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December 2004 - January 2005


At The War Memorial in London

by Krishan Gopal Dutt

On a sunny yet cool midday on Friday 12 November, as men of the Household Cavalry in magnificent scarlet tunics with swords drawn and astride well-groomed black stallions rode past in majestic splendour, high-ranking officers of the British armed forces and Indian ex-servicemen gathered at Constitution Hill in London’s Green Park to attend an impressive wreath-laying ceremony at the Memorial Gate pavilion. Many UK-based Indians also came to witness this colorful and moving event not far from the famous Hyde Park Corner.

It was the 2nd anniversary of the Memorial Gates Commemoration honouring British, Indian and Commonwealth armed forces who took part in the First and Second World Wars. Three million soldiers, airmen and naval personnel from India alone had volunteered to serve Britain in those critical times.

Baroness Shreela Flather, JP, Chairperson of the Memorial Gates Trust, and Karan Billimoria, CBE, Chairman of the Memorial Gates Committee and Chief Executive of Cobra beer, were on hand to receive the VIPs and other guests including British ex-servicemen who had fought alongside their Indian comrades.

Two Gurkha officers, both captains in the British army, with an array of medals adorning their smart black uniform, and the famous Khukri emblazoned on the front of their round caps, stood guard in front of the impressive pavilion.

The Memorial Gates were officially inaugurated by Her Majesty The Queen on 6 November 2002; this monument to valour and sacrifice was erected to serve as a lasting symbol of admiration and gratitude to all those valiant men and women who readily took up arms for the British Empire. And today some of their descendents have made their home in Britain.

Baroness Flather had taken a leading part in the campaign for erection of Memorial Gates to honour and remember the men and women who participated in the two World Wars.

The white dome atop four tall Portland stone columns is inscribed with names of Indian servicemen awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross and George Cross - many of whom had served in the Gurkha and Sikh regiments. A carpet of autumn leaves covered the ground around the monument.

Among the high-ranking British officers were Major-General J S Icerr, GOC, 4 Div, Aldershot; Air Vice-Marshal David Walker (RAF); Rear-Admiral Richard Melly, Chief of Staff to the Second Sea Lord; and Major-General Evelyn Webb-Carter, GOC, Household Division, Windsor, whom I had interviewed in February 2000 during a recruitment drive to get more members of the ethnic minorities in UK joining the army.

I also met Captain Paddy Vincent, a sprightly 80 and retired who is still active as Chairman of The Burma Star Association (UK). He sprang a surprise by greeting me in Hindustani! Squadron-Leader Mohinder Pujji who served with distinction in the Royal Air Force was there too, and pleased to speak with me in Punjabi.

I also spotted several elegant elderly English gentlemen in smart pin-striped suits, crisp white shirts and the bowler hat who had served their tour of duty in India. Viscount Slim was among them, with warm reminiscences of his happy days in pre-1947 India - ‘Bahut Achcha Waqt’, said the Viscount to me with a twinkle in his eyes {his father, a Field Marshal, was commander-in-chief in India, and Viscount Slim was born in Abbotabad}.

Among the large group of elderly Sikh ex-servicemen I also met were Sergeant Major Rajinder Singh Dhatt; Havaldar Mangal Singh (80), sporting a burgundy turban with matching necktie, who served with the Signal Corps in the Libyan desert; and Sepoy Bhajan Singh Baia. Each one of these stalwarts with a chestful of medals and proudly displaying the Poppy, talked gleefully of the bloody battles they fought during the good old days of the British Raj.

Then came the austere wreath-laying ceremony, very poignant and very moving, as the serving and ex-armed forces personnel marched onto the pavilion platform, solemnly laid down the large Poppy wreaths, snapped to attention, and saluted the fallen heroes of a bygone era. India’s Deputy High Commissioner Satyabrata Pal also laid a wreath, followed by the Ambassador of Nepal and the High Commissioners of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Though Pakistan and Bangladesh were non-existent at the ending of WW2 in 1945, men also came from these two areas of undivided India which were to later secede and become independent countries. Those men were honoured too.

Baroness Flather, in her short speech, while expressing deep gratitude for the immense sacrifices of those courageous volunteers, said that “but for them we would not be enjoying here the freedom we take for granted today, and would probably be speaking German today!”

Karan Billimoria, in his brief address,said “You have inspired succeeding generations to share the ideals and commitment for a free and peaceful world.” He also said “Their courage and fortitude will always be remembered and duly recognised by this London landmark.”

The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, in his imposing purple robe, speaking of India’s cultural heritage, made a reference to the great Emperor Ashoka. And he said, “We remember their (Commonwealth Forces’) part in the great conflict of the past, and we remember those who gave their lives; and we look forward to a world free of hatred and conflict and one of compassion and love.”

Prince Charles, as Patron of the Memorial Gates Trust, sent a message: “I am honoured to have had a role in establishing a lasting memorial to commemorate the vital role of millions of volunteers from the Indian sub-continent….and am delighted that, at long last, their support for Britain at some of the darkest moments in her history has been properly recognised and that these Memorial Gates now give a fitting acknowledgement, in the heart of London, of their valiant role.

“I am reminded of the famous words inscribed on the great War Memorial at Kohima in North-East India, for those whom we remember at this Service have truly shaped the world we live in now:
When you go home, tell them of us, and say: for your tomorrow we gave our today.”

And as the motley congregation dispersed amidst the sounding of the bugle by the two Gurkha soldiers, many would, I’m sure, be looking forward to attending the 3rd anniversary commemoration next year at London’s Constitution Hill.

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