Neglected war veterans exist on one meal a day

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They volunteered to fight for a King they had only heard about and a country they had never seen.

Five million men and women from the Commonwealth served in the British forces during the Second World War, just one million fewer than those that came from the "mother country".

Today more than 30,000 of these veterans from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean struggle to afford a single meal each day, a figure expected to rise to 100,000 in the next few years as age and infirmity take their toll.

With no support from the British government and often scorned in their own country for having fought for the colonisers, many live in squalor and turn to begging on the streets.

Most rely on the charity of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League, based in London, which tries to fund the most needy with about £70 a year to cover the minimal requirements of food, shelter and medicine.

But with Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, the league admits that in many cases it cannot even provide these basics. In March last year it launched an appeal to raise £5m to provide veterans with vital supplies. Despite the backing of the Duke of Edinburgh and a high-profile event at the Imperial War Museum in London, the donations only reached half the target.

Colonel Brian Nicholson, the league's general secretary, who has made many trips to meet the people the charity supports, said: "It wasn't as much as we wanted, but beggars can't be choosers." He added: "It's heart-wrenching to see old people living in some ghastly places. They absolutely depend on the small amount we can give them." The charity's goal was to provide at least one meal a day to the 33,000 veterans they were currently helping. "Sadly we don't manage to reach everyone that needs help. There are many, no one knows exactly how many, who slip through our net."

The British government offered some former colonies a lump sum to pay for pensions after independence, but only soldiers who had served for 22 years qualified, leaving all those millions who had fought for the duration of the Second World War without anything. In some countries, including India, this cash simply "vanished", Colonel Nicholson said.

Many of the newly independent regimes looked down on those who had served in a British uniform, refusing to offer any help. Last month Morris Dzoro, Kenya's assistant minister for National Security,told the parliament in Nairobi that the nation had not inherited any liability from the "colonisers" to compensate the war veterans. Colonel Nicholson said: "The feeling is that these people fought for Britain, so it is Britain's responsibility to look after them."

With a dearth of funds from elsewhere, the burden fell on the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League to help them. As well as basic living grants, the charity funds self-help projects, including maize mills, rickshaws and even a coffin factory in Zambia.

Even Commonwealth servicemen living in the relative comfort of Britain remain bitter at their treatment.

Laurent Phillpotts, a Jamaican, was persuaded to join the RAF in 1943 by an emotive appeal to imperial subjects broadcast by King George VI. He said: "I felt that as we were part of the British Empire we had an obligation to defend the UK and its allies."

But the apprentice printer, who was 20 at the time, received a shock when he arrived in Liverpool. On his way to training - which was held at a Butlins holiday camp in Yorkshire - he was subjected to racial abuse. "Many uneducated people didn't realise we were part of the British Empire at all. I assumed that since we had accepted the Europeans when they came to Jamaica, they would accept us too. But there were a lot of insults."

The feelings were allayed slightly last year when the Queen unveiled a £1.7m memorial near Buckingham Palace to the Asian, African and Caribbean servicemen and women of the two World Wars.

But Colonel Nicholson said: "While recognition is extremely important, our first priority remains to keep these brave old souls out of absolute poverty."