In 2015 there are few reasons to stop at the French village of Neuve Chapelle.
Visitors who do make it this far are usually looking for one thing – the war memorial that stands at the edge of town.
Such memorials are not uncommon in this part of the world. They dot the landscape from the Channel to the Alps. But the one at Neuve Chapelle is unique, as it commemorates the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives in the First World War – a sacrifice that is all too often overlooked.
Up to 1.5 million men from pre-partition India fought for Britain during the conflict. All were volunteers, and more than 70,000 lost their lives.
Many of those casualties came at the Second Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which began a century ago today. The first organised British counter-offensive of the war, it was an early – and ultimately futile – attempt to break stalemate on the Western Front and push on towards Belgium.
If you could travel back 100 years and peer into the trenches at Neuve Chapelle, the faces staring back at you would look a lot like the high street of any modern British city. Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims from modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal standing and falling alongside men from every corner of the UK.
The diversity of the British trenches in 1915 provides an important lesson for British society in 2015. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what colour your skin is or which god you worship. It doesn’t matter whether your name is George or Mohamed or Ranjish or Mohinder. What matters is that, when our common values are under threat, we stand shoulder to shoulder in their defence. That we fight to protect what unites us rather than fighting over what sets us apart.
But for too long we have failed to teach that lesson. Children hearing about the heroes of the First World War are told about Albert Ball but not fellow Victoria Cross recipient Khudadad Khan. They study the beautiful poems of Siegfried Sassoon, but not those of Rabindranath Tagore.
This matters, because if we want modern British Asians to feel like they really have a stake in the future of this country, we have to show that they have a stake in its past.
So tonight, I’ll be joining hundreds of people at Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North to remember the heroes of Neuve Chapelle and begin a long-term project to take the story of the Indian Army out of the history books and into the heart of Britain’s Asian communities.
It will bring to life the selfless sacrifice of our forebears and remind us all of what made the men of the Indian Army great – their courage, their pride, and their willingness to set aside their differences in defence of what was right.
Those values are as vital today as they were a century ago, and we should never forget them – the dead of Neuve Chapelle deserve nothing less.
This blog was originally published as an opinion piece in today’s Times by Culture Secretary Sajid Javid.