Baroness Warsi speech honouring Overseas Heroes from the First World War

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Baroness Warsi speech at unveiling of plaques commemorating 175 men from overseas who were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One.

Speaking at the unveiling Baroness Warsi said:

Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great privilege to welcome you here this afternoon, to commemorate the Victoria Cross recipients of the Great War.

I am delighted to welcome His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent, as our Guest of Honour. As President of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and through his military roles as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Royal Colonel of 1st Battalion The Rifles, and Honorary Air Chief Marshall of the Royal Air Force, His Royal Highness has connections to several of the VCs we are commemorating today and it is an issue that is as dear to his heart as it is to mine.

The bugle call to arms that sounded across Britain in August 1914 carried to the farthest corners of the world.

It was heard in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; in the countries we know today as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma; and across Africa and the Caribbean - where men travelled at their own expense to enlist.

And around three million men responded, coming to Britain’s aid and joining the Allied cause. Tariqs and Tajinders fought shoulder to shoulder with Tommies in Flanders, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele.

And, it is very clear, that without all of them Britain, the Allies, could not have prevailed. Without them, we would not have the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy today.

A little over a year ago I visited the battlefields of France and Belgium. My own personal pilgrimage.

I saw the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial which honours almost 5000 soldiers from the Indian sub-continent who have no known grave;

I laid a wreath to Sikh soliders at Hollebeke in Belgium. And also then thought of Khudadad Khan, a Punjabi Muslim, who single-handedly held back the enemy long enough for reinforcements to arrive, making him the Great War’s first overseas recipient of the Victoria Cross;

And I paid my respects at Menin Gate in Ypres - which lists the names of the 54,000 British and overseas soldiers whose resting places are unknown.

Seeing names like Khan and Singh, Ali and Atwal listed alongside Smith, Jones and Williams and Taylor reminded me of a line by Rudyard Kipling, inscribed on the Tomb of an unknown Seypoy who fell in France, which reads: “This man in his own country prayed we know not to what powers; We pray to them to reward him for his bravery in ours.”

All deserve our enduring gratitude and respect for the hardships and horrors they endured, and for the selfless sacrifice they made.

To me, they are all heroes.

But, as we are here today to commemorate, the courage and fortitude of many of Britain’s overseas soldiers brought them particular distinction. 175 were judged to have acted “with most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy” to warrant the award of Britain’s highest military honour – the Victoria Cross.

Men like…

… Private John Kerr from Canada - awarded his Victoria Cross for “most conspicuous bravery” on 16 September 1916, towards the end of the Battle of the Somme. Knowing that bombs were running short, Private Kerr ran under heavy fire until he was in close contact with the enemy. He opened fire on them at point-blank range, and inflicted heavy loss. The enemy, thinking they were surrounded, surrendered. Sixty-two prisoners were taken and 250 yards of enemy trench captured.

… Or Captain Alfred Shout from New Zealand who fought with the Australian Imperial Force. Captain Shout won his VC for most conspicuous bravery at Lone Pine trenches, in the Gallipoli Peninsula.

… And Gobind Singh from India. He won his VC during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 when, on three occasions, he saved his fellow men by volunteering to deliver urgent messages over 1.5 miles of open fire – despite having his horse shot from under him on each occasion and having to finish each journey on foot.

Today, there are just nine Victoria Cross recipients alive. And I am honoured that we have two of them here with us this afternoon: Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC and Corporal Mark Donaldson VC.

Sergeant Beharry’s story will be familiar to many of you gathered here today. He became the first living soldier in more than 30 years to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Twice, in direct face of the enemy, under intense fire, and at great personal risk, he showed heroism in saving the lives of his comrades.

Corporal Donaldson, who has travelled from Australia to be with us today, became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia in January 2009. While deployed in Afghanistan, his patrol was ambushed. He deliberately made himself the target of enemy fire in order to draw Taliban fighters’ attention away from the casualties and allow wounded soldiers to be moved to safety.

These acts go beyond bravery.

The word “hero” is bandied around too often these days. And I’m sure you will agree with me, all of these men are the true heroes.

Over the next four years, the centenary commemorations give us an opportunity to mark the important contributions of Victoria Cross winners, past and present, so that they become known and understood by a whole new generation. And 5 years since the last veterans of the Great War passed away, it is more important than ever to ensure future generations never forget.

That is why…

… we are providing funding support towards the restoration of the burial places of all VC winners;

… we will honour 400 British Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War with commemorative paving-stones in their place of birth;

… we will dispatch these beautifully handcrafted bronze plaque to the 11 other countries that the VC winners of the conflict came from;

And finally, why I’m pleased to announce we will be launching a digital archive later this year to memorialise all overseas VC recipients. Ensuring that people of all backgrounds, from all over the world can remember and learn from their stories of heroism.

To conclude, as I said at the beginning, it would not have been possible for Britain to prevail in the First World War without the massive contribution and sacrifice of countries from the Commonwealth and beyond.

I am proud that that both my grandfathers fought in the Bombay Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment in the Second World War. It is incredible that, like them, men were inspired to fight for a country they had never seen; pledge loyalty to a far away King…for the value of freedom. Something they themselves had yet to fully experience.

Its shows the rich diversity of our shared history and that, whether you can trace your families heritage back to the Norman Conquest, or to a relative who gave his life for Britain a century ago; whether your grandparents came from Nigeria or your parents from Jamaica – this commemoration is relevant to us all.

And it puts paid to the idea that you cannot be a Muslim and British; serve your country; support the military - our ancestors were doing these things 100 years ago.

Today, we must ensure that the things they embodied and fought for: freedom, liberty, duty, courage, loyalty, sacrifice and caring for others are as alive today as they were in 1914 – regardless of race, creed or nationality.

But the centenary also gives us the opportunity to commemorate and honour those who truly went above and beyond the call of duty- the VC recipients from overseas, and I hope you will find that these plaques are a fitting tribute – a reminder that Britain will never forget their courage and a powerful message that people of all backgrounds and faiths can unite in the name of a common cause.

Further information

See our press release Britain honours Overseas Heroes from the First World War.

More information can also be found in our publication WW1 Victoria Cross recipients from overseas.

Follow Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi on twitter @SayeedaWarsi

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