Telegraph: This Remembrance Day, it’s more important than ever that we remember the Great War
By Sayeeda Warsi
At 11am this Sunday the nation will fall silent in honour of all our fallen soldiers. Elderly grandparents will watch the Cenotaph service on television, thinking about friends, fiancés and fathers lost in service. The pain will be all the more raw for the families who have lost loved ones in more recent years, even recent weeks.
But our image of the First World War, after which the first Remembrance Day events started taking place, is in danger of losing its sharpness. The Great War has all but dropped out of living memory, particularly with the passing of the last of our uniformed veterans, 110-year-old former WAF officer Florence Green, back in February this year.
With first-hand recollection all but gone, we risk that conflict fading, like a sun-bleached photograph. So it is more important than ever for us to share the realities of the Great War – the poems, the paintings, the accounts and the artefacts – with every child in every part of Britain.
Remembrance is at the forefront of our national consciousness, especially thanks to the Royal British Legion and their Poppy Appeal, which aims to raise millions of pounds a year for veterans and their families. You can hardly see a buttonhole without a splash of red at this time of year. It’s no wonder there was such an uproar last year when footballers were nearly stopped from sporting their poppies, or that the nation cheered David Cameron on the year before for wearing his in China, despite being asked not to by his hosts.
But there is also a need to educate people further on our wartime history, especially after a survey by the excellent new think-tank British Future revealed that more than half of 16-24-year-olds couldn’t name the start date of the First World War and 60 per cent couldn’t say when it ended.
Luckily, the forthcoming centenary of the Great War in two year’s time offers us an ideal opportunity to share the truths of the Great War with our young people. Last month, the Prime Minister made a speech calling the commemorations a “personal priority”, before pledging £50 million in government funds to commemorate this milestone. That includes an education programme, enabling pupils and teachers from every state school in the country to research the First World War history, and follow their journey of discovery through a trip to the Battlefields. It includes transforming the Imperial War Museum into an even more fantastic site. And it includes national commemorations that befit such a huge occasion.
The centenary offers us a further opportunity to bring people together to learn about our shared history. As the British Future survey shows, just 44 per cent of adults know about the contribution of Commonwealth Soldiers in the wars. Yet 1.3 million people volunteered with the British Indian Army in the First War (70,000 lost their lives); and this doubled in the Second World War. I am proud to say that both my grandfathers served in the Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment and were stationed, I understand, in Burma and Aden. These soldiers – all of whom were volunteers; they weren’t conscripted – should also be remembered with honour and dignity.
This is a particularly powerful point to make to disaffected youths, for them to know that those who fought in the Allied Forces in the First World War weren’t just Tommies, they were Tariqs and Tajinders too – and that every single one of us, whatever our background, owes a debt of gratitude to those who fought for our freedoms nearly a century ago.
That is a message that will rain on the parade of extremists: both the preachers of hate, who burn poppies as a vile protest against the West, and the far Right, who hijack the patriotism of Remembrance Sunday by trying suppress its messages of tolerance and freedom by making the event a divisive, whites-only moment.
So as we come together to reflect this Sunday, let’s also think of our duties and opportunities: duties to educate future generations of our forebears’ sacrifices; and opportunities that arise when our nation comes together to remember their heroism.