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Remembering India’s World War One soldiers

09:32 18/04/2013

During a visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium, Baroness Warsi, Britain’s faith and communities minister, has paid tribute to the sacrifices made by the 1.2 million men from the Indian Army who fought for Britain in World War One.

As part of the government’s programme to commemorate the forthcoming centenary of the 1914-1918 conflict, she went to the Western Front, where 140,000 men from the Indian Army fought alongside Britain. During World War One, 74,000 of the 1.2 million soldiers from pre-partition India serving with the Allies died.

“As I have said before, our boys weren’t just Tommies; they were Tariqs and Tajinders too,” said Warsi, whose grandfathers fought in World War Two. “A picture of a soldier in a turban is not what we immediately associate with World War One, and yet so many men from so far away came to Europe to fight for the freedoms we enjoy today. Their legacy is our liberty, and every single one of us owes them a debt of gratitude.”

Warsi’s first stop was the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial in France, which honours the 4,742 Indian soldiers on the Western Front who have no known grave. In March 1915, the Indian troops fought their first major battle as a unit here, suffering heavy casualties.

In Belgium, one of her stops was the village of Hollebeke where she laid a wreath at a memorial to Sikh soldiers. This was where Indian soldiers saw some of their first action in the early months of the war and where Khudadad Khan – the first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross – was based. At Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, the second largest site in Belgium, she visited the grave of a fallen Hindu soldier alongside comrades from the Chinese Labour Corps.

Warsi also visited Grootebeek British Cemetery, which includes graves of soldiers who came from her parents’ village in Gujar Khan, Pakistan. She met the owner of the nearby farm, who recounted his father’s experiences when the barn was turned into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

Her visit ended at the Menin Gate in Ypres, which includes the names of the 54,000 of the fallen who have no known graves – including 414 Indians. She also had the honour of reading the exhortation during the Last Post ceremony.

She said: “It was particularly poignant to see the endless names – of Khans and Singhs, Alis and Atwals – listed on the memorials and it was particularly special to make this visit during the week of [Sikh festival] Vaisakhi. It was also fascinating to hear how arrangements for religious and cultural observances, such as Ramadan and wearing turbans, were part of their lives, even on the frontline. I will make it my mission to ensure that the centenary is a chance for everyone to learn about the contribution of the Commonwealth soldiers. After all, our shared future is based on our shared past.”

Warsi also read the letters of soldiers as she visited the areas where they had served. One, a Sikh convalescing in England, wrote to his brother: “With a shout to our guru we hurl ourselves forward. The enemies’ bullets scorch our heroes, while machine guns and cannons spread their shot about us.”

Another, a Muslim soldier who wrote from France to his brother in India, said: “What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British government? The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.”

British prime minister David Cameron launched the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of World War One in a speech last October 

Written by The Bulletin