Jasper Copping, Telegraph (London), January 9, 2014
Ministers have been accused of “social engineering” over their plans to mark the centenary of the First World War, by downplaying the role of Australian and New Zealand soldiers in favour of the contribution from New Commonwealth nations.
Critics claim the government is focusing on black and Asian servicemen from other parts of the British Empire, such as India, as well as Caribbean and West African nations, at the expense of the Anzac forces, along with those from Canada and South Africa.
They have accused British ministers of “political correctness” and a “whitewashing” of history.
It is the latest First World War row to embroil the government ahead of the centenary of the outbreak this summer.
Earlier this month, Michael Gove, the education secretary, triggered a political argument over who was to blame for starting the war, prompting interventions from, among others, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as well as Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.
The latest row follows a briefing to Australian journalists by Whitehall officials that no events were being planned to mark their country’s contribution and that internal discussions on the plans do not mention Australia or New Zealand. The briefing disclosed, instead, that officials were concentrating on promoting the role played by so-called New Commonwealth countries, those which achieved independence since 1945.
The countries singled out for promotion were India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, along with other west African nations. The reports state that this is to promote “community cohesion” in the UK.
The government source said: “There has been no mention of old Commonwealth Allies like Australia or New Zealand but more interest in celebrating the role from New Commonwealth countries. I think it’s fair to say Commonwealth ties are being frayed a little on this one.”
It has led to accusations in Australia of “blatant politicisation” of the anniversary, with the UK government accused of attempting to win “political and economic favour in multicultural Britain”.
Col Richard Kemp, a former officer in the British army and commentator, said: “This seems to be an attempt by the Government to use the centenary as a means of trying to appease large numbers of immigrants. But it shouldn’t be an exercise in political correctness or social engineering.
“Countries such as India and those in West Africa did make a significant contribution and we should certainly remember that. But we should not do so in the place of Australia and New Zealand.
“The contribution of those two countries, along with Canada and South Africa, towards the Allied victory was huge and they fought incredibly bravely, and made very, very immense sacrifices. “There should be a proper reflection that we owe our liberty, to a large extent, to them.”
Murray Rowlands, an British writer on the war, who was raised in New Zealand, said the contribution from the two Australasian nations “needs recognition”.
“There is nothing in David Cameron’s program of commemoration that mentions these countries. I have seen nothin on Canada or South Africa either. The old empire is being overlooked.” he said.
A total of 62,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders died in the First World War. Canada and Newfoundland–which was then separate–lost around 67,000 men, and South Africa, around 12,000 killed. British India, meanwhile, lost 74,000 men. Deaths from other British colonies have been put at 35,000.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) fought, most notably, during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, in 1915, when an assault was launched on the Ottoman Empire, in what is now Turkey. Despite its failure, the campaign is seen as an important step in the development of a national consciousness in Australia.
There was also notable contributions from the countries on the Western Front, and in other theatres, for instance, the Gaza campaign.
The Department For Culture, Media and Sport, which is coordinating the centenary plans, confirmed there were no plans to have any specific events recognising Australia’s contribution.
However, a spokesman denied accusations of a “whitewash”, adding: “The UK will be commemorating the huge contribution and sacrifices made by members of Armed Forces from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries and Allies in a wide range of centenary events throughout the 2014-2018 period.
“Helen Grant, Minister with responsibility for the First World War commemorations recently met the High Commissioners from New Zealand and Australia to discuss our plans. We are clear that Britain could not have prevailed without the contribution of our Commonwealth partners and our plans for the centenary will fully reflect that.”