Ansar Ahmed Ullah:
The UK paid its respects and offered thanks to the generation that served in the First World War on Sunday, 11 November.
The day was more poignant this year as it marked the 100thanniversary of the signing of the Armistice and so the end of hostilities on the Western Front.
Soldiers of the First World War looked more like Britain today than one would expect. British Future has powerfully shown this through its Remember Together campaign, which highlights the often forgotten service of men and women of different ethnicities and faiths.
Among those fighting for Britain in the First World War were 800,000 Hindus, 400,000 Muslims and 100,000 Sikhs. They included Khudadad Khan, a Muslim from what is now Pakistan, who was the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military award for gallantry, and Walter Tull, who died aged 29 the first black British infantry officer to lead men into battle.
The contribution of these courageous men and women of different faiths and ethnicities is not well known. As a part of Aldgate East My Neighbourhood project, a talk by Ansar Ahmed Ullah, in conjunction with the rest of UK commemorating the Centenary of the First World War, 2014 – 2018 was given at the Tower Hill Memorial titled No grave but the sea. Julie Begum & Sarah Ainslie from Aldgate East My Neighbourhood project were also present at the event.
Tower Hill Memorial commemorates the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet members who died at sea and have no known grave. A large inscription at the front of the World War II section reads: “The Twenty Four Thousand of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets whose names are honoured on the walls of this garden gave their lives for their country and have no grave but the sea.”
The Tower Hill Memorial is divided in two sections. The front section is dedicated to those who died during World War 1 between 1914 to 1918.
During the First World War more lascars (Bengali seamen) were needed to take the place of British sailors who had been recruited into the Royal British Navy. As a result, the numbers of lascars grew further. By the end of the First World War Indian seafarers made up 20 per cent (50,000) of the British maritime labour force.
For the First World War the total loss of seamen of all backgrounds, recorded at Tower Hill Memorial, is 17,000. Indian sources, however, give the figure of 3,427 lascars dead and 1,200 taken prisoner.
The larger section which approximates a circle is dedicated to those who died during World War II between 1939 to 1945.
For the Second World War, Indian sources also give an estimate of 6,600 Indian seamen dead, 1,022 wounded and 1,217 taken prisoners. During Second World War it is estimated that 30 – 40% of merchant marines were of colonial troops.
What is unknown to many, even Bengalis, that several of the names on the monument indicate seamen of Bengali origin with names such as Miah, Latif, Ali, Choudhury, Ullah or Uddin. However, these named individuals only represent the privileged few Bengalis employed as British crew members and exclude some 4,000-5000 ‘lascars’ who died at sea and whose names were never known.