One hundred years ago today, Britain entered the biggest battle in world history – World War One. A year ago, this anniversary would have very little meaning to me. But having been involved in the BBC’s flagship WW1 At Home project, I have come to learn how momentous a conflict it was.
Arguably, before Britain joined the war, it was very much limited to a European conflict. However, Britain had its Empire then; therefore all of its colonies joined – officially making it a ‘world war’. Eventually, USA also joined the efforts.
I’m sure many of you will relate more to World War Two based on what you were taught in school. Hitler and the holocaust dominated much of my 20th Century history curriculum. But I knew little, if anything about WW1 – who was involved? How did it come about? What was the outcome?
Little did I know that the war impacted me more personally than I thought. My Great Grandfather, Prem Singh Bilkhu, also served in WW1. I cannot begin to explain the pride I felt when I heard such a significant aspect of my family’s history. He was on the front line but due to poor hearing was shifted to work on tank construction as he was a qualified engineer. My maternal Great-Uncle also served for the Indian army during the war.
I couldn’t help but wonder how my ancestors and over one million other Indians (then colonial India) may have felt when they volunteered to fight in war. For most of them this would have been the first time they left their home country, and that too to fight in a long, bloody, brutal war for a country most of them never visited; Britain.
One in six soldiers was Indian – which in today’s world includes men from Pakistan and Bangladesh. One in six…making this the biggest contribution out of all the Commonwealth nations. Moreover, they were considered one of the most courageous fighters. (I am continuing to beam in pride!) Sadly, the history books fail to acknowledge this huge contribution.
Along with the tens of thousands of British men who initially volunteered to fight – Commonwealth soldiers had little knowledge of the brutality they were about to be exposed to. They were so high on a rush of patriotism that fighting for King and country came before anything.
Soldiers from nations all over the world met at numerous front lines. Men who had never met before, possibly some ethnicities who had never met men from other ethnicities before. Strangers united in a common cause.
Can our generation relate to such passion? Can we relate to such patriotism?
I have spoken to several friends and relatives in their late teens and 20s – the same age most of the troops in WW1 would have been – to ask whether they would volunteer if World War Three were to break out. Unanimously the response was ‘no’ or silence.
We owe a lot to our ancestors who went blindly to the battlefields to fight for our brighter future. Most of them didn’t return home. But their sacrifice has shaped our world today.
If you want to find out how WW1 impacted your local area in the UK, search your postcode on the WW1 At Home portal. You’ll be amazed, touched and inspired by these remarkable stories.