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.
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.
The History of IWM: the galleries at Crystal Palace, 1920-24.
Steeped as they are in stories of the past, it is not often that museums get to step back and take a look at their own history. The History of IWM Workshop, held at IWM London on 2 May 2012, brought together IWM staff, external researchers and several of IWM’s AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) students to review the current state of research into IWM and discuss avenues for further investigation.
Roger Smither, Research Associate, began with a look at the pioneering work of IWM’s Film Archive. Thanks to forward-thinking individuals such as Edward Foxen Cooper and IWM’s first Curator, Charles ffoulkes, the museum had been a leader in the field of film collecting. Next came Dr Toby Haggith who looked at memory within the museum – arguing that IWM has always been, through its collections and its displays, and the thousands of interactions between staff and the public, a site of both personal and collective remembering. Dr Catherine Moriarty of the University of Brighton, ended the first panel by describing IWM’s programme of art commissions between 1981 and 2007. Her conversations with former IWM Keeper of the Department of Art, Angela Weight, revealed how this creative programme allowed artists to draw inspiration from IWM’s unparalleled collections and added an extra dimension to the museum’s displays. Dr. Moriarty ended by urging future researchers to explore the lesser known stories within IWM’s history.
Professor David Cesarani (right) with Professor Paul Shapiro of USHMM at the Beyond camps and forced labour conference held at IWM London, 4-6 January 2012
On 4-6 January 2012, Imperial War Museum London hosted the fourth international conference in the Beyond camps and forced labour series. Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, co-organiser of Beyond camps and forced labour guest blogs here about the key themes which emerged from the conference:
‘It is hard to sum up the themes that were explored in the conference, let alone find patterns common to all the papers. But I think that some distinct threads did emerge. One was the discovery of new archival sources or the re-examination of neglected collections.
The largest and most important of these is the vast archive of the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross at Bad Arolsen. Thanks largely to the persistence of Professor Paul Shapiro of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum we now have a good idea of the staggering riches that were kept locked away by the ITS for decades, and the process of making them available to researchers is now well underway. The many sub-collections will offer new insights into the existence of inmates in the concentration camps, the death marches, and the experiences of refugees and survivors after liberation. One of the most extraordinary collections was described by the new ITS historian, Susanne Urban. It comprises 1,200 responses to questionnaires sent out to survivors of death marches – amongst the earliest, most immediate testimony every recorded. The ITS records will help historians to map and analyse population movements after 1945, including the influx of former DPs into the UK. It will take decades and many PhD theses to even scrape the surface of this treasure trove.