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."

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