Dr Meghan Tinsley, a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities, reflects on the four years of the First World War centenary, asking to what extent collective memory of the war remains white and Eurocentric. She argues that in pursuit of a more global narrative of past and present, history curricula should emphasise three themes:
- the racialised violence of empire
- the interconnectedness of local and global stories
- the extent and variety of individual experiences.
Sunday, 11 November 2018, marked the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War One. After four years of centennial commemorations—a project of collective remembrance on a massive scale, encompassing 2,500 hours of BBC programming, £50 million, a complete renovation of the IWM London, hundreds of books and academic articles, and dozens of new museum exhibitions—the Armistice centenary provided a chance to reflect on how the past four years had changed Britons’ collective memory of the war. And so, following a sombre service at Westminster Abbey, David Dimbleby asked a panel of historians what the enduring impact of the centenary would be. One guest, broadcaster David Olusoga, identified two major consequences: a ‘closer link for younger generations’, and ‘a more global, a more nuanced understanding of the war.’
In many ways, Olusoga is right: a recent British Future survey found that 70 percent of Britons now know that Indian soldiers fought in World War One—up from 40 percent only four years ago. Films and exhibitions dedicated to the ‘Commonwealth Contribution’ have been favourably received, and accompanied by demands for greater recognition of non-white, non-European soldiers. These developments have coincided with urgent calls for greater attention to Black and minority ethnic (BME) histories in the classroom. But how should these appeals for recognition change the way that schools teach the history of World War One? And why, one hundred years after the Armistice, does it still matter how anyone remembers the war?
Commemorating the ‘Commonwealth Contribution’
Throughout the centenary, successive governments have placed an unprecedented emphasis on the role of non-white soldiers and labourers. On 4 August 2014—100 years after Britain’s declaration of war—a service at Glasgow Cathedral honoured the ‘Commonwealth Contribution’ to the war, interspersing Christian hymns and prayers with readings by Commonwealth High Commissioners. At the culmination of the service, uniformed soldiers from across the Commonwealth processed to the back of the cathedral, where each handed a candle—‘the light of remembrance’—to a schoolchild.
With the visibility of non-white soldiers and verbal acknowledgment of the ‘Commonwealth Contribution’, the Glasgow service neatly assimilated Commonwealth soldiers into the national memory of World War One. It also provided a model for subsequent commemorations—paving stones honouring ‘overseas’ Victoria Cross recipients at the National Memorial Arboretum and, more recently, a khadi poppy honouring Indian soldiers—which attributed familiar symbols to previously excluded groups. This approach enabled the state to proclaim its inclusivity while strengthening the dominant narrative of the war—a narrative which, during the centenary, criticised the ‘Blackadder mentality’ and sought to rehabilitate wartime Britain’s cause against European tyranny.
Representation as erasure
The centenary offers a case study in the pitfalls of representation: the visible presence of BME participants in World War One commemorations, without altering the narrative of the war at large, strengthens the legitimacy of an exclusionary national memory. During the centenary, this became apparent in the repeated invocation of the ‘Commonwealth Contribution’—which presented soldiers as united across national and ethnic lines for a common cause. Yet the term ‘Commonwealth’ was not in use until 1949, and the nations it encompassed in World War One were not a voluntary community. Rather, ‘Commonwealth’ troops were colonial subjects who had joined up—willingly or through coercion—to serve in an Army that classified them into martial and non-martial races, barred them from advancement to commissioned officer, and sent them to fight in an imperial war. After four years of fighting for Britain’s ‘freedom’, their own calls for autonomy were met with massacres and martial law.
The attempt to rewrite a global, imperial war as multicultural Britain’s defence of freedom does violence to the past: any colonial soldier who fails to embody the trope of a ‘good subject’ is erased from memory. It also does violence to the present: the memory of ‘good subjects’ is wielded as a weapon against ‘bad’ marginalised citizens. Thus, media attention to ‘good’ Muslim World War One soldiers surged in late 2014, alongside the (false) claim that more British Muslims were fighting for ISIS than serving in the British Army. Four years later, Theresa May—whose ‘hostile environment’ policy disproportionately targets Black and Asian migrants—announced that she would wear a khadi poppy to commemorate the ‘outstanding bravery’ and ‘special contribution’ of Indian soldiers.
Teaching a global war
Amidst changing and contradictory representations of Britain’s imperial history, classrooms are important sites for making sense of past and present. Yet decades of neglecting the global, imperial dimensions of World War One mean that teaching on this topic is heavily Eurocentric. My research has shown that new sites of memory offer innovative ways of bringing empire and its legacies into the classroom. Therefore, I propose three strategies for intervention at the classroom level:
- First, alongside the trenches of Flanders, students should learn about protracted battles on Asian and African fronts. Engaging with this history is not a tokenistic act; colonial armies on non-European fronts altered the course of the war, and racial ideologies were reconfigured thereafter to entrench imperial power. Recent documentaries, such as BBC’s The World’s War (2014), make this history accessible for secondary school students.
- Second, to counter the perception of empire as distant and irrelevant to wartime Britain, students should research and visit local sites where the empire came home—such as Brighton Pavilion and the Woking Peace Garden.
- Third, to rebuke depictions of African and Indian soldiers as monolithically ‘loyal’ and ‘courageous’—platitudes that entrench the exclusionary ‘good subject’ trope— history classes should engage with touring exhibitions like Stories of Sacrifice and Singularity of Peace, which individualise colonial subjects within a global, imperial war. Recalling these stories about the past will help students understand the legacies of war and empire in the present.
Representation matters, and the newly recovered memory of Black and Asian soldiers, workers, and civilians can be an anti-racist project. Engaging primary and secondary school students must be a pivotal component of that project. But alongside VC recipients like Khudadad Khan, history lessons must include deserters like Mir Mast, African porters unnamed on monuments, civilians struggling with shortages, and ordinary soldiers caught up in someone else’s war. They must also acknowledge the racism of a national memory which erased their stories one hundred years ago, and which rewrites their stories today.