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‘Exploring black people’s involvement in the First World War’: Free workshop reviewed

John Siblon, ‘Between Hierarchy and Memory: Commemoration of African and Caribbean Servicemen after the First World War’. Photo: ©IWM

I was invited to speak at a workshop on 15 October at the Imperial War Museum, London, on black people’s involvement in the First World War. I was honoured to be part of a panel where the work of each speaker complemented one another. I was asked to present my findings on research into the commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the war ended. I was also asked to give my thoughts, along with the panellist Anna Maguire, one of IWM’s PhD students, on photos from the IWM’s collection on soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment, the South African Native Labour Corps, and the Nigeria Regiment, and finally a session with questions to the panel. 

The workshop was an opportunity for me to outline my doctoral thesis: that African and Caribbean servicemen were deliberately forgotten in the memory of the war and that their contribution was marginalised in the aftermath of the conflict. I have researched mostly archival material to provide evidence that black soldiers were victims of a deliberate policy of marginalisation and, so far, I have found evidence that between the War Office, the Colonial Office and the Imperial War Graves Commission (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission) decisions were made, which were recorded, suggesting that officials did not want black soldiers participating in victory parades in London after the war; that memorials in London such as the Merchant Seamen’s Memorial at Tower Hill should be for Europeans only; that tablets in cathedrals representing the war service of British, Indian and Dominion forces excluded African and Caribbean colonies; and that the Royal Navy Memorials were for British sailors only with black crew, even if they served on the same ships as white crew, commemorated separately in Mumbai.

Suzanne Bargett, Head of Research and Academic Partnerships, John Siblon, PhD student at Birkbeck, UoL, and Anna Maguire, IWM PhD student take questions. Photo: ©IWM

Suzanne Bargett, Head of Research and Academic Partnerships, John Siblon, PhD student at Birkbeck, UoL, and Anna Maguire, IWM PhD student take questions. Photo: ©IWM

In East and West Africa, the policy was worse. It was rare for so-called ‘native’ soldiers or carriers to receive an individual headstone. Four Monuments: three in Kenya and Tanzania and one in Nigeria were considered sufficient memorialization for black soldiers. Yet in Britain, the Western Front and in Africa, there are instances where black and white soldiers are buried together in the same cemetery with individual headstones. When this occurred it was because they were Christian and so deemed worthy of individual commemoration. Today, such a policy of exclusion or marginalisation would be called racist and discriminatory but at the time, with an even larger British Empire after the First World War, colonial and military officials believed they were acting in defence of white privilege in the colonies against the perceived threat of colonial nationalism which could threaten the stability of the Empire. Such thinking can explain the racially hierarchical nature of post-war commemoration. I was grateful to be able to use this Black History Month event to share my research findings to an appreciative audience.

 

The workshop was kindly supported by the AHRC Centre for Hidden Histories, in partnership with IWM.

John Siblon is a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London

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