2 Baroness Flather debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Armistice Day: Centenary

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 5th November 2018

(5 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, there was an interesting piece in the newspapers recently about the first bullet that was fired. The first bullet is supposed to have been fired at a German, by an African from Côte d’Ivoire. How did they find that out? This is what I want to know. How do they know it was the first bullet? If it was in Africa, and was fired by some poor man from Côte d’Ivoire, I do not even know whether he managed to kill the German. Anyway, it is amazing how they find these stories. I will not be talking about that, of course, but I thought it might amuse your Lordships.

I will start with the first group of Indians who came in the ships. As noble Lords will know, the BEF failed in Belgium and Britain did not seem to have a proper standing army, so the Indians started to arrive in ships. Some 150,000 of them came at that stage. It is sad that they did not have proper clothing. We were going into winter—we were not in winter yet, we were in autumn, but we were going into winter—and they did not have appropriate clothing. This seems to me to be a bad oversight, because these people had come from villages in India and were used to heat—not just warmth but heat. That was the first group of Indians who came.

Your Lordships probably also know that there were 9,000 combatants and 6,000 non-combatants. It is very interesting that not much has been written about the non-combatants, who were also in Europe in all the theatres of war, because they were needed in those places. Nothing has really been written about their work during the war. Non-combatants are important as well, as we know, and the Indians were in practically every theatre of the First World War.

I have just found out that the Indians who were at Gallipoli were not properly mentioned until the eve of the centenary. Everybody knew they were there but they were not mentioned in the records and the things that were written about Gallipoli. The story that I am trying to put before your Lordships is that Indians were there, but not in everybody’s thinking. Some of the later records did not focus properly on the Indians, because the people creating the records had the feeling that somehow they were inferior to the white British Army. Obviously this went on because it was a big part of the British Empire not to treat people from across it as equals—but when they were prepared to give up their lives they deserve to be treated as equals.

A noble Lord asked, “Why did they want to join up?”. They did so because they were encouraged by the Indian leadership. The noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, said that Gandhiji said they should join the Army and so on, and they did. But why did Gandhi and the Indian leadership say, “Join the Army”? The idea was that if India helped Britain win the war, it might get dominion status, which was the Indians’ biggest wish—or if not that, perhaps some more privileges to run India as they wanted to. As your Lordships know, that never came about, but the Indians were the biggest volunteer army at that time.

We have had a lot of commemorative World War I events during this time. We have said and done things and had those events and so on, but how are we actually to inform the young? If you stop people on the street now and ask them, “Do you know who was involved in World War I, apart from us?”, they might mention the Dominions, because they were kith and kin, but they never mention Indians. I do not think many people know that the Indians were there during World War I. To me, that is crucial. It is the one thing we have to put right, because it is important not only for the young of this country to know that but for the Indians who have come to live here. Young Indians should have something to be proud of, but they do not know about this. How do we inform the young on a large scale? We put it in the context of history. If we are teaching anything about World War I, it should mention the people who are not mentioned elsewhere. That is the most important lesson for this period. We should make sure that the young have a chance to find out about that, especially the young Indians—I mean those from a united India. Although it is four countries now, that is all right too: all those people should be able to know what their fathers and grandfathers did, and how they came to make up the largest volunteer army.

I have been involved in the Memorial Gates, which a couple of your Lordships have talked about. They are a memorial on Constitution Hill to Indians, Africans and West Indians. It took me about seven or eight years to get them up and I had a lot of problems. Sadly, I had no support at all from the Labour Government of the time. The support I got was a great help, but it would have been even better if the Government had wanted to see the memorial in place. The support came from the Royal Family: Prince Charles became our patron and the Queen came twice. I am very grateful because, without that, we would not have been able to raise the money. If you do not have somebody such as Prince Charles as patron, nobody gives you money—so it was difficult. Field Marshal Lord Inge raised a lot of money—I do not know whether your Lordships remember him—as did I. Between us we managed to raise enough to get the memorial up.

I will save the last few minutes for my father, who decided to join the Army and volunteered in the First World War. I am so old that I am probably the only one from a minority community who can say, “My father served in the First World War”. No one else will be old enough. My mother used to say that he decided to run away to war because he failed his exams and did not want his grandfather, who was quite a paterfamilias, to know. I do not think that many people run away to war; they run away from it, if possible. He served mostly in Mesopotamia. Gandhiji had said that the Indian students should help the war effort but that they should not kill, so my father was a stretcher bearer in an ambulance corps. Fortunately he came back, because otherwise I would not be here—but he would not talk about it.

Many noble Lords have said that their father or grandfather would not tell them anything about the war. I think that my father had a terrible time. He was spoilt and brought up in a comfortable family, and he really did not like being where he was. The only thing he told us was that he lived on tins of bully beef. As a Hindu, he would not eat beef—he never did afterwards—but he lived on bully beef during the war. Mesopotamia was a horrible place and it was a horrible time, but he survived. I am very proud of the fact that I can join noble Lords whose father or grandfather was in the first war—because I too had a father who volunteered for that war.

First World War: Empire and Commonwealth Troops

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 4th June 2018

(6 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for tabling this debate. I am also grateful to him for mentioning the word “Empire”. Mostly, we hear the word “Commonwealth” but not “Empire”. Those of us who were part of the Empire would like to be remembered as being part of it. I think that at that time the Commonwealth was only the dominions, and maybe not even all of them. It is extremely important not to start using the term “Commonwealth” all the time; a very large number of people who fought with Britain during the First World War were not from the Commonwealth because it did not exist.

I also need to tell your Lordships that my own father, who was a student here, volunteered in the Great War. Mahatma Gandhi had said that Indian students could help the war effort but they should not kill, so my father was a stretcher bearer and you can imagine where he was; he was of course in Mesopotamia. He would not talk about his war experiences. I think other people have experienced the same thing—the noble Lord, Lord Cope, mentioned his father—when parents had had experiences so unpleasant that they did not like to talk about them with their friends and families. My father told us only that he lived on bully beef from tins because that was all they got. Being a good Hindu, that must have been a bit difficult for him, but you have to eat something to live.

As has been said, the Indian standing army came as soon as the British Expeditionary Force failed in France. They were put on ships, not always with adequate clothing. They had left India in hot weather and arrived when the winter was setting in. We have to remember these things. Imagine how difficult it must have been for them to come from India on ships without knowing where they were going and without proper clothing. They played an important part and continued to do so.

What hurts me most is that we have not been able to get this into the school curriculum. Children still do not know why many Indians, Africans and West Indians came to this country. The arrival of many of us is rooted in the war service of our people. I believe that the time has come for the schoolbooks to contain a clear note about what the people of the Empire did during the war so that children start to understand why we are all here. Otherwise, they never will.

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord who mentioned the memorial. I think it is important because it is the first memorial to Indians, Africans and West Indians, and I hope all noble Lords will go to see it. All the names of those who were given George Crosses and Victoria Crosses are in the roof of the chattri, the pavilion at the side of Green Park. I think that is extremely important. I did not do it by myself, let me tell you, but I was the catalyst. If I had not kept on and on, it would not have been there. You need one person who is difficult—otherwise, things do not happen. The idea that there might be a service at the memorial is a wonderful one, and I hope that one is taken.

Gallipoli has been mentioned. A huge number of Sikhs died at Gallipoli, but they have not been mentioned as a separate group. When the Jamaicans offered to join the armed services, it took them six months to be allowed to do so because of their colour. There was a huge amount of anxiety about people of different colours. Food was important and they found many things very difficult, particularly the climate. All of us had come from hot countries and we endured a great deal when we came to Europe. Really, there has not been enough done to remember us.

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Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Ashton of Hyde) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for proposing this excellent debate. As we have heard, troops from the Empire and Commonwealth played a critical part in the First World War, in many theatres and many roles—a crucial contribution that the Government have consistently recognised throughout the commemorations. The Government led the commemorations of the outbreak of the war, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, the Gallipoli campaign, and the Battles of Jutland, the Somme and Passchendaele. In August this year, we will mark the Battle of Amiens, a joint event that we are delivering with our partners from Australia and Canada as well as France and the United States, before turning our focus to the centenary of the Armistice in November.

Throughout these commemorations, we have highlighted and acknowledged the unwavering support of our then Empire and now Commonwealth partners. Their contribution, as so many noble Lords have said, tipped the scales in favour of the allies. They travelled many thousands of miles to answer the call, serving in all theatres of the war, and distinguished themselves time and again in the face of the most terrible conditions and fiercest resistance. Often, their contribution was critical to success, but at considerable cost. Of some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth and Empire, some 200,000 made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of freedom. As my noble friend Lord Lexden has mentioned, in looking at any of these battles in which troops from the Empire and the Commonwealth fought, it is hard to disagree with David Lloyd George: without them, victory might well have eluded us.

It has been right and proper to highlight their significant contributions and to hear their stories and their accents throughout the events. We have been reminded in particular of individual countries’ contributions by my noble friend Lord Goodlad in respect of the Australians, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in respect of India, the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on the West Indies, and my noble friend Lord Black on Canada. We also heard about the personal connections of the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and my noble friend Lord Elton when they spoke in the gap. Their stories are indeed humbling.

We should also not forget that the Commonwealth countries have and will continue to deliver their own range of activities and events telling their own stories of the impact of this truly global conflict. I cite, for example, the opening this April of the new Australian Sir John Monash Centre in France and Canadian events in France to be held in August, as well as in Mons in Belgium on 10 and 11 November. In that month there will also be a New Zealand event to commemorate the capture of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Division.

Much of the Government’s wider programme reflects the contribution made by the former Empire and Commonwealth. “The Unremembered”, delivered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, tells some of the lesser-known stories of those who volunteered, such as the Indian Labour Corps and the New Zealand Pioneer Corps. They served in extremely arduous and hazardous conditions, with little recognition at the time. Again, the South African Native Labour Corps, in which 25,000 men enlisted, was remembered at the SS “Mendi” commemorations in 2017, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned. In 2016, 14-18 NOW, which is our cultural delivery partner, produced “Dr Blighty” in Brighton. This was a spectacular light projection exploring the experience of Indian troops recuperating at the Royal Pavilion military hospital. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was able to see it and thus be reminded of his youth—obviously his youth as a schoolboy, not in the First World War. I was pleased to attend the “Stories of Sacrifice” exhibition in Manchester marking the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War and delivered by the British Muslim Heritage Centre.

Throughout 2018, the role played by people from the Empire and the Commonwealth will continue to be recognised by 14-18 NOW. “Xenos”, a dance piece combining archive sources with film and artistic reflections, explores the experience of an Indian soldier during the war. In September, John Akomfrah’s new multimedia installation remembers the millions of Africans who served during the First World War. The Government’s programme aims to enable people to commemorate those elements of the greatest significance to them. The Heritage Lottery Fund has supported a range of projects, including £94 million of funding for more than 1,400 community projects. “Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs in World War One” was delivered by the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association with £480,000 of funding from the HLF. Others include “The Caribbean’s Great War”, exploring the role of the West India Committee, and the “Black on Both Sides” project, on the British black and colonial contribution to World War One, which has helped young people from British-African and Caribbean backgrounds to explore the role of black people who served during the war.

I am pleased to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that government funding has also helped to support the Nubian Jak Community Trust to install Britain’s first dedicated African and Caribbean war memorial to service men and women from Africa and the Caribbean who served during World War One and World War Two in Windrush Square in Brixton. It was dedicated on Windrush Day 2017 and is a permanent reminder of the contribution made by men from Africa and the Caribbean during the war.

In speaking of the contribution of the Empire and the Commonwealth, it is appropriate to mention, as many noble Lords did, the marvellous work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the graves of those who did make the ultimate sacrifice. Many thousands of casualties from the British Empire are buried in some 23,000 Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in more than 150 countries around the world, and indeed in the UK. These sites are a permanent reminder of their sacrifice, and I will certainly take back from my noble friend Lord McInnes his views, and indeed those of the whole House, on our duty as a Government to support the commission’s work.

I want to answer some of the points that were made in the debate. I agree absolutely with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Lexden that it might be appropriate to have a full-scale debate before the end of the centenary commemorations. In fact, I have already asked the Chief Whip whether that would be possible and have received a positive answer—at least, as much as it is possible for him to give one. That would enable us to think about the whole four years and possibly about the legacy of these commemorations, which would be a great thing to do. I also agree with my noble friend that the Middle East campaign should receive more study, not least because of the strategic significance of that part of the world today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke of the service at the Commonwealth Memorial Gates attended by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. We are very clear that the main commemoration for the First World War and, indeed, other conflicts, is Remembrance Sunday on 11 November. It has a particular resonance, especially as this year, happily, Remembrance Sunday falls on 11 November. Along with our partners, we will make sure that this day is used to highlight the significant contribution from across the Commonwealth.

On commemorations of campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere, Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts have managed local events, particularly in the Middle East, supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

With regard to the curriculum, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, and my noble friend Lord McInnes, that it is important that pupils are taught about key events such as the First World War and all its ramifications. The current reformed national curriculum, which has been statutory since September 2014, states that pupils at key stage 3 should learn about,

“challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day”.

The First World War plays an important part in that, of course. However, we have not specified how individual schools should do that—the only exception so far is for the Holocaust.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I did not say that they should learn about the First World War—I think they do anyway—but that they need to know that Britain was not alone. The key thing is that it is very important for the growing generations to know that we have come here because we contributed to Britain’s well-being.

Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait Lord Ashton of Hyde
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That is a good point well made. What I have tried to explain today is that a lot of the events throughout the community, not just the relatively few central government-organised events, have addressed exactly that point: that we were not alone and that our partners, the members of the Empire and the Commonwealth, were actively involved. The Imperial War Museum’s schools programme is a good example of what has been done during these commemorations. There are lots of opportunities to go around and talk to young people—for example, the young people who have been helping in the commemoration of the third Battle of Ypres at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There has been a tremendous advance in the understanding and the interest shown in the First World War during these commemorations.

Throughout the war many thousands of men and women from around the Empire answered the call to arms. The war had a huge impact on these countries and their relationships with Britain. These relationships would be tested again in the Second World War, and the steadfastness of their support was not found wanting. Although the days of Empire are over, this shared history has undoubtedly influenced a continued friendship and co-operation in the Commonwealth as we know it today. I am sure that some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, are rightly discussed there. As I have outlined, this contribution has been rightly reflected throughout the commemorations and we are very grateful for that commemoration. As the baton of remembrance is passed to future generations, I am confident that the role of the Empire and Commonwealth and the sacrifices made by so many young men and women will not be forgotten.