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Baroness Warsi kick-starts campaign to remember Commonwealth Servicemen of the First World War

Faith and Communities Minister Baroness Warsi visits the First World War battlefields of France and Belgium.

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Baroness Warsi laying a wreath
Baroness Warsi laying a wreath at the memorial to Sikh soldiers in Hollebeke

Baroness Warsi has paid tribute to the sacrifices made by the 1.2 million men from the Indian Army who fought for Britain in the First World War during a visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

As part of the government’s programme to commemorate the forthcoming centenary of the 1914 to 1918 conflict, she went to the Western Front, where 140,000 men from the Indian Army fought alongside Britain.

During the First World War, 1.2 million soldiers from undivided India served with the Allies, 74,000 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

Baroness Warsi, whose grandfathers fought in the Second World War, said:

“As I have said before, our boys weren’t just Tommies; they were Tariqs and Tajinders too.

“A picture of a soldier in a turban is not what we immediately associate with the Great War. And yet so many men from so far away came to Europe to fight for the freedoms we enjoy today. Their legacy is our liberty, and every single one of us owes them a debt of gratitude.”

Baroness Warsi’s first stop was the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial in France, which honours the 4,742 Indian soldiers on the Western Front who have no known grave. Neuve-Chappelle was the battle, in March 1915, where the Indian troops corps fought their first major battle as a unit, suffering heavy casualties.

In Belgium, one of her stops was to the village of Hollebeke where she laid a wreath at a memorial to Sikh soldiers. This was where Indian soldiers saw some of their first action in the early months of the war and where Khudadad Khan - the first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross (the highest military honour) - was based.

At Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, the second largest site in Belgium, she saw the grave of a Hindu fallen soldier alongside comrades from the Chinese Labour Corps.

Baroness Warsi also visited Grootebeek British Cemetery, which includes graves of soldiers who came from her parents’ village in Gujar Khan, Pakistan. She met the owner of the nearby farm, who recounted his father’s experiences when the barn was turned into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

Her visit ended at the Menin Gate in Ypres, which includes the names of the 54,000 of the fallen who have no known graves - including 414 Indians. She also had the honour of reading the exhortation during the Last Post ceremony.

Baroness Warsi went on to say:

“It was particularly poignant to see the endless names - of Khans and Singhs, Alis and Atwals - listed on the memorials and it was particularly special to make this visit during the week of Vaisakhi.

“It was also fascinating to hear how arrangements for religious and cultural observances, such as Ramadan and wearing turbans, were part of their lives, even on the frontline.

“I will make it my mission to ensure that the centenary is a chance for everyone to learn about the contribution of the Commonwealth soldiers. After all, our shared future is based on our shared past.”

Baroness Warsi also had the chance to read accounts of the letters of soldiers as she visited the areas where they had served. One, a Sikh sepoy, convalescing in England, wrote to his brother: “With a shout to our Guru we hurl ourselves forward. The enemies bullets scorch our heroes, while machine guns and cannons spread their shot about us.”

Another, a Muslim soldier who wrote from France to his brother in India, said: “What better occasion can I find that this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? …The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that will return alive to India.”

Further information

For more pictures of the visit, please see the full collection. Baroness Warsi was accompanied by a professional photographer at no cost to the department.

The Prime Minister launched the government’s plans to commemorate the First World War centenary in a speech on 11 October 2012

Published 16 April 2013