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First World War: Personnel from the Indian Subcontinent — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 2:41 pm on 18th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 2:41 pm, 18th December 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the role of armed forces and other personnel from the Indian sub-continent in the First World War.

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative

My Lords, I am pleased that this important subject was called for debate today. The centenary of the First World War is almost upon us. This war saw conflict and suffering on an unprecedented scale. The four war years serve as both a reminder and a commemoration of the struggles and the sacrifice of so many people across the world. I hope that time will encourage us all to honour and appreciate the lasting impact these events have had and will continue to have for generations to come.

In March this year I spoke in a debate on the centenary of the war in your Lordships’ House. I specifically focused on the contribution of Indian forces then and I want to expand on those points today. The significant part they played is not widely acknowledged and the sacrifice made by the Indians and the suffering they endured need to be fully appreciated. I hope today’s debate will serve to inform others and help address the situation.

This matter holds a special significance to me; I trace my family heritage back to India. That is where my father originally lived before moving to Uganda in the 1920s. I feel a deep connection with the many stories documented by Indian soldiers throughout the conflict. On the outbreak of the First World War all opposition to the British Government ceased, and the feelings of Indians at large were well summed up by the Honourable Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a former president of the Indian National Congress. He assured the viceroy and the governor-general that,

“India would ensure the sacrifice of men and money in order that the British armies shall triumph”.

India raised the world’s largest volunteer army, with a total of 1.5 million people, during the First World War. Indians from all over the world, from such remote countries as Australia and Argentina, came forward to serve the Empire in its hour of need. More than 1 million of these personnel were sent overseas and 140,000 were engaged in active service on the western front. This marked the first time that Indian soldiers had ever fought on European ground.

They were originally called on to help when the British forces were suffering heavy causalities, which reinforces just how historically important their role was. The great Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in making the case for Indian assistance. On 13 August 1914, he and 50 other activists signed an important circular, which stated the decision,

“for the sake of the Motherland and the Empire to place our services unconditionally, during this crisis, at the disposal of the Authorities”.

The seven Indian expeditionary forces provided crucial support and fought directly alongside British Forces in Europe. For example, at the battle of Neuve Chapelle they provided half the attacking force. A British general described them as a magnificent body who performed the most useful and valuable service. The expeditionary forces also saw action in east Africa, Mesopotamia, Sinai, the Suez, Gallipoli and Palestine. The Royal Indian Marine also served alongside the Royal Navy in a number of functions. Some ships served as gunboats and others as coastal minesweepers. Their merchant services in transport and supply were also crucial to the war effort. More than 74,000 Indian troops were killed or declared missing in action during the First World War, a number that is testament to the level of sacrifice and loyalty shown by the Indians in supporting the Allied Forces.

Participants from the Indian subcontinent were recognised for their bravery and valour in combat during the First World War with more than 9,200 decorations, including 12 Victoria Cross medals. Sepoy Khudadad Khan was the first native-born Indian to win the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the face of overwhelming numbers in Belgium. He served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis regiment. Similarly, the courage of Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles was recognised in 1914. He was one of the very few soldiers to have the great honour of being personally presented with the Victoria Cross on the battlefield in France by King George V. A notable example of the spirit and pride of the Indian subcontinent soldiers is that of a platoon of Sikhs, who in 1914 died fighting in Belgium to the last man, who shot himself with his last cartridge rather than surrender to the enemy. The soldier believed in the concept of chardi kala, which gave him the strength to be courageous and not to surrender.

The participation of the Indian subcontinent was not confined to the battlefield alone. Doctors and students from the Indian Medical Service provided care and rehabilitation to the wounded and many Indian military hospitals were set up across the UK, perhaps the most famous of which was the Royal Pavilion Hospital in Brighton. This housed more than 600 wounded soldiers from the western front. As shocking as these facts and figures are, we must also remember the personal and social hardship that was felt by Indian citizens and families not directly involved in the conflict. Much of the essence of the war is captured in writings from the time, and India contributed in this respect, too. One of the greatest poets during those years was an Indian called Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore wrote in a letter on 18 November 1915 that the war was fought,

“for the cause of liberty”.

Speaking in 1921, upon the placing of the foundation stone of the All-India War Memorial, Lord Chelmsford, the viceroy of India, remarked that the,

“immortal story of the endurance and valour of the sons of India is a legacy which their sons and their sons’ sons will treasure above all the wealth the world can offer”.

This memorial, completed in 1931, remains a testament to the sacred memory of the Indian soldiers who fell in different parts of the world. There are indeed numerous similar memorials in existence across the world to commemorate those soldiers who gave their lives during the First World War. A site called the Chattri exists on the South Downs, at Patcham near Brighton. It is associated with 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose remains were cremated at that spot. A memorial service is held there every year. There is also a Muslim burial ground on Horsell Common in Woking, where 17 Indian soldiers were originally buried. Further burials took place after the Second World War. Renovation works are currently taking place there in preparation for next year’s anniversary. In Neuve Chapelle in France, there is a memorial that has been erected to honour the memory of the Indian soldiers who died fighting in Europe. In addition, I know that some years ago the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, led a successful campaign to erect a memorial on Constitution Hill to soldiers from India and other regions of the British Empire who served in the two world wars.

The commitment of these brave men to the war effort often emerged from a strong sense of personal duty to the Empire. Many letters written by Indian soldiers at that time reveal the honour they felt in fighting for their king. It was this loyalty and dedication that endeared many British troops to them. Indeed, alongside the military assistance they provided, there was the opportunity for social interaction between our different cultures.

I know that the Government have been proactive in developing a substantial programme of tributes and events, including last month’s announcement that a series of lectures will be held to commemorate the contribution of Commonwealth countries to the war effort. I shall be obliged if my noble friend the Minister can explain to your Lordships’ House what plans have been formulated to honour the contribution by the people of India during the First World War. I am looking forward to sharing in the commemoration and honouring their memories.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:53 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, next year we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, which until 1939 used to be called the Great War. The Government, the British Library and various organisations have provided a syllabus of a wide range of activities that should be undertaken, and adequate resources for this. I welcome this, but have two reservations. First, I am not sure that those organisations are entirely clear about what they are commemorating. Commemorating the war: what can that mean? Do they mean our victory in the war or remembering those who died? We need to be clear about what exactly we are commemorating. Secondly, how should we be commemorating? Are we proceeding along the right lines?

On the first question, the war needs to be placed in a context. We need to ask how the war started. How did it become a world war, so that it was not just an ordinary war but had to be given a special name: the Great War or, after 1939, the First World War? What were we doing in the war? How did we use the war to break up the Ottoman Empire? How did the Germans intervene in the war in order to urge the Ottomans to declare jihad against Britain and France, while we in turn asked the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and change the geography of the Middle East, as it is now? In short, we ought to understand the origins of the First World War and draw important lessons. It was a horrendous war which resulted in enormous tragedy and pain, as seen in the letters and poetry that grew out of it.

We could use the event to exorcise the fascination with war that has sadly been an important part of our psyche. We have more statues devoted to military generals and heroes than many other countries. It is about time that we asked ourselves whether there are some elements of our national psyche that need to be addressed more carefully than we have done so far.

Secondly, we need to commemorate the fact that the war was a collaborative effort. We were able to survive, maintaining our liberties and prosperity because of the enormous contribution of the Commonwealth troops. Indians alone contributed substantially: 1,250,000 Indians were involved, of whom about 72,000 died, 12,000 won medals and about 11 won the Victoria Cross. We must also not forget that about 200 Army nurses died, of whom more than 50% were Indians. Many of the Indian soldiers fought in a climate which was not at all familiar to them, in the European theatres of war. Many of them spent weeks in freezing, waterlogged trenches.

Since the war was a collaborative effort, in which others countries helped us, it is important to highlight the fact that this is not peculiar to the First World War. The situation was only slightly different in the Napoleonic wars. You need only to walk down the Royal Gallery and see the fresco on the right, which depicts Napoleon’s death. In that picture, you see a black gentleman and an Arab, showing that even during the Napoleonic wars, countries other than our own contributed. Those are the two things that I would like to see commemorated.

How do we commemorate? Obviously, exhibitions, lectures and information packs for schools are all important, but I suggest three things in particular as relevant to commemorating the Indian contribution. First, the Indian community here should be involved in the planning and execution of the various projects, because the whole thing seems to be operating over their heads. Secondly, we should commemorate in such a way that the multi-ethnic character of Britain is highlighted and our people are able to feel at ease with it. In those areas where large numbers of ethnic minorities are concentrated, it might be useful to devote greater attention than we have done to commemorating the Indian contribution to the First World War so that Indian kids grow up knowing that they were part of this country’s history long before they arrived, and white kids grow up recognising that Indians are not simply arrivals from after the Second World War but have also been making an important contribution.

We should also use the occasion to consolidate consciousness of the Commonwealth in our schools and the Commonwealth as an international institution, because the Commonwealth played an extremely important part. If we are lucky, in emphasising the Indian contribution we might also be able to bring the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis together and create, here in Britain, the kind of harmony that should obtain, but sadly does not, in the subcontinent itself.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 2:59 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for initiating the debate. We shall for the next five years be marking the centenary of the Great War and remembering the horrors that it represented. I pay tribute immediately to all those who are planning events to commemorate the war, from the Imperial War Museum, to local museum services and to the thousands of community and local groups.

In the UK, we tend to think of the war in terms of family memories, local war memorials, the volunteers who responded to Kitchener’s call to arms, the Somme,

Passchendaele, the war poets, literature, plays and so on. However, the role of the Indian Army in World War I is not as widely understood in the UK as it should be. I hope that the centenary commemoration over the next five years will be an opportunity to redress the balance.

The Indian Army played a critical role in France and Belgium in the early days of the war because it plugged the line on the western front before Kitchener’s army was ready to cross to Flanders and France. As we have heard, it was the first time that troops from the Indian Army had fought in Europe. The Indian Army also played a critical role in Mesopotamia in the early months of the war. In 1914, it was the largest volunteer army in the world and, during the course of the war, over 800,000 volunteered for the army and 400,000 for non-combatant roles. Some 657,000 troops went to Mesopotamia; 144,000 to Egypt and Palestine; 138,000 to France. Troops also went to East Africa and Gallipoli, and there were of course people in the navy and merchant navy. In autumn 1914, troops were moved from India to Mesopotamia to secure the oilfields if Turkey came out in support of Germany. As I mentioned, the move of troops to Europe at the end of September 1914 was to help hold the western front against the German invasion of Belgium and France.

How do we mark the role of those from the Indian subcontinent and all that they did? There are two ways: places and people. On places, we have to have specific events on the western front. First, the role of the Indian Army in the first battle of Ypres in October 1914 was particularly important. In the first attack, on 26 October, the Indian Army demonstrated huge bravery, with over 200 soldiers killed. Secondly, its role at Neuve -Chapelle, 25 miles south of Ypres, two days later on 28 October, when the German troops had driven a gap in the British lines, was marked. Its troops were engaged for six days in house-to-house fighting in Neuve-Chapelle: 500 Indian Army officers and men were killed and almost 1,500 wounded. On 23 November, when German troops broke through at Festubert, near Ypres, Indian Army troops were ordered to recover the line by dawn, which they did showing immense bravery. I suggest there should be events at all three of those places, on the relevant centenary dates, to mark their massive contribution in those early days of fighting on the western front.

More troops were committed to Mesopotamia, which was largely an Indian Army campaign. Despite eventual success, by October 1918 11,000 Indian Army troops were killed, with 4,000 more dying from wounds and 12,500 from disease. Some 51,000 were wounded, many of whom were shipped home in inadequate hospital ships because they had to use ordinary troop ships. We should also mark the disaster at Kut, in the spring of 1916, where 9,000 Indian Army soldiers were captured and marched northwards. They were not treated as prisoners of war and 2,500 died on the march. We have heard about the East Africa campaign and Gallipoli, where another 1,700 died in 1915.

Turning to people, we have heard about the award of Victoria Crosses. There were nine on the western front, eight in the first two years of the war and they were won in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. Is there a case for commemorating the award of those crosses in the towns and villages the recipients came from in the Indian subcontinent or, perhaps, through their descendents? Some practical demonstration of our thanks to them is particularly important.

In conclusion, we have to express our appreciation to the people of the Indian subcontinent. Last year, I stood at the India Gate in Delhi pondering the enormous contribution made by so many individuals. Let us not forget that people from the Indian sub-continent kept volunteering throughout the war. We owe them a very great deal for the sacrifice of so many so far from home.

Photo of Baroness Flather Baroness Flather Crossbench 3:04 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for securing this debate. Part of me is sorry that there are not more speakers, and part of me is very glad because it gives me a few more minutes to speak. I hope this is not because of lack of interest: perhaps holidays have started for most people.

This is an important issue and is particularly so for me personally because my father volunteered in the first war—I was going to say “Great War”. Gandhiji said to Indian students that they should volunteer but not fight to kill. So my father was a stretcher bearer in Mesopotamia. Goodness knows what kind of a time he had there. He would not speak about it, which tells us it was a pretty awful time for him. All I know is that he lived on bully beef. I remember him saying that and it was the first time I had heard the word.

Young people who were studying in this country also volunteered because Gandhiji said so. Gandhiji himself was an amazing man who had fought in the Boer War—I know we are not talking about that war—and was at the battle of Spion Kop. Spion Kop was a hill that some noble Lords will know about. All the stretcher bearers at that battle were Indians and Gandhiji held the rank of sergeant-major. It is good to remember his contribution. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, he actually canvassed people to join the British Army in the first and second wars and said, “We have to save the Empire”. Even Mark Tully got that wrong.

When I was deputy mayor and then mayor of Windsor and Maidenhead, I laid the first wreath on the war memorial. During my mayoralty, one of my fellow councillors asked me if Remembrance Day meant anything to me. Noble Lords might feel the same shock I did that an educated man, an elected councillor, had no idea what the Indians had done in the two world wars. This was so shocking to me I started to think about the memorial mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. It took me many years to get people to agree to work for it and I am not sure anybody really believed we would get a memorial in the end, but we have one. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said about the Indian community. I have been very disappointed indeed by the interest it has shown—or not shown—in the memorial. It is their memorial, built not by the Government but by people giving money. However much I have tried to get them interested in visiting, I have not been very successful. Every year, we have a commemoration—a gathering not a service—when we try to remember the people.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, asked, “What is war?”. War—whichever war it is—is horrible but we should never forget the contribution of the people and that is what this debate is about.

I remind noble Lords that when the British Expeditionary Force went to France the British standing army was very small and it lost. The first group who came to support them were 150,000 members of the Indian standing army. When they arrived in November they had no warm clothing. It was not just that they were not used to the cold: the army had not thought to provide them with the appropriate clothing. This has happened in many wars. There was also a lot of racism, and many problems with food. Nevertheless, our people were stalwart, and stayed with the Army and fought—and in such a way that they cannot be said to have been just cannon fodder. They were wonderful people and had a very important role to play in both roles.

Brighton Pavilion is an interesting place, because the then Prince of Wales thought that if he put the wounded Indian soldiers in Brighton Pavilion they would feel at home. Those people were from villages and had never seen any kind of palace, not even an Indian one, let alone the English Brighton Pavilion. In any case, they were put there; I hope that they were looked after but do not know whether they were—probably not terribly well, I should not wonder.

We have to work on the curriculum. We have to get some information about the Indian contribution in the curriculum—not just to the First World War, but even more importantly to the Second World War. I urge noble Lords to try their best to influence those who should be influenced.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative 3:10 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, this short debate made possible by my noble friend Lord Sheikh, to whom we are all greatly indebted, provides us with an opportunity to recall and to reflect upon the immense contribution made by the peoples of the Indian subcontinent during the First World War. There is so much to remember, and so much to hold firmly in our minds with gratitude and veneration as the centenary of the outbreak of this terrible conflict approaches. The part played by the Indian Armed Forces and by all those who assisted it in its many tasks in three continents, on which my noble friend Lord Shipley has elaborated, should feature prominently in the period of commemoration that lies ahead.

Speaking as a historian, although I lack the eminence of the noble Lord, Professor Lord Morgan, who is to follow me and who can correct all my mistakes, I am particularly glad that the Imperial War Museum—the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact, which as many noble Lords know is so conspicuously involved in the work of commemoration—has incorporated within its plans full recognition of India’s role as the biggest imperial contributor to the war. The museum’s famous First World War galleries will re-emerge next year, utterly transformed. One of the central objectives is to ensure that a proper understanding of India’s contribution and of the sacrifice made by its peoples is conveyed vividly and powerfully to visitors.

Film, photography and representative items of warfare, which can stir the imagination so strongly, will all be deployed effectively for that purpose. Nor will the disappointment that was so widely felt in 1918 and thereafter be neglected. The final section of the renovated galleries will make clear the widespread discontent aroused by Britain’s decision to withhold from India the large measure of self-government that was conferred elsewhere as dominion status emerged.

I very much hope that the Imperial War Museum’s plans will be widely noted, as I am sure the Minister will agree. The plans need to be reflected at all levels throughout the country to make commemorative activity full and complete. That is particularly important where India is concerned, since among British historians there was for too long a tendency to underrate the contribution its peoples made. It was suggested, for example, that the Indian Army Corps, dispatched to France on the outbreak of war, failed to come up to expectations. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the current generation of my fellow historians has now properly acknowledged. Indian troops—and they alone—made good Britain’s acute shortfall in trained manpower in the first year of war on the western front. As one senior British officer emphasised,

“they filled a gap in the line when we had no other troops to put in”.

It should be added that that was at a great cost to themselves. By 1915 the Indian Army Corps had lost 50% of its original strength. Indian troops taught the rest of the British Expeditionary Force the art of patrolling in a form that would be suited to trench warfare on the western front. Skills that had been learnt while skirmishing in the Himalayas were adapted to a new purpose in the first night raids on the western front.

We can hear the voices of brave men from India, caught movingly in the letters they sent home. Here is one written on 1 May 1915 from the hospital established for them at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton:

“Do not be anxious about me. We are very well looked after. White soldiers are always besides our beds—day and night. The King has given a strict order that no trouble be given to any black man … in hospital. Men in hospital are tended like flowers, and the King and Queen sometimes come to visit them”.

I hope that that might provide a measure of reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who wondered about the treatment that had been accorded to Indian soldiers in hospital in Brighton. The Indian troops, to whom so much is owed, speak to us across the century through such letters published in a fascinating volume entitled Indian Voices of the Great War.

At the moment we know rather less about what courageous Indian troops had to say about the grave hardships which they faced in Mesopotamia, where most of them served—some 650,000 altogether, as my noble friend Lord Shipley mentioned. It was very much an Indian campaign from first to last. In Britain today it is not remembered with the gratitude that it deserves, or with sufficient consciousness of the sacrifices that were made. My noble friend Lord Shipley referred to the siege of Kut in early 1916, where Indian soldiers endured terrible privations. After the inevitable surrender they were held captive by the Turks in conditions so appalling that more than half of them died. Next year’s commemorations must give full and proper recognition to those sacrifices.

There is one thing above all one which our country should reflect. As we look back across the century to the First World War, it is surely always important to remember that the magnificent contribution of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent to the great common endeavour in war also contributed to strengthening ties with the people of Britain—ties that would survive all the political difficulties, violence and crises that were to follow.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour 3:16 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, this debate, admirably launched by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, is very welcome. It enables us to pay proper tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the over 1 million Indian troops who took part in the First World War, as well as enabling us to test the Government’s resolve: how far will they subscribe to what we heard from the Minister, that the commemoration of the war would not be a celebration of militarism but would deal with matters such as the role of women, trade unions and new currents in poetry, and that in the case of Ireland it would focus not only on the Irish troops who volunteered to fight in the war, but also on the fact that it led to the Easter Rising and to the domination of Sinn Fein?

So it should be in India. As we have heard in a series of admirable speeches, Indian troops fought in very large numbers on the western front and in east Africa; enormous numbers fought in Mesopotamia and at the terrible siege of Kut al-Amara. The names of Indian troops are recorded in monuments in at Neuve Chapelle and on the Menin Gate. My own father served with Indian troops in the First World War in Palestine and always spoke with enormous warmth about that experience.

Gandhi encouraged Indians to volunteer for the British Army. At the same time, it is important to say how Gandhi shows how the war changed the perceptions of so many public figures in India. He was not at first the major nationalist in India—that was BG Tilak, who founded the Home Rule League. By the end of the war, Gandhi was convinced that the experiences of India in the war—the sacrifice of Indian troops—had given a new sense of unity and identity to all Indians; as we know, Gandhi worked a great deal with Muslims as well as with Hindus. The war gave the movement for home rule—swaraj—and Gandhi himself a new historical significance. Gandhi therefore illustrates what we should perhaps most fundamentally commemorate about the First World War.

We should note how the war encouraged movements in India to expand and to take up wider horizons. At first, Gandhi himself focused on internal issues within India—famously, the role of the untouchables, which he worked in a dedicated fashion to cope with in his own community. But by the end of the war he was adopting a much wider viewpoint, and challenging what he saw as the harshness of British rule, and how far a war supposedly fought to liberate subject nationalities was in fact reinforcing British control over his country.

It is enormously important both for Gandhi and for the Indian nationalist movement that the First World War within India encouraged the famous non-violent strategies with which Gandhi is associated to work against the grain of imperial policy and win support for Indian nationalism outside India. Gandhi did this very conspicuously, if I may say so, within the Labour Party.

The First World War should be commemorated above all because in India, and thereby in a wider world, it was a period of historic change. The legacy of the Indian troops fighting so gallantly, on the western front and elsewhere, was not a stronger commitment of Indians to imperial rule; it marked the beginning of the end for the Raj. It was followed by the Rowlatt Bills against what was called terrorism, and by the terrible massacre at Amritsar. General Dyer was sacked after Amritsar, but Indians were appalled by the sympathy shown by many people in this country for his conduct. It is deeply to the discredit to the House of Lords that at that time it passed a Motion sympathising with and supporting General Dyer.

The legacy of the war appears to be commemorated in the imperial architecture of Lutyens and Baker in New Delhi. But the most prescient observer of these developments was the former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who said that it would be,

“the grandest ruin of them all”.

That, perhaps, is what we should be commemorating.

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench 3:22 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, it is with pride that I am able to speak to you today, because I was an officer in the Indian Army. We had quite a few here when I first came to your Lordships’ House, but we are withering away. I am old, but not old enough to have fought in the First World War. Lord Weatherill was probably the most famous officer of the Indian Army in World War II who has been among us. He had a great record of gallantry and service in a very wonderful Indian cavalry regiment in Burma.

My father was in the Indian Army too, as was the father of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. He too fought in Mesopotamia, and also in Gallipoli. He was then in the British Army, but fought alongside a couple of battalions of the Indian Army. He was so impressed by their gallantry, by the way they fought and by the way in which they were commanded and organised that he said to himself, “If I get out of this mess, I shall transfer to the Indian Army.” And he did—for the next 30 years.

We have talked loosely and happily about the bravery of the Indian Army, but I would like to take you into a battalion of the Indian Army as it was then, and show you the various components. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, there was no conscription: every man was a volunteer. Some regiments were strictly of one warrior, martial tribe; others were mixed. There were about 14 or 15 Punjab regiments, and in those there were Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians, completely integrated. There is a lesson there, you know, for the good people of Bradford and elsewhere in our nation. Of course they lived, not separately, but alongside each other, because they all ate different types of food, but there was a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara, there was the nearest Christian church, and there was often a Buddhist temple. We used to go to each other’s—and that was really rather good. It was the first real sign of integration of the people in India in those days. The Indian Army led, and later the police in India did much the same.

There was a difference of content, in that we had two types of officer in the battalion—the King’s commissioned officer and the Viceroy’s commissioned officer. They were probably the most important part of the Indian Army. The average British battalion had probably 30 or 40 British officers. But in an Indian Army battalion we had only about a dozen, because underneath those 12 or so officers the Viceroy commissioned officer was also an officer: he had his own officers mess, soldiers saluted him, and he provided the stability and the junior leadership of the Indian Army battalion—a rather special sort of battalion.

I do not think that it is generally known that in peacetime, the British officer was not accepted in the Indian Army unless he passed very high up out of Sandhurst. My father was the Indian Army instructor at the Staff College next door to Sandhurst, and I remember all those hopefuls coming to him to be looked at to see whether they were up to the very high standard of British Army officer required. He took some, and I know that he rejected one or two. You certainly needed to pass out in the first 25 or 30 at Sandhurst to be accepted.

May I end on a story? The Duke of Wellington always said that he learnt his soldiering in India, and he was damn nearly beaten by the Marathas, who had been led by probably one of the greatest guerrilla leaders in history, a man called Shivaji. The Duke, like all of us, learnt a lot in India.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:28 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, as this is a time-limited debate and we have to give the Minister time to give a complete response, I am time-limited to one minute. I shall try to observe that limit, but I may slightly exceed it. I do not think it is important for me to say what I would have said if I had had time, because I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, will give us other opportunities to reflect on some of the important issues that have been raised today. So many good speeches have been made that anything I would have said would have been relatively uninformed and lacking in authority.

However, I would like to say two things. It seems to me that the legacy of the Empire and Commonwealth soldiers, like so many aspects of the First World War, will be argued about. The centenary debates must capture the fact that the tale of the Empire and Commonwealth soldiers is a contested, complex story—a human story of valour and tragedy, of victory and futility, of respect and racism, and of forgetting and re-remembering. What cannot be doubted is that these events and encounters provide an important foundation stone for an understanding of the making of modern Britain. If we know the history, we can hope to understand how we became the country we are today.

It is important to recognise that the British and Empire Army that fought the First World War a century ago had more in common, demographically, with the Britain of 2014 than that of 1914.

A number of noble Lords have asked the Minister to give us more details about what events are planned. Within that response, will he think hard about what my noble friend Lord Morgan said about the resolve of the Government to make sure that this is an all-inclusive, non-celebratory event?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Lords Spokesperson (Department for Work and Pensions), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:30 pm, 18th December 2013

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for generously curtailing his speech to allow me more time to respond. On behalf of all who have spoken in this debate, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for giving us the opportunity to discuss how we commemorate the role of soldiers from the Indian subcontinent in the First World War. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, the emphasis on commemoration, not celebration, is absolutely central to everything that we will do. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for what he has done not only in initiating this debate but in ensuring that we are reminded of, acknowledge and recognise the contribution made by people from the Indian subcontinent to business and our culture in general.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, spoke of her personal story and experience at the war memorial in Maidenhead, and of people’s ignorance of the enormous contribution made by forces personnel from the Indian subcontinent. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke very powerfully about the need to ensure that that contribution is not forgotten in any way. That is one of the reasons why I reassure noble Lords that the commemorations will have education and the curriculum at their centre.

The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, who is a distinguished historian, will recognise that this is not about the Government handing down a sterile statement or version of history that people must discover. What we want to do—this is the purpose of all the Government’s action in this area—is simply to encourage people to pause, think and take note of the scale of the suffering, and the reasons for it, and to engage with it in a very personal way and draw their own conclusions about what happened.

The most powerful contributions in this debate came from noble Lords who brought their personal experiences to it, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. We appreciate their comments very much. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said that the Indian Army was an entirely voluntary army. The fact that it raised so many volunteers to fight in a different continent should be humbling for all of us who cherish our freedom won through their efforts, energies and sacrifice. That is another reason why we want to ensure that that is not forgotten.

I want to mention a couple of things that the Government plan to do. The British High Commission in New Delhi is working with the Indians on a number of projects to mark the centenary. These include a guidebook about the Indian Army’s role in France and Flanders, the digitisation of the Indian Army’s war diaries and the production of a number of books about India’s contribution and experiences. My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke about the voices that we can hear down the generations emanating from moving letters, and how those will be central to the Imperial War Museum’s new galleries’ commemoration of the contribution which India made.

The Government plan to recognise the outstanding contribution of Victoria Cross recipients. The Indian corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 12 Victoria Crosses. We will create lasting memorials to all those who served with courage and valour. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked how these people might be commemorated in their own country. There are plans for paving stones to be inscribed with the names of the recipients of the VC in the cities, towns and villages from where they came, but Her Majesty’s Government cannot dictate how other countries commemorate these people but we are coming together as a Commonwealth to recognise them.

A number of noble Lords referred to the importance of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the commemoration process will begin at the end of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year. The first service will be a Commonwealth service with the entire Commonwealth coming together to commemorate the First World War and recognise its effects. That service will be held in Glasgow cathedral. More countries were involved in the war than not—from the vast Indian subcontinent to the small island of Nevis. All should be remembered for the part they played, and I assure noble Lords that that is central to the commemoration plans.

The noble Lords, Lord Morgan and Lord Parekh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, referred to the role of Gandhi. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has written extensively on the life of Gandhi. It is absolutely appropriate that his life, example and story should also be part of the commemoration process. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Warsi has initiated a series of lectures with the Curzon Institute to explore the stories of the individuals involved. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred to soldiers such as Sepoy Khudadad Khan, the first soldier from the Indian subcontinent to be awarded the Victoria Cross. I would mention also Walter Tull, the first Black British officer and George Blackman of Barbados, the last survivor who served in the war from the West Indies, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 106. We will come back to these personal stories time and again as we realise that they are the most powerful way of communicating the horrors which affected the world at that time, and that they shaped a generation.

My right honourable and noble friend Lady Warsi has visited Grootebeek military cemetery and the First World War graves of soldiers from her parents’ home village in Pakistan—another personal story. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked whether there would be commemorations at Neuve-Chapelle. Those preparations are being discussed and I think that my noble friend Lady Warsi will find the contributions to this debate very helpful.

I am afraid that because of the time constraints I have not been able to cover this matter in as much depth as I would like. Nevertheless, this has been a very important debate. There is no doubt that we could not have prevailed in the First World War without the support and sacrifice of our Commonwealth partners. As we came together then, so the centenary gives us an opportunity to come together now, not just people in this country but also people in the subcontinent, as noble Lords said, with the different faith traditions and nationalities which make up that subcontinent. We should come together to reaffirm our shared values, forged through experiences that will not be forgotten, and that bind us together inseparably.

Recognition of the important role that those from the Indian subcontinent played is an integral part of the Government’s plans for an inclusive commemoration —the inclusive commemoration that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, implored us to establish. This commemoration will not airbrush the horror of the war nor shy away from the concept of victory. We approach the centenary in a spirit of reconciliation, acknowledging that the loss and suffering recognised no national boundaries and that those who were once our adversaries are now our partners in building a better world.