Commemorating the sacrifices of five million Commonwealth forces 75 years after VJ Day

A solemn Monday morning on 9 March at the Memorial Gates in Constitution Hill saw a gathering of eminent community leaders to commemorate the sacrifices of the five million servicemen and women from the Commonwealth countries who had served during the First and Second World Wars along with the Royal Armed Forces.

This year, the Commonwealth Day marked the 75 years of the Victory over Japan or VJ Day, the notable date on which Imperial Japan surrendered to the joint forces of men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The event commenced with the arrival of the Queen’s Guard on horseback. After which, Lord Karan Bilimoria, the Chairman of the Memorial Gates, delivered an address and welcome speech to begin the memorial service.

The Queens Guard arrive at the Commonwealth Day Commemoration Ceremony

In his opening speech he spoke about the Memorial Gates being inaugurated in 2002 and how every year the event is organised to come together and remember the sacrifices of the commonwealth. “Her Majesty the Queen inaugurated these gates in 2002 and every year since then we’ve had a commemoration ceremony, to remember the service and sacrifice of the five million volunteers, and please note volunteers, who served in the First and Second World Wars from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean,” he said.

“This ceremony takes a huge amount of effort and we have a council, our life President Baroness Flather who is always here every year, sadly cannot be with us this year because she is unwell… And it is a tradition, when we have this ceremony, that the Bishop of London my friend Richard Chartres always say the prayers at this ceremony and I’m so happy that his successor the Bishop of London is with us here today. So thank you.”

The Chairman Lord Bilimoria delivers the opening address

He mentioned the efforts of Baroness Flather, the Lifetime President of the Memorial Gates Council, nearly two decades ago, and her relentless efforts without which these gates would not exist. “I am particularly grateful to Lord Ahmad, the Minister of all of the Commonwealth, one of the most respected members of the House of Lords. Thank you for your support for the Commonwealth which we greatly appreciate.” He also mentioned working closer with the Royal British Legions and Lord Jitesh Gadhia,

The Chief Guest was Johnny Mercer MP, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, a former soldier having served in the Commandos and the Artillery of the Royal Armed Forces. A crusader of mental health issues, defence, and veterans, Mercer gave a moving speech about how the soldiers from Canada to Caribbean, from New Zealand to Nepal, Australia to East Africa fought side by side not because they shared the same cap badge, or the same colour, or the same creed but because they were united in the single shared cause, the cause of freedom.

Johnny Mercer MP, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans

“Today we don’t just remember the deeds of the days gone by, we reflect on their legacy. A legacy embodied in the Commonwealth itself. 54 member nations, uniting 2.4 billion people, representing a fifth of all global trade, an organisation that over the decades has remained a global force for good. Fighting poverty, helping end apartheid, stopping violence, supporting good governance; in a more dangerous world, let the values of the Commonwealth shine brighter and our ties draw ever tighter, because we share a deeper conviction.”

The Bishop of London, Rt Rev and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally, DBE who said it was an honour to be present at the ceremony to commemorate the sacrifice and contribution of 5 million volunteers from Africa and the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent. “Freedom never comes cheaply. Jesus says ‘Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their lives for ones’ friends’. The challenge for us is to ensure our future is indeed greater than our past. So let us pray to God as we give thanks for the sacrifice of those that have given their lives for our freedom. Let us give thanks for the Commonwealth and pray that our future may be better and stronger together and that there may be peace. Amen,” she said.

This was followed by a minute of silence and then the presentation of wreaths. The music at the event was provided by the Band of the Irish Guards. 

Representing His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales was Field Marshal Sir John Chapple. He laid the wreath on behalf of HRH The Prince of Wales.  The Field Marshal was followed by representatives from the Embassies, High Commissions and the UK military, and the Regimental Associations and organisations who laid the wreath, representing the diverse communities from which those who helped to defend our freedom have come.

The assembled guests including Lord Ahmad, Lord Gadhia, Baroness Varma, HC Mrs Ghanashyam, HC Mrs Tasneem

There were wreath layers from many of the countries who served in the wars, including Mrs Ruchi Ghanashyan (India), Counsellor Minister Carol Lee-Lea (Jamaica), Lt Col Shanonnizam Sulaiman (Brunei), and Brig. Gen Sydney Linyama (Malawi). Air Vice Marshal Warren James was there to lay a wreath on behalf of the Armed Forces.

At present the Life President is The Baroness Flather JP DL FRSA, the Patrons are Field Marshal Sir John Chapple GCB CBE DL, Field Marshal The Lord Inge KG GCB PC DL, Field Marshal The Lord Guthrie GCB LVO OBE. The Chairman is  The Lord Bilimoria CBE DL and the Vice Chairman is Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter KCVO OBE DL.

The Members are Mr Praveen Moman, Mr Paul Chambers, Dr Richard Evans MBE MPhil, The Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Dr Andrew Thompson, Mr Avtar Bahra, Lt Col Tim Coles MBE, Ms Gerardine Hogarth, Dr Yasmin Khan, Ms Sue Liburd MBE, Ashok Kumar Chauhan MBE, Major Mani Rai MBE, Mr Dinesh Dhamija, Ms Nina Maan, The Lord Gadhia, The Lord Ranger CBE, Mr Mark Wasilewski MVO, Mr Rohan Subbarao.

The Memorial Gates located at the Hyde Park Corner are a war memorial bearing an inscription quoted from the Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri: “Our future is greater than our past.” There are two stone slabs on either sides of the pavilion on the Green Park side with inscriptions of the campaigns in which forces from the British Empire fought. It also bears a list of those awarded the George Cross or Victoria Cross in the two World Wars.

The  inaugural patron of the Trust was Prince Charles, and the inaugural trustees were Lord Inge, Lord Sandberg, Visciunt Slim, Neil Thorne, Lord Weatherill, Baroness Flather, Khalid Aziz, Lakshmi Niwas Mittal, Harpinder Singh Narula, Gulam Noor, and Anwar Parvez. The construction of the Memorial Gates began on 1 August 2001 by Liam O’Connor Architects and Planning Consultants and were funded by the Millennium Commission and National Lottery. The Gates were inaugurated on the 6 November 2002 by Queen Elizabeth II with an inscription stating that this took place in the Golden Jubilee Year of her reign.

Smita is a multi-cultural freelance journalist, writer, and filmmaker based out of the US, London, Hong Kong, and India. Global Indian Stories is her brain-child. Created to chronicle diaspora stories written by Indians of all age groups, from different walks of life across the globe, Smita makes sure that the platform remains inclusive and positive.