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Navy & Air Advisor, British High Commission, Pakistan

Part of UK in Pakistan

4th August 2014 Islamabad, Pakistan

WW1 Centenary – Pakistan’s Right to Commemorate

This is my first blog for the High Commission and a quick look at the archives tells me that it’s the first time in a long time that a member of the Defence Team has rolled up his sleeves and ‘put fingers to keyboard’. So when Alison Blake, our Deputy High Commissioner, asked me to write this blog, I jumped at the chance to put our team on the scoreboard.

Today, representatives from across the Commonwealth will assemble in Scotland’s Glasgow Cathedral to signal the official start of four years of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War (1914-18). Some readers might quickly conclude that, as a military man, it’s predictable that I should want to highlight the event. But the reason I took up the challenge so readily was that it gives me the chance to dwell on the question of why a conflict, fought mainly between European powers a century ago, should matter to modern Pakistan.


Ten days from now we will celebrate Pakistan’s birth in 1947. So how can a conflict that ended 29 years before the nation’s creation be relevant to Pakistan in 2014? The answer lies less in the narrative of the nation’s history since 1947 and more in the social history of the people of this soil. As we know, in 1914 what is now Pakistan was part of (then British) India. But Pakistan’s regions, the majority of its towns and villages and more importantly its people when taken together, create a link to a much longer timeline.

For at least one of Pakistan’s modern institutions, this history is even more ‘hard wired’. For many regiments in Pakistan’s Army, the First World War is but one chapter in a celebrated history stretching back, in some cases, some 160 years or more. Indeed, no history of Britain and the Commonwealth in the First World War would be complete without noting the huge contribution made by regiments drawn from the Punjab, Baluchistan, NWFP and elsewhere in what then constituted northern India. What makes the accounts of the soldiers from these regiments even more remarkable is their sense of duty, good cheer and willingness to brave the challenges of fighting in appalling conditions thousands of miles from home in an often cold and wet Europe. One can only try and imagine what it must have been like for a young sepoy, from a small village in rural Punjab or Baluchistan, to be sent to fight in a foreign land half a world away for a cause that would have been hard to fathom. That such a soldier did so, along with thousands of his comrades, bears an enduring testament not only to their strength of character and undoubted bravery but also to their strength of faith, from which they drew great solace. And the numbers are staggering. By 1916 the Punjab alone was generating some 50,000 new recruits a year for the British Indian Army. Even as early as 1914, such was the contribution from this part of pre-partition India that nearly 64% of the entire Indian Army of 161,000 was drawn from just 3 regions – the Punjab, NWFP and Nepal. By the war’s end in 1918, nearly 1.3 million men from across India had volunteered for service, with some 74,000 paying the ultimate price.

What today – and the many events being organised globally over the next four years – offers us then is a chance to reflect on events and sacrifices of a century ago that helped shape the modern world. For our part, the British High Commission is committed to working with a number of institutions here over the next four years to ensure that this history – which may well include your family’s history ­– is rediscovered, reconnected to and remembered. For example, did you know that the first division to be sent to Europe from India in 1914 was the Lahore Division? Not only was it the first of the many that were to follow, but no sooner did it arrive than it was thrown into the infamous and very bloody Battle of Ypres. It was at this battle that the honour of being the first Indian recipient of the Victoria Cross in any conflict, went to Sepoy Khudadad Khan (from Dab in Chakwal District), then serving in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis Regiment. Readers from Rawalpindi might have seen his statue outside the main entrance of the new Pakistan Army Museum. As for the significance of the conflict for the modern world, that subject is still keenly debated by historians, but it’s probably safe to say that its echoes are still with us.

So, to its importance we can also add its relevance, and in telling its story we shouldn’t forget the part played by Pakistan’s brave forebears.

6 comments on “WW1 Centenary – Pakistan’s Right to Commemorate

  1. Dear Col. Steven Francis, Congratulations on this most fascinating blog. I feel it is very important to raise awareness of Pakistan’s significant participation in World War 1. Please click on the below link to read the WW1 history of Dulmial village, which was presented with a British Army cannon in 1925:


    Dr Irfan Malik
    Nottingham, England

  2. Very well written . Could Col StevanFrancis and the Deputy High Commissioner consider posting more of such articles?!

  3. My Great Great Grandfather Sardar Bahadur Rahim khan 107th pioneers Indian join in year 1876 1913-London Gazeete 02/09/1904& 20/05/1914 . Him only son my Great Grandfather Subadar Hashmat Dad Khan died on 22/10/1915in France world war one

  4. My Great Grandfather star of world war one Bahadur Hashmat dad Khan 107th pioneers Indian died on 22/10/1915in France orade of British India & I D S M, London Gazeete 17/02/1915-18-02-1915-23-02-1915

  5. Dear Sir,

    Enjoyed reading it. Well done. It was a tough ask by Deputy High Commission keeping your trade in view :).



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About stevenfrancis

Colonel Steve Francis is the Navy & Air Advisor at the British High Commission in Islamabad.

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