Thank you for inviting me to take part in this commemoration. I thank the Permanent Mission of India, and of Belgium, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, for making this gathering possible.
The world must never forget the roll-call of carnage of the First World War.
Let us also remember that although the so-called “Great War” was fought in Europe, soldiers came from all over the world.
India, then part of the British Empire, provided more than 1 million men. More than 60,000 died in action, along with so many others from Africa, Asia and Europe. All too often, the histories ignore this enormous sacrifice.
Many volunteered because the regular pay that came with a life in uniform was a strong attraction and an alternative to poverty. But it was not long before the murderous realities of war began to seep in.
As a Garhwali soldier wrote home in early 1915: “The bullets and cannon balls come down like snow. The mud is up to a man’s middle. The distance between us and the enemy is fifty paces… The numbers that have fallen cannot be counted”.
The League of Nations rose from the mud and ashes of the First World War. Tragically, it could not prevent the other conflagration of the 20th century. After the Second World War, the United Nations emerged as the next best hope for beating swords into ploughshares.
Our organization thus traces its lineage directly back to Flanders Fields. As we prepare to observe the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations next year, we recall that the opening words of the UN Charter make explicit reference to war having brought great sorrow to humankind “twice in our lifetime”.
The world’s current conflicts, each unto themselves, may pale in comparison to the two World Wars. But in at least one respect the tragedy is just as profound: by now, we should know better. One would think that, having suffered Verdun and Gallipoli, and having witnessed Auschwitz and Hiroshima, humankind would have had enough of such bloodshed. Alas, yesterday’s terrible lessons remain to be learned fully.
I welcome the release of a special edition of the publication, "War Memorials from around the World". Memorials play an important role. They are points of pilgrimage. They are fitting tributes to valour and sacrifice.
I hope the images on display here tonight and in the pages of this publication will prompt further reflection not only on the wars of the past, but on the multiple crises we face today. May all those who fell in the First World War continue to rest in peace.