Until very recently, the contribution of people from the former colonies to the two world wars has largely been relegated to the sub-text of mainstream coverage. Studied by specialist historians, and occasionally acknowledged by specific events and commemorations, the subject has all too often been consigned to a footnote in contemporary accounts and in subsequent books and studies.
Given the numbers involved, this amounts to a significant gap in our understanding of the two world wars. In the region of one and a half million Indians served in the First World War of whom 80,000 lost their lives. Over 15,000 men from the Caribbean served with the allied forces. The peoples of the former Empire also played a significant role in the Second World War: the Indian Army grew to be the largest volunteer force ever, with two and a half million soldiers. 370,000 Africans fought — 90,000 travelling to Burma to fight in the war against Japan.
Whose Remembrance? is an AHRC-funded Imperial War Museum project, funded through the Connected Communities programme, which aims to help restore this unfairly forgotten history to its rightful place in our consciousness - an investigation into the state of research into the experiences of the peoples of Britain’s former empire in the wars and its availability to 21st-century British audiences and communities.
“Whose Remembrance? asks searching questions about how history is constructed and handed down,” says Suzanne Bardgett, Head of Research at Imperial War Museums (IWM).
“We remember the mainstream story, but the people who wrote the history of the two world wars came from the officer class. There are far fewer personal accounts by colonial troops, and as a result, their stories have not formed part of an ‘official’ history.
“It is only relatively recently that society has become interested in the stories of ordinary people and realised that everybody’s story counts. Today we see a more intelligent and inclusive attitude to the stories of the black and ethnic minorities.”
“But recovering these experiences is hard. We actually know very little about what it was like to live as a labourer on the Western Front or to travel from Jamaica to work on Britain’s home front. Whose Remembrance? aims to address that.”
The project consisted of two phases. During the first, which ran between February and October 2013, researchers worked on creating three databases: work published by academics and community historians during the last 30 years; exhibitions and resources developed by museums and cultural organisations; and cultural outputs including films, documentaries, novels and plays.
There were also two successful workshops at the IWM — one for historians, and one for museum professionals, community workers and representatives, which began the process of reaching out to the wider community.
“The workshops gave everyone a platform to exchange ideas about what they’d been doing in this area, and were an invaluable way of identifying new sources and approaches, as well as the problems of accessing such a dispersed body of evidence’,” says Suzanne.
The second phase was the production of a specially-commissioned film — with £26,000 of further AHRC funding - summarising the study’s findings, which is now being used as a way of reaching out to the wider community.
The film was given a special screening at a House of Commons reception in November 2013, hosted by Diane Abbott MP, who said the Whose Remembrance? project has been crucial in filling a major gap in history.
“The contribution of BME troops in the world wars is a vital part of community history but also serves in showing the extent to which BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people have played a role in building Britain,” she added.
Many of the resources catalogued in the Whose Remembrance? databases reflect a growing awareness of this legacy in Britain’s multi-cultural communities. Patrick Vernon, founder of Every Generation Media, collaborated with Haringey Library Services on Speaking out and Standing Firm, a multi-media project based on young people’s interviews with African and Caribbean war veterans in the borough.
“The biggest challenge was to track down and convince these veterans that their stories would be valued and recognised by the young people,” says Patrick. “For many reasons, they had not told their stories before. Like so many men and women in the past, they often faced post-service resettlement problems, with the added complication of prejudice. So they had the double whammy of racism and simply being ignored”.
But the sixth formers at Alexandra Park School were captivated by their stories, and that led to interesting discussions about different types of conflict, why these veterans had joined up and whether they would do it again in the present age.”
According to Patrick, Whose Remembrance? is an important reminder of how people from different parts of the Commonwealth have contributed to the country’s history. It reveals a rich heritage and a relevant history to young African, Caribbean and Asian people, and other ethnic minorities, often for the first time.
Free public screenings of the Whose Remembrance? film have taken place at King’s College and the Whitechapel Idea Store in London, the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with Luton Culture, IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester, and in Hackney, London in partnership with Hackney Council and the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network (BEMA).
Project Officer Dave Graves, from Wardown Park Museum in Luton, says the project is a great way to engage people across a diverse community like Luton with a heritage that everybody shares. “The screening was the perfect event for a small organisation like us to piggyback on the work done by the IWM and generate awareness.”
Suzanne Bardgett says it would have been impossible to do this rich and inspiring project without the AHRC funding.
“From insights into the experiences of the Chinese or South African labour corps, to letters that reveal what life was like for Indians in Mesopotamia, to a recording of an Indian soldier singing in a German prisoner of war camp, Whose Remembrance? has highlighted many little patches of dense, fascinating material and these can help us reconstruct the colonial soldier’s experience,” she says.
Suzanne points out, however, that the project is just the starting point for an ongoing journey of discovery.
“It was very exciting to see the fruits of the project emerging through the film, but it’s a film about the ‘doing’ of history rather than the ‘making’ of history — that has yet to be made. Our hope is that Whose Remembrance? will make the future interpretation of history a more complete and inclusive process.”
Article by Piers Ford