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V for victory soldier

© IWM (K 1254), December 1941

 

This photograph of an Indian soldier on board a troop ship to Singapore in 1941 confronts us with a familiar gesture from the Imperial War Museums archives. The soldier thrusts his head and arm through the ship’s porthole, and appropriates Churchill’s well-recognised ‘V for Victory’ symbol with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand. Incidentally, he isn’t attempting to be rude! Churchill himself didn’t realise that the ‘V for Victory’ symbol made with the palm inwards could be an insult until his aides briefed him.

This physical gesture, frozen in motion by the wartime photographic lens, punctures our Eurocentric memory of the Second World War with a non-white colonial presence. The soldier’s smiling youthful face attests to the two-and-a-half million men from undivided India swept up by military recruitment for the British Empire – widely regarded as the largest volunteer army in the world.

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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. 

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As we look forward to the New Year and begin to plan the various projects which will keep us busy over 2016, it is always useful to take a step back and consider the progress already made.  For over forty years, IWM has preserved one of the most important sound archives of its kind in the world.  Established in 1972, the Department of Sound Records, as it was then called, was an offspring of the museum’s Library which at that point included a handful of gramophone records.  The following decades saw the collection grow in size until, following a major restructuring in 2010, it was merged with the Department of Documents to form the Documents and Sound Section, with myself appointed as the new Section Head.

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Former POWs, Internees and the widows of POWs.

Special guests at June’s conference: former POWs (from bottom right: George Reynolds, Tom Boardman and Bob Hucklesby); FEPOW widow (Merle Hesp); and former internees (from top left: internees Els and Connie Suverkropp, Romee Hindle, and Olga Henderson). Courtesy of LSTM/Brian Roberts.

2015 has been a poignant year. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families came together throughout the summer to reflect, remember and renew their commitment to sharing the stories of wartime.

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 Tipperary scarf

A song sheet in the form of a scarf: “It’s a long way to Tipperary” © IWM (Q 70101)

Alexander MacGregor, a British officer who served with the Indian army, wrote about an interesting musical performance in his diary:

27 January 1915: Some time ago there was a big sing song at Fort Tanskyne, and one of the men brought down the house completely by getting up and singing in a regular shrill native chant “Tipperary” in Hindustani. But I am afraid “Bwa-kutcha Tipperary ko-hai” will not catch on at home as much as one might wish.

A  humorous aside, but the anecdote reveals the cultural encounters brought about by empire’s mobilisation in the war. Why were colonial troops singing the British standard ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’?

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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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Anzac troops on transport ship

Men of the Australian and New Zealand Division on a transport ship to Gallipoli, 1915. © IWM Q 13798

In his memoir, Over There with the Australians (1918), R. Hugh Knyvett, an Australian officer, pondered on the preoccupation with the Anzac experience at Gallipoli:

Australia and New Zealand’s part does not, in actual accomplishment or in personal daring and endurance, outclass the doings of these others, the larger half of the army. But there is a romance and a glow about the Anzac exploits that (rail at the injustice of it as you may) makes a human interest story that will elbow out of the mind of the ‘man in the street’ what other troops did. In fact, every second man one meets has the idea that the Australians and New Zealanders were the only men there.

The Anzac troops weren’t the only men who fought during the Gallipoli campaign though the landing has become synonymous with the exploits of the dominion men. Alongside them were troops from India, Ireland, France, Britain and other empire and Allied forces, with whom they interacted both in the battlefield and at camp.

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New Zealand troops in London

New Zealand troops, led by an army band, marching through a London street after the First World War.© Alexander Turnbull Library 

Anna Maguire reflects on the activities of New Zealand troops in the capital and the London and the First World War Conference, organised by IWM and the Centre for Metropolitan History (IHR).

London, the imperial metropolis and ‘mother country’, had great significance for the visiting colonial troops during the war. The capital had much to offer the visiting soldier and official guidebooks aimed to direct their tourist gaze and help them do proper justice to the opportunity, quite possibly the only visit to the capital they would ever make. 

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During the First World War, the troops made an effort to mark Christmas, despite the obvious difficulties. Words, objects and images from Imperial War Museums’ collections and elsewhere reveal how the soldiers negotiated some space for family, sharing and festivity.

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Collaborative Doctoral Award student, Rebecca Coll, writes about the IWM’s historic commitment to progressive methods of research and collecting.

“…a remarkable thing about the war museum is that, despite the nineteenth century type name…right from the beginnings, which were at the end of the First World War, they collected material relating to say women and empire people and so on. Not just the male white generals that you might expect that, that kind of place might do, they, they always wanted to show how the war affected everybody.”

Margaret Brooks, Research Assistant 1973-1983, IWM and Keeper of the Department of Sound Records 1983-2010, IWM (Interview with Margaret Brooks by Robert Wilkinson, February-September 2013, Oral history of oral history in the UK, track 01, Sound & Moving Image catalogue (http://sami.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/x/0/49/) reference C1149/30, © The British Library). 

With the recent opening of the new First World War galleries at IWM London, it is important to recognise the museum’s past and present commitment to new and progressive forms of research. The 1960s and 1970s are considered to have been a period of reinvention for the IWM, and the development of the Department of Sound Records was a prime example of this.

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