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November 23, 2020

Forgotten soldiers of the empire

Opinion

November 23, 2020

We observed and honoured earlier this month a Remembrance Day like no other. Though memorial services across the UK and the rest of the world were scaled back due to coronavirus restrictions, people still took part in their own ways to commemorate the contributions and sacrifices made by the armed forces in the line of duty.

As a former captain from the British Army, this time of year is very special to me — it is important for me to reflect on the service of our brothers and sisters from our Commonwealth countries that paid the ultimate price for our freedom continuing today.

On Armistice Day I was in Whitehall. I also took part in the Conservative Friends of Pakistan Remembrance Day Discussion on the Forgotten Soldiers of Pakistan. The seminar was organised as part of the ‘Forgotten Soldiers of the Empire’, a campaign which seeks to highlight to the sacrifices made by the hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers that fought to protect the British Empire.

Since the First World War Remembrance Day has been acknowledged and observed in Commonwealth member states in order to pay homage to those who gave their lives to military service. However, all too often the narrative we see and hear in this country around this time of year is that Britain stood alone in the Great Wars — only then to be bailed out by the Americans, and the Russians and so on.

But that simply isn’t true — we would not have been successful in the endeavours which we mark today without the cohorts of our foreign and Commonwealth friends.

Research suggests that as many as four million Muslims from 19 different countries offered their services to the British Army in some way during the Great Wars, and some 40 per cent of the British Indian army was made up of soldiers from areas which now constitute as Pakistan.

That is no small contribution — it is a huge donation of manpower, supplies, finances, and ultimately lives, and one that we should never forget. Although this part of history may not always cut through, Foreign and Commonwealth service personnel still stand proudly alongside us in the British military today.

They are always such an important part of what we do, adding something truly unique to the military life we’re so lucky to have in this country. I would argue that you would be hard pressed to find a service man or woman whose experience of the Armed Forces hasn’t been improved by the contributions of our Foreign and Commonwealth members.

We should never take this for granted, therefore we must do more to show our gratitude — paying lip service alone is not enough. This can come from increasing awareness, to getting involved with brilliant organisations such as the Conservative Friends of Pakistan, or doing more to look after those who have already given so much to this country.

We cannot only think of this in a historical context on memorial days — there are things we can do today to improve the lives of veterans and those still in service.

As Minister for Defence People and Veterans and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, I am determined that we attain a path to citizenship to make sure that people can resettle and stay in this country once they have served in the military — I would say it was the very least we can do.

Another area that needs improvement is in veteran care, where Foreign and Commonwealth personnel are one of the two groups who are massively underrepresented.

This shows that there is still some way to go to close the gap between what we say, and how it actually feels to be a Foreign and Commonwealth service person, but we are moving in the right direction.

This seminar served as an important reminder to me, not only to reflect upon real history and sacrifices that Pakistani soldiers made in the past, but as a reminder to push for change and justice for all Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers in the future.

The writer is Minister for Defence People and Veterans and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs