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Colonial troops
Image of a poster for the film Days of Glory (Indigenes)

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.

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Image of Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ.

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.

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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.

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Photograph of Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert - Amiens Road, September 1916.

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.

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