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Mail on Sunday: 11-rupee heroes who fought to keep us all free

By Baroness Warsi

Daddy, what did YOU do  in the Great War? So  goes the famous 1915 recruitment poster, aimed at coaxing fathers across Britain into joining up and playing their part in the ‘war to end all wars’.

One year before we mark the centenary of that conflict, which, of course, didn’t end all wars, we are starting to ask one another a similar question: what did YOUR forefathers do in the Great War?

For me, the centenary offers an opportunity to address the historical blind spot we have when it comes to recognising the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers. After all, think of the First World War and you think trenches and Tommies, poems and poppies. You don’t think of Aussies landing on the scorching shores of Turkey. You don’t think of men from the West Indies travelling to Egypt. And you certainly don’t think of sepoys in turbans, serving on the Western Front. But they deserve to be remembered.

The largest volunteer army was the British Indian Army, which provided 1.2million men to fight. This is a staggering contribution; it’s thought that a tenth of the British war effort came from Indian soldiers. Despite the scale of sacrifice – 74,000 lost their lives in battle – knowledge of the contribution is sadly lacking.

My mission is to make sure their bravery, and that of others, is not forgotten. Immediately after the outbreak of war, divisions from India were dispatched to Europe. Thousands of men travelled across the world to fight for King and country – a King who wasn’t from their land and a country which they’d probably never seen.

It wasn’t just the propaganda that lured these men to battle. It was the glory that bravery would bestow on them, tribally and spiritually – and the 11-Rupee monthly salary.

Why is it so powerful to tell these stories? When I visited the battlefields of France and Belgium earlier this year, I found it incredibly powerful to see the graves of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, lying together, side by side, just as they had fought side by side. Scanning the countless names of the war memorials, and seeing the Khans and Singhs listed on the Menin Gate, is the most powerful reminder that this was a truly global war.

I don’t have any relatives who fought in that conflict. But both my maternal and paternal grandfathers fought in the Second World War. They were in the Bombay Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment serving, I believe, in Aden and Burma. I feel a great sense of pride knowing that my grandparents were fighting for this country long before my parents even came to these shores. 

I hope that uncovering the Commonwealth contribution to the First World War will have a similar impact on other people.

What better way of showing that people of all faiths and all backgrounds can unite in the name of freedom than by illustrating a shared history, one based on unity, freedom and comradeship?

This is particularly potent at a time when questions are regularly raised about loyalty and identity, about who genuinely belongs to this country and about our history. Groups like  Al-Muhajiroun and the EDL argue you cannot be British and Muslim.

The story of the Muslim soldiers during the First World War puts paid to this myth. It shows that just under 100 years ago we weren’t only rubbing along together, we were serving the British King together.

I hope that, come 2018, after four years commemorating this war, there will be many more people who know what their relatives did in the First World War.

And that many more will know just how many people – of all ethnicities, races and faiths – fought for the freedoms we Britons enjoy today.

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