Special report: The centenary of WWI - 'Tommies and Tariqs fought side by side'

It is vital that the role of Empire troops in the First World War is acknowledged, says Baroness Warsi

The contribution of 1.2 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent and others from the Commonwealth who fought for Britain in the First World War must be recognised when the nation marks the centenary of the start of fighting next year, Sayeeda Warsi, the Communities and Foreign Office minister, says today.

Remembering the "forgotten heroes" who fought for the Allies is essential to bringing different ethnic communities in Britain together for the 2014 centenary, particularly in the wake of the Woolwich attack, Baroness Warsi says.

The minister has written to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, who is in charge of the Government's commemoration programme, asking her to ensure that the "shared heritage" of today's generation of young Britons whose ancestors fought on the Western Front is a key part of next year's events.

One plan being looked at is to send servicemen and women into schools to tell the stories of Commonwealth soldiers.

A huge contribution was made by the 74,000 from the Indian Army who died in the war, among whom were Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from India and what later became Pakistan and Bangladesh. Officers and infantry from the Indian Army were the first foreign force to fight alongside Britain on the Western Front. They also fought in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, Gallipoli, and East Africa. There were also 15,000 soldiers from the Caribbean recruited into the British West Indies Regiment.

Plans for the 2014-2018 commemorations were launched earlier this month and include educational programmes to ensure today's schoolchildren learn about the horrors and lessons of the Great War. While the launch of the programme was overshadowed by a row over whether Germany could be criticised, there have been efforts behind the scenes to ensure soldiers from the wider Commonwealth are remembered.

Lady Warsi, the first Muslim to sit at the Cabinet table and whose own grandfathers fought alongside Britain in the Second World War, says that many young people, including British Muslims, may not be aware that their ancestors fought for king and country nearly 100 years ago.

"Every person who lives in this country owes a debt of gratitude to those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today," she says. "Their legacy is our liberty. But there are lots of people whose ancestry lies beyond this island who may feel disconnected from the Great War commemorations.

"A Muslim lad in Bradford or a girl whose parents are from Jamaica may think, 'What has all this got to do with me?'. Revealing to people that their forefathers fought too – that they saw their loyalty to the British crown as synonymous with their duty to their god or guru – shows that this was a truly global war, where people of all nationalities and religions came together in the name of freedom."

Lady Warsi, who visited war graves in northern France and Belgium earlier this year, has commissioned projects actively to promote the role of the "forgotten heroes".

These include Mir Dast, an officer in the 57th Rifles of the Indian Army, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry. Coming under a German surprise gas attack at Ypres in April 1915, Dast, who had no gas mask, dipped the end of his turban into chloride of lime and held it over his mouth as he held the line against the enemy. Despite being wounded in the hand and gassed, he saved the lives of eight officers. Later, in hospital in Brighton, he wrote to his family in the North-West Frontier Province: "I am in England. I have been twice wounded, once in the left hand, of which two fingers are powerless. The other injury is from gas. The men who came from our regiment have done very well and will do so again. The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me."

The determination to recognise Commonwealth soldiers has been given extra momentum by the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month, allegedly by two Muslims who denounced Britain for sending soldiers to Afghanistan.

Lady Warsi says: "The fact that, less than 100 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Muslims fought for the freedoms we enjoy today puts paid to any myth that Muslims do not support our Armed Forces or the values they stand for. There is no better riposte to those who say that there is a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West than remembering the fact that Tommies and Tariqs fought side by side on the battlefields.

"Seeing the graves of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lying side by side with their Christian and Jewish comrades on the fields where they fought together and died together was incredibly powerful.

"We often imagine how hard it was for the lads from Britain, who knew little of life beyond their own towns and villages, arriving in Flanders fields. Think, then, what it must have been like for the thousands who sailed over from the Indian subcontinent, arriving in a landscape so sodden that people actually drowned in the mud.

"Our boys weren't just Tommies – they were Tariqs and Tajinders too, and we have a duty to remember their bravery and commemorate their sacrifices. I have made it my mission to ensure that the centenary is a chance for everyone to learn about the contribution of the Commonwealth soldiers and those who might otherwise be forgotten."

Britain's record in the Empire may be inglorious, with the most recent reminder being the compensation paid out to victims of torture and abuse by British soldiers in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s.

Richard Smith, lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and author of Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War, said: "The war should be remembered as a truly imperial war. People from all corners of the Empire not only served as soldiers, sailors, aircrew, labourers and carriers, but also produced the raw materials essential for the war effort such as rubber, oil, timber and food.

"At the same time, we also need to commemorate the war in ways relevant to the multicultural nature of contemporary Britain. While those with Indian, African and Caribbean backgrounds may have ancestors who fought for the Empire, many will have ancestors who fought in opposing forces or who lived in non-combatant countries.

"We should also remember that the discrimination experienced by many volunteers for the Empire forces led them to campaign for independence after the war."

Jahan Mahmood, a historian who teaches children from South Asian backgrounds about their ancestors' contribution to both world wars, said that, despite the British Empire's record, it was essential to pay tribute to Commonwealth soldiers.

He said: "To feel a sense of belonging and connection, there has to be something more than just a passport. Why was it that certain communities came to Britain, from South Asia and the Caribbean? They were part of the Empire.

"Their contribution to the wars is a story that we seem to have completely forgotten. After Woolwich, there were stories being passed around about the Muslim contribution to Britain. We seem to have forgotten that when Britain was in a state of war, they came to assist us in our battle against, initially, Germany."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement