Ruchira Kamboj, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of India to UNESCO, hosted a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I (1914-1918) on 11 December at UNESCO’s Headquarters.
We are not here to debate the rights and wrongs of the past, but to commemorate the often, forgotten supreme sacrifice of millions of soldiers who came from the four corners of the world to fight in World War I, said Ambassador Kamboj. She also stressed the need to understand the past to avoid repeating its mistakes.
Organized by the Permanent Delegation of India with the support of the Delegations of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the commemoration opened and closed to the sound of the French Last Post (la Sonnerie aux morts) played by a French Republican Guard.
Representing the Director-General of UNESCO, ADG Eric Falt spoke of a duty to remember World War I, often referred to as the Great War, which, he said, “was more sad than it was great. […] Understanding its legacy is an initiation to peace. Safeguarding its documentary resources and handing them down through education and culture contributes to building the defenses of peace in the minds of men and women. UNESCO’s mission is to draw on the power of education, culture and art to transcend memory, overcome hatred and build peace,” he said.
In their remarks, the Ambassadors of the six countries that supported the event agreed on the need to remember and understand World War, which affected profound and lasting changes on the world, notably on the territories ruled by Britain and France.
Indian writer and military historian Rana Tej Pratap Singh Chhina then took the floor to describe India’s participation in World War I alongside Britain: One million soldiers were sent to fight on virtually every front and enormous financial resources were made available. This had a profound effect on the country’s national consciousness, leading up to the emergence of its independence movement, he said.
French historian, Yves Le Maner, also spoke of the effect that the recruitment of soldiers from north and sub-Saharan Africa had on the French colonies. In his presentation, he examined the complex issue of racism and how it was affected by the arrival to Europe of a large number of soldiers from Africa, the Arab Region and Asia, bringing into contact populations that had never met before.
Le Maner also noted that the soldiers who came to Europe from different regions of the world were followed by the first arrival to Europe of a wave of immigrant workers from overseas. He said that while non-European soldiers had generally been well received by French civilians, immigrant workers were largely rejected, notably by trade unions, as unfair competitors.
The event was an opportunity for Permanent Delegations, UNESCO staff and visiting school students to get an idea of the complex events of World War I and their enduring impact on the nations of the world. It was also an occasion, as Ambassador Komboj said at the close of the ceremony “to honour unsung heroes who gave up their tomorrows for our todays.”