British PM Theresa May to Wear Khadi Poppy on her Lapel to Honour Indian Soldiers Killed In WWI
Indian Cricket Team Captain Virat Kohli (L) and England Cricket Team Captain Joe Root (R) wear a khadi poppy on their lapels. (Photo: Twitter)

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday said she would join a number of other members of the British Parliament in wearing a khadi poppy in honour of the Indian soldiers killed during World War I.

The Poppy Appeal is an annual British fundraising campaign for war veterans held in the lead up to Armistice Day on November 11, 1918 when the World War I came to an end. Politicians and members of the public across the UK and other commonwealth countries wear a cloth-made poppy flower on their coat/jacket lapels as a sign of respect for those killed in the war.

A khadi version of the poppy was launched by Indian-origin peer Lord Jitesh Gadhia and the Royal British Legion for the first time this year as an "evocative symbol" of undivided India's contribution to the war effort.

The British PM was addressing a question by Conservative Party MP Tom Tugendhat, himself a former Army officer, if she would join him in wearing a khadi poppy. "I would like to congratulate the Royal British Legion and Lord Gadhia for recognising this special contribution with the khadi poppy and I will certainly be interested in wearing a khadi poppy as we lead up to Armistice Day," May said.

"Over 74,000 soldiers came from undivided India and lost their lives; 11 of them won the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery and played a crucial role in the war across multiple continents," said May, during her weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

She agreed that the gesture would recognise the "vital contribution" made by soldiers from around the Commonwealth, including India.

The Khadi poppy was inaugurated this year by Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli and his counterpart Joe Root at the start of the fifth test match between the two teams.

Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee which is currently conducting a "Global Britain and India" inquiry into India-UK ties, told Parliament that the "home-spun cotton reminds us of “Gandhi's and India's contribution to the war effort" and is a vital reminder of the UK's links to India.

The MP will be on a tour of India this weekend, during which he said he would lay a wreath in New Delhi to pay "tribute not only to our own war dead from this country but to those 3 million who came from the Commonwealth to serve in the cause of freedom".

Earlier this year, the Royal British Legion had announced that the massive contribution of Commonwealth forces 100 years ago, particularly from undivided India, would be a key focus during this year's 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

More than 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the Great War across continents and Indians also made a generous financial contribution of over 20 billion pounds in today's money, as well as providing 3.7 million tonnes of supplies, over 10,000 nurses and 170,000 animals to the war effort. India contributed a number of divisions and brigades to the European, Mediterranean, Mesopotamian, North African and East African theatres of war. In Europe, Indian soldiers were among the first victims who suffered the horrors of the trenches. They were killed in droves before the war was into its second year and bore the brunt of many a German offensive.

It was Indian jawans (junior soldiers) who stopped the German advance at Ypres in the autumn of 1914, soon after the war broke out, while the British were still recruiting and training their own forces. Hundreds were killed in a gallant but futile engagement at Neuve Chappelle. More than 1,000 of them died at Gallipoli, thanks to Churchill's folly. Nearly 700,000 Indian sepoys (infantry privates) fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally, many of them Indian Muslims taking up arms against their co-religionists in defence of the British Empire.

"The figures alone don't do justice to the human dimension. These were predominantly young men, who had travelled thousands of miles by ship from their homeland to fight a distant war," the charity notes.

"The khadi poppy is a hugely symbolic and highly appropriate gesture to recognise the outsized contribution of Indian soldiers during World War I," adds Lord Gadhia.

Armistice Day, which refers to the armistice treaty signed by the Allies and Germany in France on November 11, 1918, is marked annually in an elaborate wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph in central London led by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as other smaller events around the country. (With PTI inputs)