As we work for peace, prosperity and human rights, we need the Commonwealth as much as ever, Hugo Swire reports for London’s Telegraph.
The Glasgow Games have shown the Commonwealth at its best, and have reminded us of deep friendships that cut across cultures, generations and geographical logic.
Medals of a different kind will take centre stage tomorrow, as the memorial service at Glasgow Cathedral honours the enormous Commonwealth contribution in the First World War. As Minister for the Commonwealth, I am humbled to be joining the congregation, along with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, and representatives from across the Commonwealth.
A century has passed since three million men and women volunteered from all corners of the world to fight for a King and country many had never seen. They gave up their jobs, their families and often their lives to face hardship and unspeakable horrors – from the mud of the Western Front, to the swamps and deserts of Mesopotamia and East Africa.
There were the sacrifices of the Jullundur Brigade of the Indian Army at Neuve Chapelle, the brave Anzacs at Gallipoli, the heroism of the Canadians at Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge and the vital contributions from African and Caribbean contingents and from countries we know today as Pakistan and Bangladesh. My own former regiment, the Grenadier Guards, and the many brave men from my constituency of East Devon who joined the Devonshire Regiment, fought and died alongside thousands of Commonwealth troops during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
It is no surprise, that a remarkable 175 people from the Commonwealth were awarded Britain’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. Sadly, casualties across the Commonwealth were just as catastrophic as they were for the UK. Around the world, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates the names of over 1.1 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their lives in the Great War. Their tales of heroism and sacrifice are countless.
Caribbean soldiers – the majority from Jamaica – fought in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Walter Tull, whose father was from Barbados, was raised in an orphanage in Bethnal Green, East London and played football for Spurs and Northampton Town. He fought in six major battles, including the Somme, and became one of the first ever Afro-Caribbean officers in the British Army. He was killed in action in France in 1918. His body was never recovered.
Every sixth soldier fighting for the British Army came from the Indian subcontinent. In 1915, the 14th Sikhs at Gallipoli reportedly saw a vision of their Guru Gobind Singh as they fixed bayonets. The vision steeled the men to advance, despite murderous machine gunfire. Three quarters of them fell, yet they still took and held three lines of trenches. General Sir Ian Hamilton described the ground “thickly dotted with the bodies of these fine soldiers” and said that their gallantry and devotion to duty was something their nation should look back upon with pride for many generations.
During my visit to the Pieta military cemetery in Malta earlier this year, I stood among 1,303 carefully tended grave stones of young British, Indian and Anzac servicemen who died from the wounds they sustained in the Gallipoli campaign. I thought of their loved ones, who would surely not have been able to travel the great distances to visit them in their final resting place in the stony soil of beautiful Malta.
That is one of the reasons why I personally commend the online campaign led by the Royal British Legion called “Every Man Remembered”. It aims to gather the public’s tributes to every single Commonwealth serviceman and woman who died. As the Prime Minister said, it is “crucial that we honour the people from overseas – those from Africa to Australia; from India to the West Indies – who served and died alongside our forces … They fought together, they fell together, and together they defended the freedoms we enjoy today”. Quite simply, Britain and her allies could not have prevailed without these brave men and women. We owe our friends in the Commonwealth an enormous debt of gratitude.
Some people question the relevance of the Commonwealth in the 21st century. I am of another view. We have seen in recent months that we are living in uncertain and unstable times. As we work for peace, prosperity and human rights, we need the Commonwealth as much as ever. That is why this Government has brought it back to its rightful place in British foreign policy. Of course, as circumstances change, so must the Commonwealth. We must do more to fulfil its huge potential in building trade and prosperity. We must do more to ensure its citizens have stable, well-governed societies, where human rights are protected. These aims are fundamental to the Commonwealth. It came together to make a better world in 1914 – and it can help us tackle the challenges our generation faces today. So, like Glasgow did so magnificently for the Commonwealth athletes, we must give it our full support.