by TOM TUGENDHAT
Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee
AS WE all know, 2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and commemorative events throughout the year have marked the occasion, to say thank you for the sacrifices of a generation across the world who gave their today for our tomorrow.
We owe a monumental debt of gratitude to all those who joined the war effort, which is why this weekend I will travel to Delhi to lay a wreath – not only to pay my own personal tribute, but also on behalf of our government – to the three million soldiers and labourers from across the Empire and the Commonwealth who fought and served alongside the British army during the First World War.
We often forget that in 1914, the German army and their allies did not just go to war with the British army but with the whole of the British Empire. When war was declared on August 4, 1914, the British army numbered just 700,000 soldiers. By the end of the war, after conscription was introduced, the Army has some four million officers and troops.
Yet even this was not enough to fight the world’s first truly global war – victory in the First World War is owed not only to these four million British soldiers but also the three million soldiers from all corners of the British Empire who fought on multiple fronts against the Germans and their allies.
I have always felt it is my duty – as a veteran and a member of parliament – to ensure that during our country’s annual commemorations of the Armistice, we remember not only our own war dead but also the sacrifices of those from across the Commonwealth who served in the cause of freedom.
To mark the centenary, like many of you, I have been wearing a khadi poppy, a hand-spun cotton poppy which was created by the Royal British Legion this year to honour the 1.5 million Indian troops and 10,000 nurses who served and worked abroad during the First World War.
The Indian Army fought the Germans and their allies in East Africa, the Ottomans in Mesopotamia and the Italians in both Galipoli and Egypt, with 11 of their troops winning Victoria Crosses for their bravery on the battlefield. Of the 1.5 million soldiers who went to war, 74,187 died and another 67,000 were wounded. The entire subcontinent also raised over £20 billion (in today’s money), sent 3.7 tonnes of supplies and provided 170,000 animals to the war effort. It is to commemorate this contribution and sacrifice that I proudly wear a khadi poppy.
Yet this weekend, 100 years on since church bells rang out across Europe to mark the end of the war, we will pause to remember not only India’s vast contribution to the British war effort but also the sacrifices of troops from across Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.
On April 25 every year, we mark Anzac Day – the anniversary of the first military action seen by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in the First World War. More than 400,000 Australians served in the Australian Imperial Force during the war, alongside 100,000 soldiers from New Zealand who joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, including nearly 3,000 Maori and those from the Pacific Islands.
In the Caribbean, 12 battalions of the British West Indies Regiment worked as labourers in gun emplacements and ammunition dumps not only in France and Italy but also Africa and the Middle East. Alongside them were over 25,000 South Africans who served on the Western Front between 1916 and 1917. About 60,000 South African labourers also helped sustain the war effort, and in 1915, 67,000 South African troops invaded Namibia. Of the 3,153 South African officers and troops who fought in the Battle of the Somme, only 750 men remained uninjured after nearly a week of fighting.
Such devastating losses were reflected in the number of Canadian troops who died during the war, after the country’s troops played a pivotal role in the Hundred Days offensives of 1918. Around 10 per cent of the 620,000 Canadians who enlisted had been killed in action.
Meanwhile, by November 1918, the ‘British Army’ in East Africa was made up almost exclusively of African soldiers from countries including Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. These troops were supported by approximately 180,000 more civilians.
I am incredibly grateful and humbled to be able to lay a wreath in Delhi this weekend to pay tribute to the sacrifices of all those from undivided India in the First World War effort. And it is with pride that I will wear the khadi poppy on Sunday, as a mark of profound respect to all those from India and across the Commonwealth, who fought and died alongside the British army to guarantee the freedom we enjoy today. It is not just the British army we must remember, but the armies of the British Empire.