The Commonwealth's cannon fodder

They were ill-equipped for the weather, unused to the terrain, and still fought with great bravery
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IT WOULD have been crass to write this column yesterday. It is essential to write it today. The morning after the weeks before when the country drank in war memories is a good time to ask: "Why do we wear the poppy and keep a two-minute silence when the real significance of both these gestures has now become so degraded?"

Yes, we do remember, but only the bits that suit the purposes of certain groups involved in the conflicts. Too much else has been edited out and so the remembrance services themselves become endorsements of myths rather than memories of the truth. These rituals will mean less and less unless we begin to do better on the narratives of the past.

This is even more crucial now because so many who were there have since died, and because the young barely care about what moral choices mean in the modern world. I talked to a gang of pre-teen smokers outside the local sweet shop today. They think that the Russians helped Hitler, and that the Allies consisted of the British and the Americans. One thought the French "did some fighting", too. They did not know - and most white Britons have never remembered - that 1,700,000 men and women from the Commonwealth died in the two wars. The First World War, which is a potent force in the national psyche, was our story too.

And such a story makes me want to whip my own moderation and make it rise to fury. Here were men, thousands of them, caught up in a war that arose out of European powers bickering over empires that had made my ancestors subject people. The colonies were not consulted and yet India, being the richest, was obliged to supply pounds 250m of material help. A further pounds 200m was raised there in war loans in 1917. The economy was drained, and nothing could be done for 16 million victims of a flu epidemic immediately after the war.

But the most astonishing contribution was that of the soldiers whose pictures, staring out of trenches, are unbearable. They were ill-equipped for the weather, unused to the terrain, and still they fought with such bravery that a German soldier wrote of them: "Today we had to fight against the Indians and the devil knows those brown rascals are not to be underrated."

The Indian soldiers wrote long laments home. Some used coded language describing how the "black pepper from India" was all being used up and that much less "red pepper" was being used.

The historian Rosina Visram believes that these letters show how Indian soldiers were used as cannon-fodder on the Western Front. This is the subject of an excellent play, Across the Black Water, by the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, currently playing at the Hackney Empire in London.

At the unveiling of a memorial on the South Downs in 1921 to honour these soldiers, the Prince of Wales said: "It is befitting that future generations should not forget that our Indian comrades came when our need was highest - free men, volunteer soldiers - who gave their lives in a quarrel of which it was enough for them to know that the enemies were the foes of their sahibs, their Empire and their King."

But the nation did forget, as it did the role of Africans, Caribbeans and others too in the Second World War. Yet we all faithfully wear that red flower on our lapels hoping that one year, black and Asian Britons will not have to make these abject pleas for recognition and that every programme and newspaper and every opportunistic politician, too, will say how we, too, helped to make Europe great and potentially safe.

This matters, because only by learning this will we be accepted as the true Europeans we are. Europe and the West will then be forced to reconsider its obligations and its recent actions.

"Never again," they said and say still. It has become a fetishistic phrase which, besides making people feel better than they should, allows them to ignore the sufferings of Bosnian and Kosovan Muslims. For the only way that Nato and the US can live with xenophobic massacres on European soil right now is by pretending that 20th-century Europe owes its existence only to Judaeo-Christian soldiers and that the rest cannot be covered by their honourable post-war intentions.

Never has there been such a massive capacity to stop such slaughter, and yet the great powers do nothing except make loud noises, play bugles and turn memorials red with solemnity and wreaths.

Our forebears were there with yours, and together, surely, we should be asking that that story be properly told, and that our leaders should not betray the ideals which they all died for.