Britain honours Indian soldiers’ contribution in WWI

New Delhi: Britain Thursday honoured the over a million Indian soldiers who fought in World War I, as British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon laid a wreath at the war memorial at India Gate and praised the “enormous contribution” of India.

Fallon, who arrived here on a two-day visit, handed over a digitised version of the war diaries and memorials of six Victoria Crosses won by Indian soldiers to Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and the colonels of Indian regiments at a special function at the British High Commission.

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The memorials will be sent to the soldiers’ native villages.

The event saw bands of Royal Air Force and Indian Air Force perform in a setting that had 20 storyboards to narrate the immense contribution of Indian troops – the largest-ever volunteer force seen till then and the only professionally-trained, combat-experienced force in the Commonwealth – to the war.

A battlefield guide book and coffee table book “India and the First World War” were also unveiled.

Speaking at the event and earlier during a speech at the Vivekananda International Foundation, Fallon said Indian soldiers distinguished themselves in every theatre of World War I, earning over 9,000 decorations including six Victoria Cross.

“Their courage was remarkable in that it was entirely voluntary and not a single Indian soldier was conscripted.

“Those who signed up, British or Indian, believed in essential values which hold true today,” Fallon said, adding that such heroism should be recognised, such stories told, and their contribution to “joint history” should not be forgotten.

He said the event was a piquant memory for him personally as his grandfather had sailed from Mumbai to Mesopotamia during the war with a contingent of Indian soldiers.

He said the event was being held “to show that we must not and will not ever forget the enormous service rendered by Indian heroes”.

Fallon also hoped that as accomplishments of Indian soldiers were more readily available, “heroes of yesterday will become household names tomorrow”.

Around 70,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the war.

Families of those who fought in the war said welcomed it as a recognition of their kin’s contribution to the war effort.

“It is a sort of gratitude being paid to Indian (soldiers) for their help to the British,” said Brig Joginder Singh (retd), whose grandfather fought in WWI.

Speaking earlier at the Vivekananda International Foundation on “The UK and India – Together in an Uncertain World”, Fallon said: “We want to see the friendship grow from strength to strength.

“A century ago, our two countries stood together to help make the world a better place, that partnership is just as strong today and there has never been a better time to work together.”

He said both countries have lately “discovered a spring in our steps”.

“Our two countries are ready to fight for our values and security of our countries and safety of our people just as we did in 1914,” the British minister said.

Expressing hope that India under the Narendra Modi government would make Britain a “natural partner”, Fallon said Britain “believes that India is a force for good in the world” and by being the world’s largest democracy it “helps make the world a better place”.

He said Britain supports India’s bid for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council and added that the “more India is active on the world stage it is better for the whole world”.

He said he met Jaitley Thursday morning to push for greater cooperation in the defence sector where Britain has high-end technologies on offer.

On Afghanistan, from where British soldiers have begun the drawdown, Fallon said NATO forces are leaving the Afghan security forces “better prepared than the army left in Iraq and better placed in taking responsibility for security”.

He acknowledged there were “some weaknesses that we will continue to address” like lack of air fighting capability and Britain would continue to provide specialist training to Afghan forces.

He said Britain was committed to supporting Afghanistan in every way but was determined not go commit combat troops again.

“We are not in a situation where we will return combat troops again,” he said.

He acknowledged the danger from the Taliban and said the militants would “test the new government” but “we are leaving behind an Afghan army that is well trained”.

On the Islamic State terror group, also known as the ISIS, which has beheaded two British hostages, Fallon said the “perpetrators will be tracked down and brought to justice in due course” and that Britain was also committed to tackling the jihadist group militarily.

He said India has strong interest in helping to tackle ISIS and radicalisation and Britain “is willing to help in that end”.