How the Overseas Territories made it to the Cenotaph

By Craig Brewin, craig.brewin@fotbot.org

This year’s remembrance ceremony in London will be very different to those of previous years. It will go ahead, but the usual march will not. The British Legion has said that it is “encouraging people across the nations to ensure Remembrance Sunday is still marked appropriately by taking part in remote and socially distanced remembrance activity, whether that be watching the service on television or pausing for the Two Minute Silence in their home or on their doorsteps.” These arrangements are being mirrored in the Overseas Territories.

Although the Overseas Territories each have their own ceremonies, the ceremony in London has taken on a greater meaning since least last year. 2019 was the 100th Remembrance Day ceremony and for the first time the OT’s were, after a long campaign, allowed to place a wreath at the Cenotaph to commemorate their war dead. Since 2008 a wreath has been laid by the Foreign Secretary on their behalf, but after continuous lobbying, the OT’s, all of them, have finally been allowed to lay their own.

This is a big issue for many. The absence of the Overseas Territories at the ceremony had always been a major point of controversy, and the campaign to rectify this was started by Gibraltar nearly 20 years ago. Albert Poggio of Gibraltar’s London Office (and now a FOTBOT Trustee) wrote to the Foreign Office saying: “The overseas territories all played their own part in the war effort, particularly during the Second World War, and many of us have provided people for the British Armed Forces since. We have a right for our contribution to be recognised.”

However, the then Foreign Office minister Keith Vaz wrote to Poggio to say that, although the Government was “deeply indebted for Gibraltar’s contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom”, he would not change the rules. After the UK Overseas Territories Association became involved it was agreed that from 2008 a special wreath would be laid on behalf of all the OTs. However, there was controversy again when it was decided that it would be the British Foreign Secretary who would lay it. “Why should the Foreign Secretary lay the wreath on our behalf when we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves?” asked Poggio.

The wreath, which was green, was a magnificent creation. There were newly designed each year, and contained stems and flowers from each of the overseas territories. These were all taken from Kew Gardens and included Bermuda Juniper along with and Slipper Spurge from Anguilla; Snowberry from Bermuda; Beach Morning Glory from British Indian Ocean Territory; Croton from Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands; Old Father live-for-ever from St Helena and Tussock grass from the Falkland Islands.

But the campaign continued. In 2009 a cross-party group of 55 MPs, led by Andrew Rosindell (FOTBOT’s Parliamentrary Advisor) put down an early day motion in the House of Commons asking that each OT be allowed to “lay a wreath in their own right”. Still no changes were made, but Rosindell raised the issue again at the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry into the UK’s relationship with the OTs which began last year. The Committee said in its report, published last February, that “at the very least” the OTs should take it in turns to lay the wreath.

In response, the Foreign and Commonwealth said that “the UK Government fully recognises the sacrifices citizens of the Overseas Territories have made in several wars and very much values the contributions made. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is exploring with the relevant authorities whether and how OT representatives might be included.” Then, unexpectedly, it was announced that all OTs would each be invited to lay their own wreath that year, and they would be at the front of the line, immediately behind the UK politicians. An 18-year campaign finally come to fruition. Unfortunately this year, due to COVID, only one representative (from St Helena) was able to attend, and laid a wreath on behalf of all OTs (video below), but nevertheless the war dead of the Overseas Territories are now remembered in London, 100 years after these ceremonies began.