On 12th March people in Commonwealth countries will observe Commonwealth Day. In London, Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth will attend a multicultural, multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey with performances from choirs, dancers and musicians. This is attended by representatives of Commonwealth countries and children offer the flags of member nations for blessing. Flags also fly in Parliament Square and at Marlborough House in London, where the Commonwealth Secretariat is housed. During the event, Her Majesty’s special Commonwealth Day message will be delivered.
Commonwealth at War.
When someone declares war on Britain, they’re not just taking on a tiny island. Traditionally, when Britain has stood on a battlefield, her Commonwealth forces have stood up right beside her; some because they are obliged to be there, but others, in countries with no policy of conscription, out of loyalty to the United Kingdom and a joint history. In World War One Commonwealth soldiers from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland, South Africa, Undivided India and other colonies made up just over 30% of the United Kingdom’s entire fighting force and 20% of the men killed in service according to Geoff Bridger’s ‘The Great War Handbook’. In the Second World War, those numbers were just over 40% and 35% respectively. These nations declared war straight after the UK and fought alongside the British soldiers with courage and honour, as well as providing arms, materials and political support.
Apparently, the house broke into cheers when Mr Asquith declared that the nation could enter the war in good conscience. He is quoted as saying:
“I do not think any nation ever entered into a great conflict – and this is one of the greatest that history will ever know – with a clearer conscience or a stronger conviction that it is fighting not for aggression, not for the maintenance of its own selfish interests, but in defence of the principles the maintenance of which is vital to the civilisation of the world. If with full conviction, not only of the wisdom and justice, but of the obligation that lay upon us to challenge this great issue, we are to enter into the struggle, let us now make sure that all resources not only of the United Kingdom, but of the vast Empire of which it is centre, shall be thrown into the scale.”
Of the 57 nations which took part in WWII, only Great Britain and the Commonwealth fought from start to finish. These territories covered about one-quarter of the earths habitable surface and included one quarter of its population. Among them were strategic points and bases of capital importance. Without Gibraltar and Malta, for instance, the tenuous thread of communication through the Mediterranean must have been cut. Without Commonwealth troops, the campaigns of 1941 and 1942 in the Middle East would probably have been lost.
Through the largest party had come out against the war and fronted an unsuccessful rebellion, India raised some 2,500,000 volunteers. They formed the bulk of the force which, in Burma, contained, repelled, and finally defeated a larger Japanese army than any engaged by the Americans during the war. Over 36,000+ Indian members of the armed forces were killed or went missing in action, and 64,354 were wounded during the war. Indian personnel received 4,000 awards for gallantry, and 31 VCs. Australia, with a population of over 7,000,000 at the time, recruited over 1,000,000 men and women, 95,000 of whom were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. New Zealand made an effort proportionately equal, and suffered relatively larger causalities. Canada, with 40,000 dead, lost more men than either. In these six years of war, 512,000 men and women of the Commonwealth died, 400,000 of them from Great Britain.
If the value of contribution be measured solely by the incidence of death, other powers did far more for the downfall of the enemy. Russia is said to have sacrificed some 13,000,000 solders, and China 3,500,000. Nether less, the role of the Commonwealth was vital, not only in manpower and the provision of munitions and food, but also in determination and courage. It bore more than 50% of the shipping losses, compared with the 16% of the USA. The Royal Navy had many battle and losses in the Atlantic, the Channel and the Mediterranean, and in the almost suicidal convoys to Russia. America took the main brunt of the naval war in the Pacific.
One could ask: without the commonwealth contributions, could the Allies have won the First and Second World War? It is safe to say that they have done their bit over the years, and that the soldiers all deserve to be remembered and celebrated for their service.
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