Poster for Indigènes (dir Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) released in the UK as Days of Glory by Metrodome
The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 draws attention to the 1953 feature film Appointment in London, a story about Bomber Command starring Dirk Bogarde, and in particular to a scene showing Bogarde mixing with his peers: among the officers is one of Caribbean origin. There is no plot point hanging on this fact – it is simply a tacit recognition of the contribution made in the RAF, as in so many other ways, to the Allied effort in both world wars by people of the Empire. What is sadly remarkable about it, however, is how rare it is to see black troops represented in this way.
One area that the Whose Remembrance? Project set out to explore was the extent to which the wartime role of the peoples of Britain’s colonies has been reflected in the popular media. My contribution was to produce a database of relevant films, tv and radio.
A good start for my search was the Colonial Films Database the result of an earlier AHRC-funded project in which IWM was a partner. As well as providing essays about contemporary films like With the Indian Troops at the Front (1916) and West Africa Was There (1945), this huge database also offers several dozen titles online. Trawls of various websites made it possible to add a number of retrospective documentaries, such as the 2009 Soldiers of Empire episode from Channel 4’s Not Forgotten Series, or Scottish Television’s 2004 programme Treefellers about the work in Scotland during the Second World War of lumberjacks from British Honduras. Drama series which came immediately to mind included Granada’s 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ as The Jewel in the Crown, and BBC2’s 1992 Black Poppies.
Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916. IWM Q1201
Arthur Torrington is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Arthur’s research looked at the contribution of West Indian soldiers to the First World War which he writes about here.
Soon after war was declared, British military operations in Africa were launched against Germany’s colonies of Cameroon and Togo. Both the first and second battalions of the West India Regiments (WIR) participated in these attacks against German East Africa. The WIRs were highly commended for their service. Formed in 1795, the West India Regiment served the British Empire until 1927. The soldiers were mainly former African slaves.
Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) encouraged his countrymen to volunteer to fight in order to prove their loyalty to the King and to be treated as equals. While Lord Kitchener’s personal view was that black British soldiers should not be allowed to join the forces, King George V ‘s intervention made it possible. Over 15,000 West Indians volunteered and were included in new units called ‘British West Indies Regiments’. The recruits’ initial journey to England was perilous and hundreds of soldiers suffered from severe frostbite when their troopships were diverted via Halifax in Canada. Very many had to return home no longer fit to serve as soldiers. When the others arrived in England, they found that the fighting was to be done by white soldiers, and that West Indians were to be assigned the dirty and dangerous work of loading ammunition and digging trenches. Most of them went to war without guns.
India 1944: Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ. IWM IB 1558
Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a member of the Swadhinata Trust, is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Ansar writes here about his research into the experiences of South Asian seamen in the two world wars.
For my study I chose to look at South Asian seamen of Bengali origin because it was a natural progression from my last project Bengalis in London’s East End.
We know that the Bengali seamen formed the first sizable South Asian community in Britain. They settled in London’s East End, close to the Docks, and were commonly referred to as ‘lascars’. The word was once used to describe any sailor from the Indian sub-continent or any other part of Asia, but came to refer to people from West Bengal and modern-day Bangladesh.
South Asian seamen received less pay, less food and had smaller living quarters than white sailors, and their death rate was higher. Most worked in the engine room as ‘donkeywallahs’ (after the ‘donkey engines’) while those who oiled the machinery were known as ‘telwallahs’. Others worked supplying the furnace with coal and disposing of the ashes. You can imagine my delight at discovering an image of three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS Sutlej in 1944. The working conditions were harsh and hot, and many seamen died of heat stroke and exhaustion. Lascars trapped in the engine rooms suffered a particularly high casualty rate.
Together, this poster represents the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, West Africa, and India fighting together in the Second World War.IWM PST 15795
As Project Manager of the AHRC sponsored Whose remembrance? project, I was responsible for drawing up the programme for the two workshops we held in the summer of 2012 – to enable both historians and museum professionals who have been researching aspects of this history to share their work.
Searching for academics in this area was one of my first tasks. Our library has a good stock of published works, and projects undertaken by our education and exhibition staff also provided a number of useful contacts and our advisory group were able to recommend academics they had come across. It was gratifying to find that most people working in this field – if approached – gladly gave up a day or even two – to come to IWM and share their work.
The first workshop was devoted to historians working in the field, Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch, a historian of modern African history at Oxford, Professor David Killingray, author of a major work on African troops in the Second World War, and Dr Santanu Das, an English literature academic who has used IWM’s collections extensively combined to provide a thought-provoking opening to the day. They made plain how relatively under-researched colonial service is and highlighted some of the emerging studies. A memorable moment was hearing a recording of a First World War captured Indian soldier singing a song remembering the garden he had left back home – one of the extraordinary recordings made in 1915 by German anthropologists and today held by the Humboldt University in Berlin. We then heard from Stephen Bourne who movingly told us how his interest in the Caribbean experience of the Second World War had grown from his own research into his adoptive aunt’s story – and how this led him to further work and three books. The lack of written and oral history accounts was a constant theme and we discussed the different ways of remedying this and the difficulties of writing history when the official, coloniser’s voice is so dominant. The full programme will be available soon on our website.
Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert – Amiens Road, September 1916. IWM Q1201
For a large part of 2012 the Research Department has been working on an AHRC-sponsored scoping study called Whose Remembrance?. The study asked the IWM to identify whose stories were being included in the history of the First and Second World Wars and how this was affecting patterns of remembrance. In particular the IWM has looked at how the experiences of colonial troops have been studied by academics and displayed by museums.
Both conflicts mobilised the British Empire and its Commonwealth for war and necessitated the deployment of enlisted men and women across the world, in foreign places far from home. To take just a few instances from the First World War, this meant not only would an Englishman have served abroad in Palestine and Egypt but men of the Indian Army and British West Indies Regiment would have served on, or in support of, the Western Front in France and Belgium.
The remains of Surrey Lodge, an apartment building destroyed by a V2 rocket on 4 January 1945. The photograph was apparently taken on the following day and graphically shows how a 5 storey building was reduced to rubble. Courtesy of Lambeth Archives.
Barely 150 metres from Imperial War Museum London is the site of the most destructive explosion in Lambeth during the Second World War, which killed 43 people. Just before 8.30pm on the night of Thursday 4 January 1945 a huge explosion destroyed an apartment building, Surrey Lodge, on the corner of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road. The old Lambeth Baths and a chapel on the opposite side of Lambeth Road were also severely damaged. The blast also extensively damaged the northern and western sides of the Imperial War Museum as well as many surrounding buildings.
There was no warning – no air raid sirens or sounds of approaching aircraft – just the explosion. However the initial detonation was followed by a distinctive roaring noise and a sonic boom, because the disaster was caused by a German V2 rocket – the world’s first ballistic missile – diving into the building faster than the speed of sound.
The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917)is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.
William Davey in uniform while serving with the Dragoon Guards. (Papers of W Davey, Documents 62/179/1)
As part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust, I catalogued some of the IWM’s medical collections which had hitherto been largely unavailable to researchers. A major dividend from making these newly catalogued collections more accessible is that some are now on display in the new exhibition at IWM North, Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict (13 October 2012 to 1 September 2013).
The papers of William Davey who served in the ranks with the Dragoon Guards and the Labour Corps on the Western Front, record the effects of his service on his health. He was awarded a War Badge in December 1917, having received an honourable discharge due to ill health. On display are his Discharge Certificate releasing him from the Army as ‘no longer physically fit’ in November 1917; a Ministry of Pensions Notification of Final Award dated 1930, providing a full ‘a pension for life’ and a Ministry of Pensions letter dated 17 March 1933 informing his widow after his death (from the effects of gas) that she would not be eligible for a widow’s pension (but could apply for one).
A engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial. Amanda Farrell.
February this year saw the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on 15th of that month 1942. Between June of that year and October 1943, over 60,000 Allied troops would be forced to labour as prisoners of war (POWs) on the Burma-Thailand railway. It is not so popularly known, however, that after this a second ‘Death Railway’ project was overseen by many of the same Japanese engineers. This second railway was built on the island of Sumatra, and its construction involved nearly 5,000 Allied POWs.
As an island rich in coal and oil, Sumatra presented a vital energy resource for the Japanese. Their intention was that the new line starting at Pakanbaroe in the east of Sumatra would connect to an existing track at the town of Moeara, and continue to the western port of Padang. By joining the new track with the old, and constructing a tributary line to connect the railway to Sumatran coal mines, the Japanese planned to transport fuel and troops by rail for shipping from Padang to Singapore.
The track between Pakanbaroe and Moeara was approximately 140 miles long, with a total of 17 camps made and lived in by prisoners. Since there was no place to which men could escape, very few were fully enclosed by the bamboo fences or barbed wire associated with typical images of POW camps. The railway was built through mountain ranges and thick jungle, and across swamp and river.
A photograph of and letter from Nursing Sister D M L Crewdson (August 1918) about the award of her Military Medal. IWM DOCS 62/135/1
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work since I joined the Research Department has been cataloguing IWM’s medical collections. This was part of a major project supported by the Wellcome Trust to expand our understanding and online coverage of the experiences and participation of medical personnel and their patients in various conflicts since 1900. Working my way through boxes of diaries and letters, I wrote synopses for each of a large number of our collections which has now made it easier for researchers to locate material relevant to the history of medicine.
One of the joys of this research was discovering the personal experiences of medical staff who served during the two world wars. One particularly moving collection contained the letters written home by Dorothea Crewdson, who as a nurse on the Western Front became one of the few women to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery. After being wounded when her hospital at Etaples was bombed by the Germans in May 1918, Nursing Sister Crewdson refused treatment in order to continue to tend to her patients. Tragically, she died from peritonitis just after the war had ended, on 12 March 1919 aged just 32, and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.
IWM has an unparalleled collection of material, covering all aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century conflict. This blog is run by the Department of Research and reports on research undertaken at IWM into our holdings.
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