This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18, which is the video and transcript of the public event which took place at SOAS on September 18th 2014. Links to previous posts and the series as a whole can be found here. Many thanks to our speakers Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp for their contributions, as well as the audience for their incisive questions.
M = Meera Sabaratnam
C = Charles Tripp
H = Dr Hakim Adi
P = Parmjit Singh
CP = Catriona Pennell
MS = Martin Spafford
M: Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.
And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.
C: Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.
But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions.
In Syrian and the Iraqi provinces of the Ottoman Empire you have a powerful notion of local autonomy which some people have interpreted retrospectively as a Syrian and Iraqi nationalism. But I wouldn’t go far but certainly a sense of particularity, a sense that there was a story there that was not being taken account of by the Ottomans themselves. And in Tunisia, the French occupation of 1881 had led to understandably, not simply notions of anticolonial thought but republican thought against the Bay of Tunis, against the dynasty that had controlled it. So there’s this very powerful sense of sometimes republicanism, very often republicanism emerging against the local dynasts that were part of the landscape in the Middle East. But this was wound up and bound up with a strong notion of anti-imperialism, and partly because of course many of these dynasts were maintained in power by imperial forces, whether it was the Bay of Tunis, the Hadith in Egypt or indeed to some extent the Ottoman Sultan as well. So you have again in Egypt and in Iran, movements against the foreign support for local despotism, the Constitutional Revolution Iran, the Tobacco Protest, the various ways in which a local history is being made.
And of course in Syria and Iraq, Arab nationalism, secret societies in the army and in the civil society against Ottoman domination. In Libya of course a war against the Italian occupiers of 1911. So if you looked at the Middle East before the First World War, it was a period of extraordinary potential, an extraordinary movement of political thought in the direction of creating a proper form of self-determination. What happens then of course is the second stage, that is the war itself and what that unleashes upon the Middle East, largely in the form of British armies of occupation in one place and another. And again an understandable but certainly an imperial drive to use local power instrumentally, both informally or indirectly to create empire through the use of local forces. And ironically much of this is done in the name of nation building and self-determination. But of course it wasn’t the self-determination that was emerging throughout the Middle East before the First World War. So on the one hand you have this creation of an interventionism which is justified in terms of building the nation, the modern nation, in terms of the self-determination of the peoples of the Middle East itself. But something else is going on as well which is of course the creation of a hierarchal and authoritarian structure of the state.
So two main effects of this, of the exercise of largely British military power and administrative power throughout the First World War into what it leads to is on the one hand the suppression of the activist citizen. And the recreation of the subject, which is a very powerful part of the story of the Middle East during this period. And the second is laying the foundation as it were, capturing that subject in what I call the dual state. A state that on the one hand has public institutions justified in terms of their dedication to the nation’s [unclear – 0:08:16] but a shadow state behind it which actually runs along the lines of patronage, violence and repression. And that’s the colonial model effectively, which begins to emerge. And you see this in both the course of the war and of course in the post-war settlements across the region itself. During the course of the war what’s interesting is how the allies, both the British, the French, the Italians and to some extent the Russians when they were still in the game, initiate military campaigns that are obviously imperial intent but then use, what I would call, marginals and conspirators to ensure that the heartland of the Middle East is conquered.
What I mean by that, if you look at the British record of what was their notion of mobilising people in the region, of the region, to help their campaign against the Ottoman Empire, it was to mobilise the Hashemites in the Hejaz, which are a dynastic force which claims dissent from the prophet Muhammad T E Lawrence, the Arab Revolt and all that. And to mobilise the Al Saud in Nejd in Arabia. These were marginal forces and yet they were made central planks of British Imperial admission for a very good reason, because they would be wholly dependent on the British thereafter. So there was a sense in which patronage was being created, not to create citizens, but to create subjects. The British also cultivated the Secret Society in the Ottoman Army, the al-‘Ahd of the Arab nationalists. And again only conspired with them if they linked themselves to the Hashemites. In Iran the British supported Reza Khan and the Cossack Brigade, nominally to defend the Qajar Empire against the Soviet Bolshevik Revolution, but in fact eventually to take over that empire in the name of an Iranian military. Tribal leaders were cultivated precisely again because they seemed to confirm for the British, a notion of so called natural authority which the British of course had then created.
And I can argue also the Zionist movement was again a movement from the outside that was seen as an instrument of British power for a whole series of, if you like, ideological but also somewhat racist and Eurocentric notions of European colonisation of Palestine. And of course none of this had any reference to any of the peoples who lived in the areas where this was happening. So the marginals were brought in by the British armies, the marginals and the external forces were brought in through the power of the British and of course it led to the British and French and Russian, at that stage, division of the region in the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. So what I’m trying to argue therefore is that when you look at the way in which the British were acting in the region, they were acting precisely through those social instruments that they thought would then tally with an idea of imperial power. What they didn’t want was to create and to revive the very forces that had been so active and so promising, one might argue, before the First World War itself. And so that leads finally to the post-war settlements. It’s not really surprising that the post-war settlements in this guise are met by universal revolt.
If you think 2011 was a year of revolts spreading across the Arab world, you should look at 1919-1920, 1919 the Egyptian Revolution, 1920 the Iraqi Revolution, 1920 the Palestinian Nebi Musa anti-Zionist riots. In 1920 the rebellions were so great in Libya that the Italians finally had to do a deal with Idris Senussi and of course in 1921 the Syrian Arab kingdom was defeated by French forces but that of course led to something like three years of open revolt across Syria. So one looks in other words at the rejection of those orders by many of the people who had been involved in the pre-war movements, that the continuity was there but now seen as an anti-imperial part of it. But of course at the same time there were those who saw to gain profit from it, the Hashemites, the clients of the British and the French, the people who saw that these new states coming into being would be useful for them in one form or another. And so this is where you could say you have the collusion of local elites and others in the construction of a dual state, using the language of the constitutional monarchy, using the language of the parliamentary republic, but in fact initiating a cycle of authoritarian patrimonial rule, of dependency on imperial power, on the development of the security state in the name of order.
And of course the very concentrated invention of tradition, whether tribal or religious in one form or another. The outcome of this was the weakening of the citizen, that the citizen and the notion of citizenship was itself degraded. And it took a very long time for that to re-emerge as a central thesis in the history and the politics of the Middle East.
M: Thank you, Charles. So I’d like to introduce Dr Hakim Adi from the University of Chichester. I should also mention of course that SOAS is one of the creations of that shift between the Ottoman Empire and British rule, the school was set up in order to train the future administrative class to take over more efficiently from the Ottomans and to learn the languages and cultures of those regions. So that in and of itself is kind of our involvement here today. Hakim.
H: Well, thank you and thank you for inviting me to come and speak. I’m slightly confused, I’ve come to SOAS and Libya and Egypt have somehow moved out of Africa and into somewhere else. But I’m going to put them back into Africa where I think geographically and historically they belong. I’ve been asked to say something about Africa, anti-colonialism. And I’m going to break another SOAS tradition by talking about Africa in a global sense, not just in a continental sense. So in this period, Africa for me doesn’t just mean the African continent, it means the African world, that is to say Africa and its diaspora. And in this period this was particularly an important question as hopefully will become apparent in the course of what I’m going to say. The first thing I would say is that probably nobody is under any illusions about the position of Africa and Africans in the First World War. But it’s curious that in the official celebrations perhaps, or commemorations of the 14-18 war, the Great War, there’s all kinds of talk about it being a war for democracy, it’s being a war to protect Belgian neutralities, all kinds of notions are presented. When clearly it was a war, an imperialist war, a war to re-divide the world between the major powers.
From the African perspective you can almost say it was a war which grew out of the well-known scramble for Africa, which had taken place in the last part of the 19th century. And in fact some of the events leading up to the First World War which could have sparked the war themselves took place in the African continent. So it was a war for re-division, at the end of the war the African continent was re-divided. In the course of the war the African continent was re-divided as a consequence of the secret treaties which were hatched up between the major powers, including of course Britain. So I think that the first thing I should say is we should have no illusions about any of that. The other thing that I think it’s important to say is that because it had that character, a predatory imperialist war between the major powers that meant that it was a war to further the colonial interest of the big powers in Africa as well as elsewhere in the world. And in the course of the war millions of Africans were conscripted into the armies of the big powers as well as those in the African diaspora, including of course in Britain, in France, in the US, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. And in the commemorative events both now and in the past that’s sometimes forgotten about.
At the time of the victory celebrations so called in Britain people of African origin were openly and blatantly excluded even though hundreds of thousands of them had perished during the war. And that’s perhaps something we should reflect on now. But I think more importantly the war exacerbated all the colonial activities of the big powers in Africa, so their conscription, their general recruitment of labour, their extraction of resources, their competition and contention over territories and so on. And it’s not by accident that the first shots of the First World War took place in Africa and some would argue the last shots of the First World War took place in Africa as well. Africa was clearly a central part of the world to be re-divided as a consequence of the war. And therefore the resistance of Africans and the African world continued and in some ways intensified during the war and after it. And as you’re probably aware there were large scale rebellions in different parts of Africa, particularly in West Africa but also in Southern Africa, I’m thinking perhaps of the Chilembwe revolt in Nyasaland what is today, Malawi. There were large revolts in Nigeria and Cameroon throughout French West Africa and in many other places as well.
And so many of these results were specifically against the policies, the colonial policies of the big powers, of conscription of forced labour, of extraction of resources and so on. However, the fact that in the course of this conscription, whether it was forced or otherwise, the discriminatory policies of the big powers were still in force, whether in the British army, in the French army, in the German army, in the US army, it clearly had its influence on those who participated, both during and after the war. As is well-known, the fact that people died alongside their European comrades demonstrated some very obvious similarities between human beings from one part of the world and human beings from another part of the world. And again this influenced the general anticolonial feeling which already existed in the continent and elsewhere. And of course it undermined the racist views of the time which portended that there were some essential differences between those of European origin and those of African origin. Of course after the war we could say that that discrimination, that open racism intensified if anything.
And of course in this country as is well-known I’m sure by most of you, there were large scale riots in most British cities just a year after the war. And in fact many of those who had been demobilised took part in those riots on one side or another, and which some of these riots led to fatalities. There were riots in other parts of the British Empire and the Caribbean and elsewhere. And of course there were large scale racist riots in the US as well. So the contrast between a war allegedly fought for democracy, for civilisation and so on and so forth, the sacrifices which those of African origin and others had made during the war was in stark contrast of the treatment which they received as a result of their participation. And therefore for that reason the demands which were made after the war, the level of anticolonial activity intensified. And one can look at all kinds of examples of this. But I suppose the most interesting one would be the Pan-African – the first Pan-African congress or however one wants to look at, the second Pan-African congress organised by W E B Du Bois in Paris in 1919 at the time of the peace conferences, which specifically took up the demands, not just of those in the US, but of Africans globally and demanded self-government and various other reforms.
Of course the Pan-Africanists of that time also put forward the demand that territory in Africa should be confiscated from the Germans and others and given to Africans and so on and so forth. But anyway, and that led to a whole series of Pan-African demands and organisations in the period after the war. Of course the other leading Pan-Africanists of the time in the US, Marcus Garvey, also we could say capitalised on the resentment and the racism which intensified during that period. And globally there is, we could say, a new Africa emerging or a new African conscious emerging as a consequence or influenced by the whole experience of the First World War. It’s particularly intensified by perhaps the most significant event of the wartime period. And that clearly was the revolution in Russia. And the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had, as might be expected also a very profound effect on the anticolonial thinking and activities of Africans both in the continent and perhaps more significantly in the diaspora. It of course produced quite a large amount of enthusiasm in some circles that the big powers could be defeated, that the imperialist system could be breached, that a new world could be created and so on and so forth.
And so we see a number of organisations developing or being influenced as a consequence of it. One of the most well-known is probably the African Blood Brotherhood in the United States, but there are many others, if I had more time I could go into them. The other consequence of the war was that the radicalisation of some of those who took part in it. And I just want to mention two of those. One was a Senegalese combatant whose name was Lamine Senghor who was gassed, discharged and greatly honoured by his participation by the French government. Who was repatriated actually to or demobilised in Paris, joined the French Communist Party, became a leading figure in the famous anticolonial conference held in Brussels in 1927. And a leading figure in anticolonial – African anticolonial activities in France and also in West Africa in the 1920s before his very early death.
The other perhaps less well known is James Ford who was also a combatant in the US army, went on to join the American Communist Party and became the … acted as the Vice Presidential candidate of that party throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Both of them played a very key role in developing, shall we say, African or Pan-African anticolonial activity organisations and rioting during the period of the 1920s and 1930s. So the influence of the war on Africa and Africans I think was profound because of what it was, because of its nature. And I started off by saying that we shouldn’t forget about the actual nature of the war, why it was fought, who it was fought by and within whose interest. And I think that many Africans drew the appropriate conclusions having witnessed it or participated in it or suffered as a result of it. .
M: We’re doing a little bit of musical chairs here. And in our continuing journey around the globe in 1914, I’d like to welcome Parmjit Singh who is from the UK Punjab Heritage Association. And who’s also been the curator of the Empire, Faith and War exhibition which is across the road in the Brunei Gallery, Parmjit, welcome.
P: Thank you, Meera. Thank you everyone. Just a slight correction, I’m not the curator, I’m one of a team of very passionate volunteers and passion is what drives our work. My background is I’m a failed chartered accountant, 12 years ago I dropped out of the industry to pursue heritage, history, culture and to sort of kick start an industry, a creative media industry that serves the culture, tell Sikh stories and broader Punjab stories and therefore, broader stories of India, peninsula in Asia. As we have said, there’s an exhibition across the road and I hope you’re all going to go before the end of next week because that’s when it officially closes, next Sunday. It tells the story of the Sikh soldier in World War One. And it doesn’t stop there. It tries to tell the story of the families left behind as well. And you may ask, “Well, what’s the point?” Well, Sikh soldiers, they were…well, the Sikh population in India is about one percent of British India as a population. And they contributed an enormous amount, about 20% of the Indian army at the outset of war. And the exhibition explores that relationship that existed between the empire, King George V and British officers with the Sikh soldier. And it tries to give some depth and texture and richness to an incredible story where Sikhs are being moulded almost as the sword arm of British India.
But it’s also trying to pull away and peel away the layers of the propaganda and to try to get to the heart of the matter, what exactly were the mechanics behind the relationship, who was pulling whose strings? And who was resisting the pull, the tug? The story begins…well, the story themes, the thematic sort of aspects of it are empire, faith and war which is the title of the exhibition. And the one theme that connects all three of those main themes is connections. And we’re trying to connect everyone to that Sikh soldier’s story, like I said, Empire Raj, the king and families left behind, other soldiers, the Brits, the Canadians, the ANZAC troops, the African troops, Chinese, everyone, anyone, plus also the community today because there’s a massive population of Sikhs around the world, 22/23 million, about 400,000 are in England. They’re a very visible diaspora. And there’s an awful lot of apathy in that diaspora, especially around the 100th anniversary. And there’s a massive chasm in terms of how they approach empire, the imperial past.
And in many ways they don’t have the same regard to that story as maybe Pakistani Muslims do or the majority of the Indian populous simply because Sikhs don’t have a country. So they fall back on this narrative of empire in which they feel they’re doing something of significance and where they were making history in many ways. So the story of the exhibition looks at the pre story, how the British and the Sikhs came to know each other through war and through treaties and through trade and things like that. And then it looks at the conflicts where Sikh troops are part of this Indian army, that’s a quarter of a million strong at the beginning of the war. And it was a volunteer army at the beginning of the war but during the war that whole notion of volunteering it’s called into question. There was no conscription in India at the time. But there was an awful lot of corrosion so technically it’s a volunteer army. But we know that there was an awful lot of pressure put on officials in the hierarchy of sort of Indian elites, on the average villager to join that war. So we’re looking at that in this exhibition.
We’re looking at the themes of propaganda, faith, how Sikhs practice their faith in theatres of war and art and how Sikhs are being portrayed in art both through comics back in England where British children were seeing St.John the Sikh and Cuffey the Colonial, laying up the Kaiser’s Christmas pudding. Or German children are being exposed to terrifying images of an Indian troop whose been represented with a Sikh soldier with bloodthirsty eyes and a long sharp blood dripping knife in their mouth. And so yeah, all these different perspectives, we’re trying to draw them together. And the final section is looking at the families left behind, the wives, the widows, the mothers, the daughters and the perspective there. And it’s an incredibly difficult area to research and to present material on it. And hopefully the project can kick start that through talking to families and asking them what stories have come down in their own homes. And crucially this exhibition launches a three year project. And it serves as a recruiting sergeant for the main aim of the project which is to recruit citizen historians. And these are members of the public who can research mainly Sikhs, but we’re also looking for non-Sikhs to come forward and to research the stories of these soldiers.
And the aim is to create the most comprehensive database of the soldiers stories lives and of their families. And amongst them we’re looking at the stories of those who were anti the war, members of the Ghadar party. In many families you had a situation of one brother, the brother were on either sides of this campaign. So the thrust of our work is to engage the community. We’ve had some wonderful discoveries that have come out of this work that we hope can be of use to academics and scholars, including the memoires of a soldier who served in France, in Mesopotamia, and he talks about how when he arrived at Marseilles 1914 almost 100 years ago today, the French were very sympathetic and they thought these guys, they must have been on this ship for such a long time that their beards have grown, let’s help them shave. And they were amazed that the Sikhs didn’t cut their hair and things like that. So these are wonderful perspectives. And we’re not looking to necessarily draw conclusions upon them. Our job is to collect that information, that dataset that is at risk of disappearing if it’s left in the hands of families, well-meaning families but you shudder when people say, “Yes, we’ve laminated this, that or the other record.” And you start to just cry slowly but surely. So I’ll keep this short and sweet and I’ll save the best bits for the panel session at the end. But I do urge everyone to take a look at the exhibition if they can and if you’re interested in doing your own exhibition, your own story on the war and communities involvement then do get in touch, because we’re here to share.
M: Thank you. Thank you very much, Parmjit. So we’ve had a bit of a whistle stop tour as it were, around how the war touched different parts of the world and how those different parts of the world came to Europe and were involved in the battlefields, in the ideologies, such as ideas about who the martial races were. And one of those designated martial races is obviously voting on regression of independence today. So that’s quite interesting. I did cry a little bit when they said the date was the same day as this. Okay. But now we’re going to move onto the question of how this expanded memory, how sort of rethinking our understanding of what the war was and what it entailed can affect how we teach and how we learn in the classroom. So I’d like to hand over to Catriona Pennell from the University of Exeter.
CP: Thank you very much and thanks for having me. I feel very privileged to be part of the SOAS Roundtable. I’m primarily a historian of modern Britain and Ireland, although we haven’t really touched on Ireland in terms of this imperial discussion. But it certainly had its own sites of revolution sparked by this war. But since completing my PhD on British and Irish public opinion at the outbreak of war, I’ve moved more into an interest in how we remember the war now, which is obviously very timely with this once in a generation experience of the centenary that’s unfolding around us. Now, memory is passed down in all sorts of ways. The states is obviously one vector of communicating memory. Historians, okay, a little bit but in reality they have very little to do with how cultural memory is passed down. A lot of it is to do with your families. It’s to do with the films you watch, the books you read, the documentaries you see, the museums you go to and the education that you have in whatever form that might be. And this was something that my colleague Ann-Marie Einhaus at Northumbria University who’s a literature scholar and myself have been interested in for quite some time.
And we just felt quite dissatisfied that the assumptions that were out there, mainly put out there by military historians and the likes of Jeremy Paxman and Michael Gove, that’s dreadful isn’t it, bracketing them all into the same thing, that the First World War was being taught badly, it was being taught badly by teachers and that it was passing down a very restricted memory of the western front and a handful of poets, British soldier poets otherwise known as the Canon, Wilfred Owen etc. But Ann-Marie and I were frustrated by those assumptions and wanted to find out more. We basically wanted to find out what teachers had to say. So we initiated with the very generous funding of the AHRC just over a year long project that looked at the First World War in the classroom and the transmission of cultural memory. And I won’t go into the mechanics of it but it involved a national survey. It involved focus groups with teachers, it involved interviews with teachers, it involved workshops. And really the emphasis was very much on dialogue, on hearing teachers, listening to teachers and trying to find out a little bit more about what was going on in the classroom. I think the first thing that Ann-Marie and I would both want to say is we were astounded by the huge enthusiasm and commitment of the teachers that we spoke to.
Teaching is a really, really tough job, it makes me thankful that I’m a university lecturer and that I’m not constrained by the limits of a national curriculum, by the bureaucracy that goes with schools, by the pressure that goes with being a teacher in a secondary school. But we focused on secondary education. So I really take my hat off to the teachers that we were involved with. That said, we were…I mean we have a whole array of results. We have a 105 page report which you can go to our website which is at the end of the slides and take a look at. But I just want to summarise some of the results. In some senses we were disappointed with what we found, asking the question, kind of what do you do now in the classroom. We were presented from our history respondents that the three main topics that were taught in terms of the First World War were the trenches, the origins and causes of the war and the western front, in that order. Things like other fronts or the war in Africa received about 6% and 21% of responses compared to the trenches which was 94% of teachers responded to that one. In terms of English literature teachers, they were most likely to teach Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Michael Morpurgo, in that order.
Now we could walk away from that result and be very judgemental and very critical and very disparaging of what goes on in the classroom. But obviously we wanted to penetrate those results further. And what we found was that there are a lot of very practical and structural issues that are restraining teachers, teachers who may well have a deep aspiration to push beyond the traditional narrative of the western front, to explore other fronts and other experiences of the war, other voices of the war, but are constrained by things like the national curriculum, are constrained by things like exam boards that denote what specifications appear on examinations, that are constrained by things like league tables. You want your school to perform well. There is a kind of tyranny of pressure for your school to perform well. There’s also other limitations, the type of school you work in, the budget that your school has. If your stock cupboard has a 100 copies of a Wilfred Owen anthology, you’re going to use that because your head teacher is unlikely to authorise the purchase of a 100 new anthologies in these austere times.
So there are various restraints that are more to do with practical and structural issues than they are to do with a teacher’s unwillingness. And that’s something that Ann-Marie and I really want to stress. We were also very impressed when we pushed the question of what are your motivations when you teach the First World War either in history or literature. We were very impressed by what they wanted to happen if they lived in an ideal world where there weren’t those types of constraints. The aspiration to push beyond the canon, the aspiration to expose their students to alternative narratives of the First World War, but that they were constrained by these practicalities. So that’s really a summary. What I wanted to talk to you about in the time that I have left is where we’re at, now that we’ve concluded the project, that we’ve talked to teachers, we’ve seen what’s going on, we’ve heard about the types of challenges that they face, what can we recommend? What would our project recommend in terms of moving forward? And as I was putting the presentation from this afternoon and this evening together, I thought, the time really is now isn’t it?
I mean there is all around us a need to remember the global nature of the war that’s being emphasised in the media, that’s being emphasised in heritage and education organisations, that’s being emphasised by leading figures in the centenary planning. I give an example there of Sir Hew Strachan who talked about how the war needs to be understood as much bigger than just the local experience, just the tommy experience, just the western front. Programmes like the World War on BBC2, a British Council publication that I was involved in, remember the world as well as the war, it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin, remember the world part of world war. So I felt quite buoyed by this and yes, the time is right for boundaries to be pushed and for narratives to be challenged and myths to be challenged. And then I saw this comment underneath a review for David Olusoga’s BBC2 programme which I won’t go into but bearing in mind this was a television review on a pretty middle class arts desk, arts forum, this is one of the responses on there, in fact this is the only response on there by a gentleman called John Walsh, who is basically tired of people banging on about the other experience, about the experience of Africans and Indians. Why do we have to suffer this insufferable nonsense? These black historians with chips on their shoulders should ask themselves why their ancestors did so little. And that interestingly this is actually fuelling racialism in terms of constantly, in his view, hammering home this message of the global war is actually having the reverse effect and is contributing to tension within the UK.
So I was really shocked by this. And in no way am I suggesting that this is a general view. But I think I was just taken aback that there was even someone who could have that reaction to a BBC2 documentary about the forgotten war. But it poses the question, I think, in this centenary period, is there a resistance to going beyond the western front? Is there a resistance to hearing alternative narratives, to hearing stories that take us out of our comfort zone, and there are lots of very, very uncomfortable stories of British involvement in the First World War and other parts of empire.
A more, perhaps indicative example of where the British population is at in terms of First World War memory is based on a YouGov opinion poll that formed part of the British Council report that I’ve just mentioned. It was taken in September 2013 and it involved 7,000 people across seven nations, but this is the result from just over 1,000 UK respondents when they ask, “What first three things come to mind when we say First World War to you?” And you can see from this very clever cloud word thing, ‘trenches, death, battle of the Somme’. Okay. I also happened to carry out this experiment before YouGov did it. I do it every year with my undergraduates who take my module at the beginning of the module and at the end of the module. This was one from the last time I taught this module and again, ‘trenches, death, and maybe soldiers, barbed wire over the top’ are all kind of in there, but definitely trenches and death. So you can see my rather unscientific experiment highlights that there are some very, very dominant ideas in British popular memory about the First World War. So aside from the kind of scary racism of John Walsh this is the reality that we’re pressing against. These are the boundaries that we’re pushing against to try and open out the story of the First World War and to integrate other stories.
It’s no surprise that teachers who on the whole are not experts in the First World War, and I don’t mean any disrespect in that sense, they’re generalists, that’s the point of being a history teacher. They’re going to fall back on what’s familiar to them. So there’s this kind of catch 22 situation going on, that they’re drawing on what they’re familiar with, this is what they’re familiar with, therefore they’re teaching the western front and the trenches. Negative bit over, this is what Ann-Marie and I would like to be taken from our report in terms of recommendations and call to action if the time is ripe as we think it is for expanding our understanding, challenging our understanding of the First World War in this country, then this is what we’d call on from an education perspective. The first point is really blue-sky thinking, it’s trying to challenge exam boards specification, and that involves challenging the way the government perceives history in the national curriculum to a large extent. But there are ways of doing this as academics, I encourage fellow academics in the room to get involved in any opportunities to do education reform, to sit on exam board reform panels which are available to do. And sometimes you even get paid for doing it.
But the more realistic recommendations are the rest really, and that’s to maximise this plethora of centenary media outputs to allow teachers and educationists to use various programmes to emphasise the world in world war. But because of the centenary there are masses of free digital resources, British Library and Imperial War Museum being the best examples, we think, that consciously include broader, more critical reflection of aspects of the First World War. We also encourage dialogue between academics, universities and teachers. Teachers don’t have much time, they talked about how they want to be exposed to more up-to-date research, academic monographs are expensive, they’re dense, they’re not exactly page turners most of the time, and I’m talking about my own book there. So how about getting academics to come in and just give a quick talk in your local school or do a Skype conversation with a group of teachers? Get some local teachers to come and audit an MA or undergraduate module, just to see, dip their toe in the water of what the latest research is. Utilise the freedom within extracurricular space, this is a very, very practical solution that a lot of teachers are doing already.
So moving away from the restraints of the curriculum and exam boards, doing experimental things within the extracurricular space, taking your students to a public roundtable such as this, going to workshops, going on visits to museums, going to see exhibitions, looking at documentaries and things like that. One of the issues that came up in our report, and this is my final point was that some teachers were rather hesitant about bringing up stories beyond the western front stories, beyond the white British tommy because of the unvarnished truths and the sensitive issues around colonial experience in the First World War. One teacher at a focus group talked about how she was very concerned about talking about racial hierarchies because she didn’t want a skewed version going home to the parents of the black children in her class saying, “Well, Miss said that black people couldn’t fight in the First World War, that they weren’t good enough.”
And the ramifications of that in terms of the school and the school’s reputation, what I would say…what Ann-Marie and I would say is use diverse classrooms, use increasingly diverse classrooms to your advantage. Ask students what they want to know, how they want to learn about the First World War. Maybe even bring in some of their parents as well to talk about ways that they can get round some of these difficult issues that are related to the First World War, whilst keeping it an open and critical space within the classroom or the extracurricular space. If you want to find out more, that’s our project website. .
M: Thank you very much, Catriona. And our final speaker for this evening is Martin Spafford, a man who has been in the school trenches himself. Sorry, I was going to avoid all of those metaphors tonight, a man who has been in the trenches himself for a while, Martin.
MS: Okay. Thank you very much, Meera, and it’s a real pleasure to be here. I was just thinking about that comment from Mr Walsh about banging on about the sort of unimportant African and Asian history. And I was just thinking for a minute that how can you say that the events in Mesopotamia during the First World War where the British army was mostly Indian and the events that happened there are not of crucial significance to the world that we live today, in a massive sense? Because they’re a background to conflicts and issues that are absolutely dominant at this very, very moment. And how can you say that the experience of those Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia fighting the Turks in what is now Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, when they returned to India and they have experienced the situation in the war in the Middle East. And they return to the India that a year later is the India, the Amritsar massacre with the British clearly scared and worried about uprisings, not only in India but also on the Clyde in the West Indies and in many parts of Europe. We can’t say – and this is really important – that the involvement of hundreds of thousands of colonial troops in the First World War was not centrally significant to an understanding of that war and its impact.
And that’s a crucial reason why we say, when we work in the classroom, if the 20th century is a century in which one of the big stories, I would argue, perhaps the biggest story is a story of the struggle against colonialism, the establishment of independent countries, the backlash to this, of the often successful attempts by the west to replace it with neo-colonialism but also the rise of previously colonised countries to being the rising powers in many parts of the world. If that is the story of the 20th, into the 21st century, then the global story of the First World War is so significant if young people are going to understand the world that they’re in now.
Where I come from in this actually myself is that 20 years ago I got involved in a project about the Second World War when we saw the BNP have a Victory in Tower Hamlets Council and the far right were appropriating the story of First and Second World Wars as in a sense their story. And we wanted to counteract that in our school and we brought in Somali seamen, a Sikh fighter pilot from the Second World War, the West Indian Servicemen’s Association, the Jewish Ex-Peoples Association, to talk alongside people who had been British soldiers in the Second World War, firemen in the Second World War and so on. And we realised that when our students, with their enormous diverse heritages, when they connected with the fact that the story of the Second World War was their story too, their understanding of the significance of that was and the interest in it improved enormously.
A few weeks after that project we were looking at the First World War in one of my year nine classrooms. And I asked the students to go away and to go to the Commonwealth War Graves site and find out the story of the ex-pupils from our school who are on a plaque in the school, who had died during the war and to find out their stories. And I said, “Why not also put in your own surnames and see if there’s anyone down.” And remember, we’re in an ICT suite and one boy was sitting there just refusing to do it and I asked Amjad Khan why, he said, “Well, there’s no point in me doing that.” So I said, “Just try.” And of course, Amjad Khan puts in the name ‘Khan’ at the Commonwealth War Graves site and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Khans. And suddenly he realises that he has a connection to this story, something he didn’t understand before.
Defend School History was a group of teachers that grew up in response to Gove’s proposals for the national curriculum in schools, which if they had gone through would have forced us to teach the First World War in a very strongly imperialist narrative. And there were many other groups: History not Propaganda, Save School History and so on. And we come together in many meetings, including a meeting organised by the Black and Asian Studies Association that Robbie here hosted for us at Queen Mary. And I remember that a student there, a student of Somali origin made the comment that what the government was wanting to do to history, if history was a cake, they were wanting to feed us a very, very small slice to force feed it and pretend it was the whole cake. And the point I think is about a global history of the First World War is that it is closer to the whole cake. And if we’re going to understand it we have to do that. And for that thing, if you’re working with young people you have to start from where they are. You have to start from their present. And their present is the things that connect with them.
And I feel that any teaching of history, and certainly the teaching of the First World War, what it has to do for young people is it has to make a connection with their own experience and enable their own experience to change and develop from that connection. It has to connect with what matters to them and as they study history, what matters to them develops and changes and is informed by that. And that will happen if they see themselves in the story. And seeing ourselves in the story doesn’t necessarily be a matter that if you are of Jamaican origin you have to look at just the stories of Jamaicans. But it’s a sense that as we live in our mixed and global community, in our communities here in London for example, and the cities of Britain in our classrooms, that we recognise that that was the truth also of the First World War. The soldiers and sailors and airmen who fought in the First World War, in the British, in the French, in the Russian, in the Austro-Hungarian and in the Belgian armies were global and diverse and brought in the people from all over the empires. But also that they…so were the nurses and so were the labour forces and then understanding that that was the truth.
And what children also need to do is they connect with real actual stories. And the discussion we had in the workshops earlier today made us realise that the more you see the individual stories, the more stories you get to understand and see, the more nuanced, the more complex and the wider your understanding of that global story is. It doesn’t just become a question of the great defence of imperialism versus lions led by donkeys. It becomes much more nuanced.
I’ll give some examples of stories that really work with young people from the First World War. One of those I used just a few days ago…well, no, a few weeks ago, I’ve just retired, a few weeks ago as a result of learning more about the British West Indian Regiment, the story of the British West Indian Regiment, the people who volunteered from places like Trinidad and Jamaica, they volunteered to fight in the First World War, were refused if they were not white Jamaicans and white Trinidadians, were eventually allowed to join the British army. Many of them then sailed past Halifax and Nova Scotia and many of them died of the cold on the way because they were not allowed to wear the winter issue uniforms that were on the ship but were not for them. When they arrive in Europe they’re not allowed to fight in the western front because they still didn’t want black West Indians to be killing white Europeans. So they were taken to fight the Turks. At the end of the war, by 1919 many of them are being really interned in Italy because the British forces don’t want them to return to the Caribbean which is in ferment and uprising because they’ve actually had military experience, they put a white South African officer in charge of them, some of them mutiny, one of them is executed for the mutiny. When they’re eventually taken back to the Caribbean, they’re put in Cuba and not back where they came from. It took time to get there.
That story is powerful in an understanding of issues and to do with race and colonialism and attitudes which are still here today. A second story that I would love to use is the one in David Olusoga’s book, about Mir Mast and Mir Dast. Just taking this story of these two brothers, one of whom is in the Ypres salient at the beginning of the war, when the Germans first used gas, he faces the gas, he goes out, he saves Indian and British soldiers and officers, he ends up getting the Victoria Cross. His brother is also there but at the Battle Neuve Chapelle, his brother absconds from the British and a whole group of his friends, mainly from his own villages, cross and join the Germans. And not long after that, Mir Dast, this brother is part of the delegation that is sent by the Germans to try to convince the Emir of Afghanistan to support the Germans and to help them moving in towards India. These two brothers very different stories open up all sorts of questions. And the best classrooms I think that look at these stories are going to be classrooms not that close down the story of the First World War but actually open it up to more and more questions and more and more uncertainties. And so those, I think are two examples of very powerful stories to help children get a sense of the world.
Here’s another thing, and if we’re talking simply about children’s sense of where they stand, all over this country now, whether you’re in small towns, market towns or in big cities, there are increasing numbers of children from Eastern Europe. And their stories, the stories of the eastern front, what was happening in the mountains of what’s now Slovenia? What was happening, the Poles who were fighting for the Russians, what was their experience? And the enormous story of the aftermath of the First World War there, which I mean I was talking to some of our Romanian children, which we have many now, and they didn’t know about the war between Romania and Bulgaria, about what was happening and how much they…the enormous conflicts in the eastern front affected the post-war world and continue to resonate now, absolutely, certainly. So here’s another story that students absolutely love, the Harlem Hill fighters, the African Americans who fight with the French, who have, for all the racism in the French army, it’s better than fighting in the American army. And so many of them stay, some of them become jazz musicians in post-war Paris. A wonderful story for young people.
And what I want to say here therefore is, that it’s through these stories that you begin to understand the enormous story of the First World War in the context of empire and eventually in the ending of empires. I’m going to conclude by saying, it’s a moment of hope really in terms of poor old teachers struggling in their schools. Because what Catriona said is absolutely right, teachers, it’s very difficult for teachers to do what they may even want to do because of the shortage of resources and the pressures that are on them. Nevertheless for all the concerns I have about the national curriculum that is just being brought in, where many aspects of diverse history are no longer required. But there is still space for them.
I’m going to read out what the Govian national curriculum that luckily we pushed back a great deal, how it opens. Because these words can be used very well in schools to enable a more diverse history. And it says in the preamble to the history curriculum that children should have a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world to inspire their curiosity, to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, develop perspective and judgement. So that they understand the process of change, the diversity of societies, relationships between different groups as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time. And one of the specific abstract terms that we are asked to teach an understanding of is empire. We cannot do any of those things if the story of the First World War is simply a story of Tommies in the western front trenches.
M: Thank you very much to all of our speakers. I mean I think we’ve covered a lot of ground in each of these five contributions. And they’ve provoked a lot of questions. I mean I think we can really see that there are different perspectives on the war and on the period around the war as a global moment and not simply one which is sort of nationalist and European in character. I’m going to open up the floor now for questions. Now, these can be questions, these can be comments to any of our speakers, to all of the speakers, or any reflections on the sorts of things that you’ve seen in the centenary commemorations this year. Yes.
A1: Yeah, I’m Sukant Chandan. Thanks for the panel of speakers. I just wanted to kind of, again kind of bring out, I think, some of the contestations about the way the First World War has been commemorated as a state sponsored project or the funding etc, that we’ve been seeing and we’re going to see for the next three plus years. God help us. The tension that I wanted to bring out is that I’m from what is now the Indian side of Punjab, I was born there. And not all of us are proud at all of the mercenary nature that our people performed for British colonial interests across the globe; particularly I find it personally very shameful that my compatriots fought for the British to put down revolts in Iraq and in China. So I really wanted to bring up how that issue has its continuities today, that’s still the way this is being commemorated, is to assimilate the former colonial peoples of the British Empire, to continue and support British foreign policy and the British system which is a global system. All of us have seen the advertising on the tube of black and brown faces recruiting for the British army and the British police and the way that ties into it. And that’s a continuing strategy of employing mercenaries in the British army from the former British colonies.
And also I’d just like to put how that mercenary strategy of assimilation has developed to such an extent and this is probably quite a contentious point, but I think it’s important to be part of the conversation, that forces that are known ‘Al Qaeda’ had become the ground troops for British foreign policy openly in Libya and now in Syria and it continues. So, that kind of very sophisticated strategy of presenting proxies as enemies when it suits them and as allies when it suits them as well.
M: Yeah, great, thank you very much. Rahul [Rao].
A2: Yeah, just building on that comment. One of my friends, Vedica Kant, who might actually be here has just written a book on the memory of Indian soldiers which is going to be published by Roli Books. And one of the most extraordinary things she told me was the kinds of debates unfolding over memory in India at the moment. And she said that the Ministry of Defence for example in India is not really doing very much to commemorate World War One, in part because the official position is that these soldiers were collaborationists. But the actual regiments of the Indian army, many of which have a continuous history with those regiments are commemorating these events in a very different way. So there’s a kind of split between the Ministry of Defence and the Indian army which is extraordinary because these are institutions that are meant to be working together. And I guess actually I had a sort of question for Parmjit which was I learned that Captain Amrinder Singh, Former Chief Minister of Punjab visited the exhibition. And he’s an interesting person of course because he’s both the state as well of an army background. And I was sort of interested in whether you had picked up on, in your experience of organising the exhibition, these very different strands of memory from India, from…or from here as well in reactions to the exhibition.
P: Yeah, great question, great point. I mean there’s definitely silence from the India side, you’re absolutely right. And much of that is to do with the fact that it was, you know, these are nationalistic narratives that are coming down to us. On the one hand these guys served and upheld the British Empire in effect. And it came to 1947 and independent India and Pakistan, they were the collaborators, Britain said, “They’re not our subjects anymore.” So they almost find themselves in a new no man’s land, which is…for us it’s fascinating. From a distance we’re able to look at this and sort of try and be objective. And we may say, “Well what were the stories?” And in our work we’re not trying to edit or censor anything, we want to know all the stories possible. And for every single person who served or was impacted by that war, there are that many stories to be told. And so I really like the point here which was about, you know, we’ve got to explode this up, excuse the pun, was really detonate the whole issue to see how many stories come out because it’s in the nuances, it’s in those slight differences of approaching, it’s in the stories of brother against brother, that we’re going to get a greater understanding and appreciation of the issues they faced at the time.
And remember they didn’t know the empire was going to come to an end, for them this was the – sun-never-sets-on-that–empire, your point. So a lot of these guys, the so called mercenaries, I mean I think the key was poverty and aspects of prestige and a lot of propaganda to pump them up and say this is who you are and create self-identities, that served military need. But you can’t almost blame them. This was the atmosphere they lived in and they couldn’t foretell the future. So poverty and smaller landholdings, for a lot of people from agricultural backgrounds, forces them to join up with the biggest employer in India probably at the time. And the Maharajah of Patiala he’s very interesting, he was the favourite son of empire, or his grandfather was, Bhupinder Singh. I didn’t speak to him when he came, my colleague over there behind you Harbakhsh did, so maybe he can tell us more. But I think he must be conflicted because he’s a Congress minister or a member of the Congress party. And there is his grandfather, you know, I wouldn’t say lackey, but he is the one who gets things done then.
But Patiala was the, I think the most concentrated region in terms of recruits. They gave the most…per capita as a state in all of India. So they were really into this war effort. And as we know, they’re part of a system of rewards and incentives. They get their prestige from serving then, the colonial master. So it’s an incredibly difficult question. But I think all we’ve got to do is put all the perspectives up, let everyone put them forward especially when it’s possible and let everyone make their own minds as to what conclusions they draw from those different stories.
M: Yeah. Thank you. I’ll take some contributions from the crowd if that’s alright. Yes, there and then coming here, yes.
MC: Martin Collins, I work for Irish and Britain which is the umbrella group for community organisations here. Of course at the start of the First World War, Ireland was still part of Britain and the United Kingdom which shapes it. But the engagement of the Irish in the First World War goes into Irish Americans, Irish Australians. So the Irish played a huge role in both the Australian forces, Canadian and Americans because it was kind of a British thing. But in Ireland with the issues of a divided Ireland and the civil rights movement and so on events in history became of huge significance. And on the one hand the republican side had the experience of risings, civil war, coming out of the United Kingdom and they’re heroes during this time. On the UK unionist side the Protestants, the memories of the blood sacrifice of the First World War. Coming out of the peace process now and people engaging in peace and reconciliation moves, are trying to get the understanding of history of being something which is exploratory and not entirely confrontational one way or another. The British and Irish governments between them have launched a programme for the decade of centenaries that goes from 1914 all the way through to 1924, with the Civil War and then the War of Independence, sorry, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
And it’s been a fascinating journey, I work in the Westminster parliament and we had some students from St Mary’s University in London come to look at the war memorial in the House of Commons. And I’ve walked past this thing for 15 years without looking at it. But the Irish names among the lists of casualties of both the unionist and the nationalist background and the Irish regiments in the First World War have their museums and their own history. But it’s a very interesting discovery that’s going on about it where the sort of…the ideology or the myths of the war that there was a rising and that could be challenged and looked at in a new way. I mean we’ll see how this works out in time. But it’s certainly an interesting idea to be pursuing at the level of governments. And if I had a question it was what the sort of comparative situation is in countries other than the UK about teaching in schools. And what are they doing in Germany? And what are they doing wherever?
M: Yeah, great, thank you very much. There’s a question at the back, yes.
A3: My first is a question for Professor Tripp, that is I was wondering how, what the nature of the formation of these autonomous citizens that you are talking about in active citizens, especially in the pre-war age. If you will say something on that because we have been wondering about that. The other is a comment generally, what I see in that First World War is it is a war that took a lot of interest in colonial borders in essence, bodies as a site of colonial imperial exploitation, bodies themselves, managing bodies to advance imperial interests, imperial goals. And this really makes me wonder whether there are studies that show that, you know, that the way colonial work is well managed and used in dealing with the war, whether it was used to also manage bodies in the modern state in Europe. I don’t know, were these used as templates – travelling templates which were used in the imperial, you know and in the modern state itself. And vice versa, because for instance in the 19th century, 18th century, the school as an institution, the prison as an institution, lunatic asylum as an institution, were they used also as templates to also manage colonial bodies in the 19th century, I don’t know if there is.
M: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. Are there any more questions on the floor before we go back to the panel? Yes.
A4: Can I just…sorry, Marika Sherwood. Martin said that empire is still in the school curriculum. We could teach the war in Africa as part of the building of empire because Germany wanted to extend its empire in Africa. And of course Britain and France wanted to do away with the empire. And I’ve just been reading up what has been published about that war. And what is absolutely horrifying to me is that the number of troops and the number of carriers varies according to every book you read, which that says to me that there weren’t any accurate records kept and were they ever paid? The number of carrier troops varies by 100,000 according to which book you look at and so do the depth. So were they ever paid? And what about the lands that were rabid when especially the fighting in East Africa which went on for five years, the troops were going backwards and forwards and eating up everything they could absolutely everywhere, and raping all the women of course, because that’s what women are for. Did we ever even acknowledge what was done? It’s just like that, but this discrepancy in figures between all the people who did all of the fundamental research really…and it almost makes me cry, what, you know, did we ever pay anybody? Did any widow ever get anything? Did any disabled member of the Congo troops ever get anything?
M: Yeah. I mean these are interesting questions. I might just chip in here a bit. This summer I went to Mozambique on a research project. And I did go and have a look at the…there’s a large British cemetery in a place called Lumbo which is in one of the more populous provinces but it’s quite distant from the capital. And that’s one of the areas where the German troops came through and then the British kind of came in at the sea. And what’s interesting about the cemetery is several things. The first is that the cemetery’s new, right. It’s actually only been developed in the last kind of 10/12 years, presumably to replace and restore whatever graves were there before. So the graves that are there, so the people that get the headstones are the British troops and white settler troops, so South Africans and Australians. But in the renovation of this they also put up plaques for East African Rifles, so the kind of Kenyan soldiers and the West African troops. So people who were properly recognised in the British structures. There’s also one Indian sepoy who’s recorded as having been lost there in Northern Mozambique.
But of course there is absolutely no record of the porters and all of the people who were caught up within the war machine who were peripheral to the named and numbered individuals that make up the colonial records. And that’s one of, I suppose the ongoing and maybe now forever lost sources of information that we have is that the people who remember that time, the descendants of those people, if they haven’t spoken about it already, they haven’t remembered it, then those are stories that we may never get.
MS: Well, in one of the books I read it says that in one of the records that were kept on one regiment, they wrote down the soldier’s first name and then where he came from. But then if you think of Alhaji Grunshi who was supposed to have fired the first bullet, Alhaji means you’ve been on the Haj and Grunshi is the people in Northern Ghana, it’s not a place, it’s a whole area. So what was in the minds of those wretched British troops, the officers and their appalling ignorance and prejudices? I had a very hard time reading the accounts, it’s absolutely heart-breaking.
M: Yeah. I mean I think it is, I mean it is an interesting question and I suppose lays testament to the broader theme of the day which is the way in which the imperial structure of the world at that time was infused in all of the practices that made up the war and the war machine as well as…and things that we haven’t really touched on much tonight, but what was going on simultaneously to the war, laterally to the war at the time. I mean some of our presenters did pick up on that. And another thing that we haven’t really touched upon is what was going on outside the sort of militarised space. So we’ve talked a lot about militarism but not the resistance to militarism per se, not just in this kind of imperial manifestations. We are running out of time and I hope there’s some glasses of wine outside. So there’s one more…is there a question?
F: No. I’m saying there was a question to Professor Tripp but he never answered.
M: Yeah, sorry, I was going to say, I was going to come back down the line and ask people to offer their concluding thoughts and also to answer any questions. So maybe I’ll start with Hakim though, if that’s okay.
H: Well, I have to admit I get slightly confused by these discussions, because to me I think we have to start off by looking at the First World War, there’s many wars but particularly the Great War and the crime. So that was a crime against humanity, a crime against humanity which grew out of other crimes against humanity. And then in the course of that we understand all the other crimes that were committed in the course of that large crime. I think the problem is that the powers that be present the First World War as essentially something which was glorious. It was to do various glorious things, it was to save European civilisation. It was to save Belgian neutrality, it was to oppose German militarism and it wasn’t about any of those things. And therefore they honour those that they say fought and died for that. And they present that from a Eurocentric perceptive. And so they leave out the majority of people who died. And so then we come along and say, “Well, that’s not very good, we shouldn’t leave out all these other people who died.” And we tell stories about them, we make a big deal about it and so on. And of course there is a place for that. But the difficulty is if we lose sight of the crime itself and actually what this war was about.
And I think particularly when we’re teaching young people, I mean Sukant made a point not lost I’m sure on most of us, that the period leading up to the Great War, the scramble for Africa, the scramble for the contention between the big powers and so on, is not that different from the kind of world we live in today, where there’s only a scramble for Africa, there’s contention between all the big powers, there’s squabbles over and so on. And there are dangers of a new war. So if in our education system we don’t look at the past in such a way that we understand the world then and we understand the world now, then what are we in education for? So this seems to me to be absolutely crucial that the nature of the war itself, I mean the whole question of Belgian neutrality and so on, I mean it’s just such a disgraceful thing when you have a country, a government and a monarchy that presided over the death of 10 million Africans. And this is never even spoken about, that Belgium is presented as some glorious paradise. And in fact during the Great War the Belgian government which is often presented as being different of course from Leopold and so on, forcibly conscripted thousands of Africans in the same area, many of whom lost their lives and so on, in the invasion of Germany, East Africa and so on.
And one could go on and on and on talking about these crimes. But at least let’s start off by calling it a crime. And then we can discuss all the ramifications and the interesting stories and so on. And if we want to talk about interesting stories what about those who opposed the war. Nobody even talks about those who opposed the war in Britain of which there were many notable figures, let alone those in Africa. If you want a good story, okay, let’s talk about John Chilembwe, very interesting story, very interesting character, who opposed the war, opposed colonial rule, opposed forced labour conscription, talked about Africa for the Africans then was shot. As were many of his comrades in that struggle, and the many other hundreds, thousands of people throughout Africa who opposed the war, who fought for their independence, who carried on the struggles that they’d been waging before the war. So I’m, as I say, I’m slightly bemused by some of the discussions going on here, that we’re not actually looking at what was going on in the world at that time. And I wonder how people are looking at the world today.
If you look at history in this way, oh well, some of us will not acknowledge that we didn’t take part in it, but then I just don’t know what people are thinking about the world today and the dangers that are inherent in what is going on. And Sukant of course was talking about recruitment and so on. But while the lessons of the First World War, whilst that many people before the war in this country as well as in others who said, “Of course, we’re never going to fight in a war. We’re going to oppose that. We’ll never” and so on and so forth, many of them in organisations of the left, the slightly left, the Labour Party and trade unions and so on, in all the European countries. Now, when the war started they all said, “Oh no, we’ve changed our minds, we’ll fight for king and country” and so on. So the lessons of what is important about crimes that are being committed is that those who opposed them and to learn about that experience and to condemn those crimes that are being carried out by the big powers, to me seems to be crucial. And to be able to explain these things to our young people, of course obviously we won’t go into the past and say was an imperialist war as I did, because I’m talking to educated people who understand these words and so on.
But I think the predatory nature of it, which was widely recognised during the period. And I mentioned W E B Du Bois who was one of the chief recruiters for the US army. But if you actually look at what he wrote about the war, in a rather strange and ironic way, he had no misconceptions about what the war was about. It was an imperialist war. It was a predatory war and so on and so forth. So I think that’s absolutely crucial. Let’s call a crime a crime.
M: Thank you. I’ll ask my next speakers to be slightly briefer but no less brilliant in their closing remarks.
C: Just to answer the question about who I mean by the activist citizens. What I meant was the people who like many other parts of the world were the product of the social economic, industrial transformations of the 18th and 19th century across the Middle East and North Africa, largely urban, product of new education systems, product of reforms within Islamic education systems. Product of, in a sense, an urban…not simply middle class, there was working class in the industrialised sites in Turkey and in Egypt and elsewhere. But the product of, in a sense, the transformations that the Middle East already had been subjected to – the Middle East and North Africa – both capitalism, imperialism and so on. But formerly a very powerful articulation of a language of rights, and this is what I meant by the activist citizen. And what’s interesting is…and feeling their way towards trying to limit government through constitutional control. So that was right across the region.
What happens in the First World War is the appearance of the imperial powers, very large, very British power, and the infantalisation of these people and the racial attitudes whereby those who are uncontaminated by these processes were taken to be the authentic power of Berba, whatever it happens to be. And they were the ones who were then handed the power. The racialism also affects the new urban classes, the Effendis, who were regarded, if you look at British official language, with supreme contempt because they were regarded as failed attempts to be European. But it was very powerful. And I think that what’s interesting, I remember seeing a comment in Iraq, people administering Baghdad, who said in huge exasperation that these Iraqis who they after all created this sense of… “They’re turning out to be a nation of lawyers.” This is what they didn’t want, not those people arguing for their rights rather than some tribal sheikh sitting on a horse that the British had then provided him with and recreated the notion of tribe. So what I’m trying to get at in the talk was this sense of annihilating or trying to annihilate, but they didn’t succeed, annihilating a certain kind of history and then trying to reimpose another kind of history upon it, which as we know has had problematic consequences then and one could argue, now as well.
M: Thank you. Martin.
MP: I think one response to a young person who might ask a teacher in a classroom, “What does the First World War have to do with me”, is that the war is still going on. That a point was made in the workshop this morning that in the First World War the violence of the empire came home to the centre of the empire. And then at the end of the First World War it just went back out to the rest of the empire. And they came home again in 1939 and it’s still there, it’s still happening, exactly the same conflicts, about the same issues are still being fought over and enormous numbers of people now are dying in the context of the big powers defending their economic empires, their fights for resources are still there. So if you are going to decide 14/15 year old as you grow up where you stand in relation to that and whether you stand as Hakim was talking about, the opposition to this or in collaboration. You need to understand the story, the history, you need to inform yourself and that’s what the history classroom can help you to do.
M: Thank you. Parmjit.
P: I think the point raised earlier about, you know, the big issue about the war being a crime zone, a fantastic point. But the problem you have is how do you connect the disconnected to that story and shine a proper light on it? There are lots of people who aren’t in the classroom anymore, adults, people working, mums, dads, all sorts of people and we’re seeing them come to our exhibition. And what we’ve found is that the programme we’ve got, the citizen historian programme allows them to at least begin the process of connecting to a story. You’ve got to remember, there are a million and one things that people are doing that isn’t connected to World War One and thinking about it, and bring it and tackling the issues. They’re playing football. They’re going out with their mates, watching TV, things under the bedcovers, all sorts of things. They’re not looking at World War One, it’s so distantly removed from their lifestyles, it’s incredible. So the process has to…if you want lots of people looking at this then you need to start as Martin said, from their perspective, and it’s not just children, it’s their parents and grandparents and so on and so forth.
So I’d say that that’s where the initiative needs to spread out to and it requires masses of effort, media platform is long term, it can’t just be done quickly, and needs sustained effort. And academia itself, unfortunately it’s, sometimes it does wonderful work being produced, but it’s just disconnected so greatly from grassroots, it’s scary.
M: Thanks, Parmjit. And, Catriona, last word.
CP: Alright, I get the final word. Sorry, I’ll just steal that. Yeah. I want to respond to two things really. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a lack of critical space within official remembrance. And I’m a strong advocate of trying to open that up, asking questions like, should we be remembering the First World War, there’s just an assumption that we are, you know, we should do. But I’d be interested to know if young people today actually think we should be. The role that that remembrance is playing in wider issues of making the military so normal, making war so normal, and it’s not just remembering the First World War or the assumption that we should be, or newsreaders should be wearing red poppies, but it’s those recruitment posters in the tube. It’s help for heroes, it’s the British Legion, it’s all these things that make the military acceptable. And I have a problem with that. I have a problem with official state figures talking in hushed tones about we must remember – we must remember the sacrifice of the First World War, whilst at the same time doing things in the Middle East or not doing things in the Middle East, that are continuing the suffering of people there today that have direct connections to the First World War.
And I’m thinking in particular of what was happening in Gaza right at the time that the 4th of August anniversary fell last month. In terms of the Irish question, it’s something I’m very, very interested in, and I’ve been involved with John Kennedy in the Decade of Centenaries. And I think it’s fantastic the way that the centenary is allowing us to explore, not only uncomfortable histories, but also shared histories, that there is the possibility of reconciliation. And having been educated in Ireland since 1998, it is fantastic to see this evolution since Enniskillen in 87 right through to the peace process, that there is now the space for people in the republic in particular to be more comfortable with their First World War history. But I would say that with one slight apprehension which is that I think there may be a risk of going too far down the road of wasn’t this a lovely shared experience. The decade of centenaries as you rightly pointed out, it goes on until 1923, it goes on through a period of nasty, bloody, horrid fratricidal war between Irish people themselves.
And I think it’s important that when we’re thinking about the First World War, when we’re thinking about the periodization that it doesn’t stop in 1918, that there are ramifications that go on today, but there are ramifications that go on through the 1920s. And that it isn’t all nice and neat and tidy with the Irish case, that it actually descends into something very, very bloody, that we still actually know very little about in terms of lives lost and those that suffered in the Irish Civil War. So I would just be careful about taking the reconciliation line too far.
M: Okay. Alright. Thank you very much for all your excellent questions and your attention. Sorry to have detained you slightly, but I hope you’ll agree with me that it was thoroughly worth it.