Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The marches are over. The Last Post has sounded. Across the UK, beneath war memorials, red wreaths flutter in the breeze. Little wooden crosses stand to attention, each proudly wearing a poppy like a campaign medal, keeping watch until next year’s annual festival of remembrance.
The commemorations of 2018 will live long in the memory. Coming a century after the guns fell silent across Europe, they took on an extra resonance as we came together to remember and honour the sacrifice of our armed forces.
The focus of these events was rightly on the centenary of the armistice and the men who fought in the Great War. However, it’s vital that we ensure the act of remembrance remains relevant, by inspiring real, practical help for today’s veterans while reflecting the diversity of modern Britain.
The Government is doing its part, by launching a UK-wide strategy to support veterans and doubling mental health funding.
But it can never be enough. We must match this ambition at a regional level.
That means creating initiatives that deliver locally to help today’s veterans in practical ways.
And in the diverse Britain of the 21st Century, we must build on the sense of togetherness seen on Remembrance Sunday, by recognising the contribution made by brave personnel from all backgrounds.
There are 76,000 veterans living in the West Midlands, all of whom will have made the difficult move back to civilian life. It is our duty to help them make that transition and, crucially, to find work on civvy street.
That’s because it is a sad truth that the UK has a “veteran employment gap”. Former service personnel of working age are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as those in the UK general population. An estimated 120,000 veterans are unemployed nationwide.
Here in the West Midlands I have launched two programmes to support our veterans.
Firstly, my successful Mayor’s Mentors programme, which supports 1,300 young people across the West Midlands, is being rolled out to help members of the armed forces who are moving back to civilian life. Mayor’s Mentors for Veterans is recruiting business mentors to support individuals for 12 months, providing friendship, ideas and contacts to help them back into the workplace.
Secondly, we are starting a new programme that recognises the clear skills our veterans have – the qualities of teamwork and leadership imbued by life in our armed forces– and then applying them to our further education and training colleges.
Colleges often struggle to recruit teachers and trainers with the expertise to teach construction. This scheme will enable veterans to become trainers in construction skills, vital for our region’s future.
Schemes like these address the needs of veterans, complementing the great British tradition of remembrance with practical support.
That tradition, of course, has been nurtured for almost 100 years by the Royal British Legion, whose Poppy Appeal provides help for veterans. While the great annual civic events of remembrance retain a link to the Legion’s origins, new ways of honouring the fallen can help keep the tradition alive.
In Aldridge, in the West Midlands, the residents of Station Road united to transform 100 of their homes with 24,000 red poppies. The road, which a century ago saw 56 of its residents serve, was rechristened Poppy Road for the project, which attracted visitors from miles around. Sixteen of the homes displayed a black silhouette of a soldier, indicating how a resident failed to return from the war.
Today’s West Midlands is a tremendously diverse place, much more so than it was 100 years ago when the men of Station Road marched off to war. Yet many do not realise that the Allied forces that served alongside them in the Great War were equally diverse, with troops drawn from across the Commonwealth.
By recognising this diversity we can build on the sense of unity of last weekend’s events and ensure the British tradition of remembrance remains relevant in modern Britain.
For instance, more than 70,000 soldiers from the British Indian Army died in the Great War. During my recent trade mission to India I visited the India Gate, which bears the names of 13,000 men who gave their lives.
In Smethwick, in the Black Country, a bronze statue of a Sikh soldier has been unveiled, honouring service personnel of all faiths from the Indian subcontinent who fought for Britain during World War One.
It has been widely reported that this new memorial has already been vandalised, but the powerful condemnation of this reprehensible act – from all sides of the community – reveals the true nature of our wonderfully diverse region, while reflecting the dogged determination of the brave men the statue remembers.
I am also working with members of the Caribbean community in the West Midlands to raise funds to erect a suitable tribute to the 16,000 men of the British West Indies Regiment who fought at Passchendaele, Ypres and Poelcappelle.
Our aim is to unveil this memorial at the one place in the West Midlands where remembrance is a daily pursuit. The National Memorial Arboretum, in Alrewas, is home to 360 monuments including the Armed Forces Memorial, which bears the name of every serviceman or woman killed since 1945.
The dozens of regimental and naval monuments there stand next to memorials to Jewish, Sikh and Indian servicemen and women, as well as the Gurkhas. It is only right that the bravery of the Caribbean community is recognised too.
It is my hope that in future a rail line will run from Birmingham, through Lichfield to a dedicated station at the arboretum, so many more can experience this deeply moving place.
A century on from the trauma of the Great War, we are still finding ways to recognise those who fought. Indeed, the UK’s proud tradition of honouring the armed forces lives on in today’s diverse and modern society, inspired by their memories.
By complementing that tradition with practical schemes that help 21st century personnel, we are creating a legacy of which I hope any First World War Tommy would approve.