,000, who served with the British Expeditionary Force. Nearer to home they came from all parts of Ireland—another underwritten contribution. My own great-uncles, from the west of Ireland, were just a few of the 200,000 Irish who fought alongside allied troops. Modern Ireland commemorates those men and women—those who fought and those 49,000 who never returned to their farms and market towns.
I say a big thank you to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for keeping our memories alive, and make special mention of the Government’s First World War centenary programme, which has been fitting, challenging and respectful, with its many events since 2014, especially its involvement of young people.
There are many past discussions and many future discussions to be had about the war itself—the terrible slaughter and the manner in which it was conducted. I am reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General”, which says:
“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack”.
These people are part of our past and should be part of our future.
My Lords, we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Lexden for initiating this debate. I have known him for more than 30 years, yet the enormous historical knowledge and insight which he brings to bear on the work of this House never ceases to amaze me. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum Foundation.
Because of a family connection, I want to speak about the colossal contribution to the war of the Canadian people. In 1914, Canada was still a young country—just 47 years old—but it answered the call to arms with vigour. At the onset of war, its permanent armed forces numbered fewer than 4,000 people. By war’s end, 630,000 Canadians, an extraordinary figure in a population of just 8 million, had served as members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some 172,000 were gassed or wounded and another 57,000 were killed in action or died of their wounds. Of particular note was the role played by the indigenous peoples of Canada. Almost one-third of First Nations people in Canada aged between 18 and 45 enlisted: a hugely impressive contribution, given the way in which so many had been treated in the past.
It is, of course, the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 which has come to characterise the heroism of Canadian troops during the Great War: the moment said by many to mark Canada’s coming of age. It was indeed a stunning Canadian victory, with all four fighting divisions of the CEF fighting together for the first time, at a place where more experienced British and French troops had suffered nothing but defeat. It was one of the most formidable positions on the front and the bravery of the soldiers secured the Canadians’ reputation as the shock troops of the British Empire. The troops took the seemingly impregnable ridge in just four days of fierce fighting and, with 10,000 dead, it was held until the end of the war, forcing the Germans into a retreat in the Arras sector from which they did not recover. Quite justly, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King later said here in Parliament:
“History will look upon the battlegrounds of the Great War as the place of sacrifice. Among the number, no altar will be more conspicuous through the years than Vimy Ridge”.
Yet Vimy was just one of the tales of sacrifice and heroism by Canadian forces that punctuated the four years of the war. Let us also remember their role in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when they faced chlorine gas for the first time yet succeeded in stopping overwhelming German forces; the part they played at Passchendaele, when the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions succeeded in capturing the fateful village in a final action after months of brutal fighting. During the Battle of Hill 70, under the leadership of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, artillery was used to huge effect to destroy wave after wave of German attacks—a vital tactical achievement in support of the massive Fifth Army offensive in Flanders. Finally, there is the Canadians’ profoundly important role in the Hundred Days Offensive between August and November 1918 when, as my noble friend mentioned, 100,000 Canadian troops engaged elements of some 47 German divisions, one-quarter of their fighting strength.
Canada played its role in the war in the air and at sea as well. Hundreds of young Canadian men trained to become pilots in the British flying services, and by war’s end a quarter of all the pilots in the RAF were from Canada.
As my noble friend said, the intensely special position of the artists, musicians and poets who died in the War has been highlighted in a number of commemorative debates. It was, of course, a Canadian officer, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who wrote one of the most famous and moving poems of the war, “In Flanders Fields”, in memory of a friend who died at the second Battle of Ypres. It concludes:
“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields”.
The hundreds of thousands of Canadians, alongside countless others from across the Empire and Commonwealth, whose stories we have been privileged to hear today, did indeed hold the torch high, and through their sacrifice and courage helped us secure victory in November 1918. This House does well to remember them all today.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing his debate this evening.
I spent some time living in the West Indies on the island of Saint Vincent, and I have known the Windward and Leeward Islands, and indeed the Grenadines, for most of my life. Recently, that part of the world has been brought to our attention through Windrush, and it was this that persuaded me to contribute to this important debate, as we remember the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. We tend to forget the substantial contribution made by the West Indies to support the allied cause in the Great War. The British West Indies Regiment raised 15,000 men, volunteers every one. On the cenotaph in Kingstown, the capital of Saint Vincent, are inscribed 61 names—a massive casualty rate from such a small island. The overseas dominions raised in total 1.3 million men.
The heroics of the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli are well documented. On the Western Front, over 23 days in 1916, the Australians attacked Pozières Ridge and during the course of 19 attacks suffered 23,000 casualties. From a population of less than 5 million, 417,000 enlisted, 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded or taken prisoner. For Australia, this war was the costliest in terms of deaths and casualties.
In a recent debate in your Lordships’ House, I referred to the Newfoundlanders and the battle of Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. They were the only non-British unit to engage the enemy on that first day. Of 810 men in the battalion, 310 were killed and more than 350 wounded, I believe in the first hour. Every officer was killed or wounded.
The South Africans suffered 12,000 dead—and this was only 12 years after the end of the Boer War. On the Somme, the South African brigade is remembered for the battle of Delville Wood in 1916. Although the assault achieved its success, it was at great human cost. Out of 121 officers and 3,032 men, only 29 officers and 751 men returned, and only 200 were fit enough to fight again.
India contributed the largest number of men to the war effort: approximately 1.5 million. They served in most sectors, earning 13,000 medals for gallantry and an astonishing 12 Victoria Crosses. Their suffering was most considerable. The harsh conditions on the Western Front took a great toll on both their health and morale.
The Canadians produced the Royal Flying Corps ace, Billy Bishop. Over a number of months in 1917, he was responsible for shooting down 46 aircraft. He won the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and many more medals. What a contribution to the war effort.
There are so very many facts and figures that one should discuss when talking about the Commonwealth’s achievements in the Great War, but there is nowhere near enough time to recount all the tales of bravery, sacrifice and tragedy by the countries of the Commonwealth. I strongly agree with earlier speakers that we ought to have a major debate on this before 2018 is out.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does such magnificent work to keep alive the dignity and memory of all those who died for this country during those terrible years of both the First World War and the Second World War.
My Lords, perhaps the House will indulge me by allowing me to speak in the gap. I had not intended to make a contribution, but I was much moved by the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who opened this debate, and I wanted to say just a few words to illustrate my personal engagement with this.
I am a New Zealander and my grandfather, who was a volunteer, was injured at Gallipoli. We knew very much about that, because the losses at Gallipoli were commemorated on Anzac Day, 25 April, which is the day after my birthday. As a child, I thought that the day we had off school was because I was a special child. In some ways, I was. My grandfather, whom I never knew, died of his wounds, and his son, my father, went on to fight in the Second World War, navigating aircraft above the North Sea, defending the convoys from submarines. He too has now died.
However, when I was 19, I was denied British citizenship. I was not a patrilineal, because neither my father nor my grandfather was born in the United Kingdom. That law subsequently changed, but at the time, when I was 19, in my first year at Cambridge and wanting to go on holiday with my friends, it was shocking and frightening, especially given the sacrifices that both my grandfather and father had made.
I wanted to pay tribute, because of the nature of the debate, to my grandfather in particular, and to the many other New Zealanders who fought, thinking that they were fighting for the good of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I too will trespass on your Lordships’ patience. I had not expected to be here and I have not written a speech but, like the fathers of my noble friend Lord Cope and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, my father would not speak to me about the First World War. He too was in Mesopotamia. I asked him why he would not talk and he said that it was a very unpleasant experience and he did not wish to repeat it. However, my mother told me that he had his last nightmare about the war when he was 81 years old—six months before he died.
That is relevant to this debate because his service was in Mesopotamia, where the vast majority of the troops were Indian, and very gallant they were. They had a very rough time. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, told us that they did not know where they were going when they got into the ships. The captains and the War Office did not know either because Delhi and Westminster had not agreed the eventual objective or purpose of the expedition. It is the most extraordinary story. It is well worth reading about it and I hope that we will come back to it on another occasion.
The other thing about my father is that he told my sister, to whom he did speak, that he was the only survivor of his sixth-form year at Rugby College. All the others died. That was the scale of it. The Grim Reaper had a barrowful of bodies every day. We are talking about a tragedy. Of course, there was glory and victory but it was a desperate total tragedy, and I add my plea for a commemoration of it year on year for the next century so that we do not fall into that awful pit again. We tremble on the edge of it as I speak because people think that things can be solved with slaughter, when in fact they can be solved only with patience and love.
That is not the speech that I meant to make but I have made it as a tribute to all those gallant people. Many of them were ignorant of the purposes for which they fought and many others had courageous patriotism and heroic aspirations for the future. The sacrifice of all those people meant that we are here in a place where it is possible to influence the future history of the world and ensure that such a thing never happens again.
My Lords, when you have listened to the stories in a debate like this and you are this far down the list of speakers, two things will have happened. The first is that anything original you had to say will have been referred to at least once, and the second is that you wonder how long you can spend agreeing with everyone else who has spoken. I will resist that temptation, other than to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that once again he has done us proud by making us remember these events and making the rest of the Chamber put on the record the suffering and the historic change that took place in the name of the Commonwealth and, mainly in this case, the British Empire, and how far it touched something outside us.
When we first had a debate on this subject, I commented to the noble Lord that we tend to look at what happened to us and to our people—a little prism of the fashion of a few years ago. Tonight we have certainly broken out of that habit because we have addressed the fact that it was not just us who were affected. Decisions made by our predecessors in this place affected the entire globe and we brought in many people who would never have considered it worth fighting in that conflict.
The one statistic that I was expecting to give but which the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, beat me to concerned the east African campaign. I had heard the anecdote of the Colonial Office saying, “About 90,000 bearers”—the noble Baroness described them as porters—“have died, but there again we don’t worry about bearers, do we?” That probably says it all. It was a group of people who were important to us in a campaign that we do not know much about. Why were there so many deaths? It was because we were consistently outfought by a much smaller German force.
We always like to forget our disasters, do we not, unless we build them up to be something dramatic and heroic? The east African campaign was not that. That we would dismiss the unit that kept those troops in the field, and the fact of them dying, says a lot about the nation we were. I hope it is one that we will never be again. When we are discussing this issue, and the vast commitments that were made, for instance, by the Indian army plugging gaps in our resources, we must remember that we were an empire. Empires traditionally use bits of their empire for their own ends. Possibly, this was what you would expect us to do with a large army from India. If you look at the way we acted towards those troops, you will see the ingrained racism of the time, which is something we should also remember because we do not want to go back to it.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that sacrifice and slaughter do not solve anything. The attitude that we could use other people in that way is something we should remember, along with the huge sacrifices made by other nations. I believe that New Zealand has the rather sad trophy of the highest proportion of casualties to volunteers. I think the ANZAC cause managed to get to 60%, with New Zealand doing slightly worse—or better, depending on which way you call it—than Australia. We must try to remember these statistics and facts and to put them into the whole, because if we just have a list of facts, we will forget that there were people behind every statistic.
My Lords, when we ask Ministers whether 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 to that question and point to their record thus far—to all the events and memorials both here and across the world, on which lots of money is spent. All we can do is simply endorse any tendency to self-congratulation that they offer, since the worthy recipient of the attention and the resource has been well testified to in various speeches this evening.
The fields from which troops were drawn have been mentioned by noble Lords one after another. When she spoke in such a debate not long ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, reminded us that it was not just Tommies but Tariqs and Tajinders too. She was echoing Mahomet Kemal Ataturk, who reminded us after Gallipoli that it was Mehmets as well as Johnnies who made the ultimate sacrifice, and that their bodies would be well looked after in the fields where they had fallen.
Incidentally, and perhaps this is a bit of a sales pitch, I was at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday to hear our Parliament Choir and the Dunedin choir from the University of Otago give voice, for the first time north of the equator, to an oratorio called “Gallipoli to the Somme”. It was one of the most moving pieces of music that I have ever heard, and the presence of Indian troops, as well as New Zealanders and Australians was well mentioned in it. It will be repeated at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the next couple of weeks, and I hope that my mentioning it at the Dispatch Box and the record in Hansard will persuade many noble Lords to attend. It is well worth it.
As we commend the Government, we must admit the distinct note of irony that occurs to some of us. These days, in our approach to the question of immigration, we have shown again and again a cold indifference to the efforts of people from what was then the British Empire—the same countries whose war efforts we want to commemorate. Crude criteria have evolved: as we heard from my noble friend Lady Kingsmill, other criteria now replace those that affected her. People cannot even attend family events or strengthen twinning relationships or other informal relationships because of the way our immigration system works against such things happening. One only has to give voice, as many have, to the word “Windrush” to capture the sense of frustration and injustice that reigns in these matters. It is disturbing that Ministers do not appear to see the connection between these actions.
Thanks are due to the people from the United Kingdom’s former dominions and colonies for the suffering that they underwent and the courage that they displayed, but surely that should not be separated from some kind of obligation to treat present-day citizens from those same lands in a fairer, more transparent and more generous manner. I do not much believe in making apologies for historic injustice or in giving thanks for the sacrificial acts of a century ago unless those apologies and that gratitude have cash value. Another way of putting that would be that we might rediscover some commitment to honour Commonwealth citizens in our day.
Once the First World War was declared, the opening and final shots were fired in different parts of Africa. I am glad that there has been ample mention of the East Africa campaign, especially the role of the porters and bearers. Some 646 died in the sinking of the SS “Mendi” in the English Channel just bringing porters from Africa. The supply lines as well as the front lines need to be remembered. The narrative of the Great War affects the acts of bravery on the front. We should not forget those who contributed their land and harvests, which were commandeered. Recruitment became commandeering as time went on, so we should try to remember the little people behind the scenes as well as all the others.
In a few weeks, I shall be going to Kenya in my ecclesiastical role. I will be asking to see a church that is named Kariokor. It is not karaoke: I do not expect to sing. Kariokor is a way of spelling “Carrier Corps”, because there are regions in Kenya and east Africa that continue to carry the name and are—not as official monuments but in their own humble way—real, lived-in monuments to a thus-far rather anonymous bunch of people without whom our front-line troops could not have operated. Let us commemorate and let us give thanks, but let us not drop our gaze from the unfashionable and unnoticed contributors to that war whose centenary currently impinges so insistently on our minds.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for proposing this excellent debate. As we have heard, troops from the Empire and Commonwealth played a critical part in the First World War, in many theatres and many roles—a crucial contribution that the Government have consistently recognised throughout the commemorations. The Government led the commemorations of the outbreak of the war, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, the Gallipoli campaign, and the Battles of Jutland, the Somme and Passchendaele. In August this year, we will mark the Battle of Amiens, a joint event that we are delivering with our partners from Australia and Canada as well as France and the United States, before turning our focus to the centenary of the Armistice in November.
Throughout these commemorations, we have highlighted and acknowledged the unwavering support of our then Empire and now Commonwealth partners. Their contribution, as so many noble Lords have said, tipped the scales in favour of the allies. They travelled many thousands of miles to answer the call, serving in all theatres of the war, and distinguished themselves time and again in the face of the most terrible conditions and fiercest resistance. Often, their contribution was critical to success, but at considerable cost. Of some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth and Empire, some 200,000 made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of freedom. As my noble friend Lord Lexden has mentioned, in looking at any of these battles in which troops from the Empire and the Commonwealth fought, it is hard to disagree with David Lloyd George: without them, victory might well have eluded us.
It has been right and proper to highlight their significant contributions and to hear their stories and their accents throughout the events. We have been reminded in particular of individual countries’ contributions by my noble friend Lord Goodlad in respect of the Australians, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in respect of India, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on the West Indies, and my noble friend Lord Black on Canada. We also heard about the personal connections of the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and my noble friend Lord Elton when they spoke in the gap. Their stories are indeed humbling.
We should also not forget that the Commonwealth countries have and will continue to deliver their own range of activities and events telling their own stories of the impact of this truly global conflict. I cite, for example, the opening this April of the new Australian Sir John Monash Centre in France and Canadian events in France to be held in August, as well as in Mons in Belgium on 10 and 11 November. In that month there will also be a New Zealand event to commemorate the capture of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Division.
Much of the Government’s wider programme reflects the contribution made by the former Empire and Commonwealth. “The Unremembered”, delivered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, tells some of the lesser-known stories of those who volunteered, such as the Indian Labour Corps and the New Zealand Pioneer Corps. They served in extremely arduous and hazardous conditions, with little recognition at the time. Again, the South African Native Labour Corps, in which 25,000 men enlisted, was remembered at the SS “Mendi” commemorations in 2017, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned. In 2016, 14-18 NOW, which is our cultural delivery partner, produced “Dr Blighty” in Brighton. This was a spectacular light projection exploring the experience of Indian troops recuperating at the Royal Pavilion military hospital. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was able to see it and thus be reminded of his youth—obviously his youth as a schoolboy, not in the First World War. I was pleased to attend the “Stories of Sacrifice” exhibition in Manchester marking the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War and delivered by the British Muslim Heritage Centre.
Throughout 2018, the role played by people from the Empire and the Commonwealth will continue to be recognised by 14-18 NOW. “Xenos”, a dance piece combining archive sources with film and artistic reflections, explores the experience of an Indian soldier during the war. In September, John Akomfrah’s new multimedia installation remembers the millions of Africans who served during the First World War. The Government’s programme aims to enable people to commemorate those elements of the greatest significance to them. The Heritage Lottery Fund has supported a range of projects, including £94 million of funding for more than 1,400 community projects. “Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs in World War One” was delivered by the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association with £480,000 of funding from the HLF. Others include “The Caribbean’s Great War”, exploring the role of the West India Committee, and the “Black on Both Sides” project, on the British black and colonial contribution to World War One, which has helped young people from British-African and Caribbean backgrounds to explore the role of black people who served during the war.
I am pleased to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that government funding has also helped to support the Nubian Jak Community Trust to install Britain’s first dedicated African and Caribbean war memorial to service men and women from Africa and the Caribbean who served during World War One and World War Two in Windrush Square in Brixton. It was dedicated on Windrush Day 2017 and is a permanent reminder of the contribution made by men from Africa and the Caribbean during the war.
In speaking of the contribution of the Empire and the Commonwealth, it is appropriate to mention, as many noble Lords did, the marvellous work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the graves of those who did make the ultimate sacrifice. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in more than 150 countries around the world, and indeed in the UK. These sites are a permanent reminder of their sacrifice, and I will certainly take back from my noble friend Lord McInnes his views, and indeed those of the whole House, on our duty as a Government to support the commission’s work.
I want to answer some of the points that were made in the debate. I agree absolutely with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Lexden that it might be appropriate to have a full-scale debate before the end of the centenary commemorations. In fact, I have already asked the Chief Whip whether that would be possible and have received a positive answer—at least, as much as it is possible for him to give one. That would enable us to think about the whole four years and possibly about the legacy of these commemorations, which would be a great thing to do. I also agree with my noble friend that the Middle East campaign should receive more study, not least because of the strategic significance of that part of the world today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke of the service at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates attended by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. We are very clear that the main commemoration for the First World War and, indeed, other conflicts, is Remembrance Sunday on 11 November. It has a particular resonance, especially as this year, happily, Remembrance Sunday falls on 11 November. Along with our partners, we will make sure that this day is used to highlight the significant contribution from across the Commonwealth.
On commemorations of campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere, Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts have managed local events, particularly in the Middle East, supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
With regard to the curriculum, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lord McInnes, that it is important that pupils are taught about key events such as the First World War and all its ramifications. The current reformed national curriculum, which has been statutory since September 2014, states that pupils at key stage 3 should learn about,
“challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day”.
The First World War plays an important part in that, of course. However, we have not specified how individual schools should do that—the only exception so far is for the Holocaust.
I did not say that they should learn about the First World War—I think they do anyway—but that they need to know that Britain was not alone. The key thing is that it is very important for the growing generations to know that we have come here because we contributed to Britain’s well-being.
That is a good point well made. What I have tried to explain today is that a lot of the events throughout the community, not just the relatively few central government-organised events, have addressed exactly that point: that we were not alone and that our partners, the members of the Empire and the Commonwealth, were actively involved. The Imperial War Museum’s schools programme is a good example of what has been done during these commemorations. There are lots of opportunities to go around and talk to young people—for example, the young people who have been helping in the commemoration of the third Battle of Ypres at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There has been a tremendous advance in the understanding and the interest shown in the First World War during these commemorations.
Throughout the war many thousands of men and women from around the Empire answered the call to arms. The war had a huge impact on these countries and their relationships with Britain. These relationships would be tested again in the Second World War, and the steadfastness of their support was not found wanting. Although the days of Empire are over, this shared history has undoubtedly influenced a continued friendship and co-operation in the Commonwealth as we know it today. I am sure that some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, are rightly discussed there. As I have outlined, this contribution has been rightly reflected throughout the commemorations and we are very grateful for that commemoration. As the baton of remembrance is passed to future generations, I am confident that the role of the Empire and Commonwealth and the sacrifices made by so many young men and women will not be forgotten.
House adjourned at 7.40 pm.