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The lives we Forgot to Remember

Posted by on August 7, 2014

In relation to the centenary of the Great War we were, as the Chairman reminded us, half way through the period of thirty seven days between the gunshot that killed Archduke Franz Josef and the outbreak of full scale hostilities.

We were at the British Library for an evening panel discussion on The Forgotten Soldiers. Our panel comprised  Santanu Das and Jennifer Wellington of Kings College London, David Killigray of Goldsmith’s College and Stellenbosch University, and David Olusoga, presenter of the BBC television series ‘The World’s War.’ All have researched extensively in a range of former British dominions and colonies, and particularly the First World War’s impact on their peoples.

The statistics are astonishing. When war broke out, one quarter of the whole of humanity lived in the British Empire. An imperial war inevitably became a global war. We shall never know exactly how many men from the British dominions and colonies were mobilised during the War. Estimates range from 4 to 5 million. In addition, many women and children were recruited as labourers in the war effort.

We remember the famous expedition of the Australians and New Zealanders to Gallipoli, and the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. The British Dominions contributed 1.3 million men to fight in the War. However, the largest colonial contingent came from India, where 1.4 million men enlisted, 1 million of them serving outside the Indian continent. Lutyens’ massive India Gate memorial in Delhi commemorates 70,000 of those who lost their lives, and indicates the geographical spread of their involvement. The inscription reads:

‘To the Dead of the Indian Armies Who Fell Honoured in France and Flanders Mesopotamia and Persia East Africa Gallipoli and Elsewhere in the Near and Far East…’

The British Army used one million Africans in East Africa, mainly as carriers. At least 20 per cent died, mainly from disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. A further 83,000 black and coloured South Africans were recruited into the Native Labour Corps for service in Europe and South West Africa.

The ethnic mix of British merchant shipping crews is largely invisible in official records. British merchant (and naval) ships had a long tradition of employing crewmen from the Caribbean, Arabia,

Aboriginal member of the Canadian Forestry Corps in the UK

Aboriginal member of the Canadian Forestry Corps in the UK

Somalia, Zanzibar, West Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Malaya and China. About 15,000 of 155,000 personnel in the merchant and fishing fleets died during the War, but where are the Asian, Arab and African names on maritime war memorials?

Recruitment went beyond the official Empire. The British and French employed 145,000 contract Chinese labourers in Europe, the British having rejected the Chinese government’s offer of Chinese troops. More than 20,000 of them were killed on the battlefields, or died through illness or the arduous work. The 93,000 contracted by the British were not known by names, only by the serial numbers on the bolted iron tags they wore.

We can ask many questions about why the war participation of non-white colonial people has suffered neglect in public memory, both in Britain and in the former dominions and colonies themselves. In part, the lack of general literacy can explain the relative absence of letters, diaries and memoirs.  Deliberate decision making was also involved. Take, for example, the Imperial War Graves Commission’s decision that ‘Negroes in West Indian Regiments’ were to be ‘commemorated individually when buried in East Africa’; whilst for the native Africans a policy of ‘no individual commemoration’ was to be followed. As Santanu Das reminded us:  “In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a returned soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished….As former colonies became nation states, nationalist narratives replaced imperial war memories. Stories that did not fit were airbrushed.”

So, as we discover our own family’s photographs, letters, diaries and service records, or trace the names on our local war memorials, perhaps we might also allow other lives into our cultural memory;  the millions of seldom identified men and women of the British Empire who were caught up in the Great War.

Annie Hedington

2 Responses to The lives we Forgot to Remember

  1. Nicola Stevens

    Annie – what a powerful piece you have written. Thank you for all the fascinating information – one never stops learning!

  2. Diana Devlin

    Watched David Olusoga’s first programme. Fascinating. This business of airbrushing some races right out of the picture reminds me of ‘Nulla Terra’ – meaning land empty of people – which is how the first white Australians referred to the centre of their continent, wiping out of their consciousness the whole Aborigine population.

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