To mark the publication of IWM's guide to Researching the British Empire in the First World War, Anna Maguire reflects on the challenges of remembering war and empire. 

On 12 June 2014, I attended a workshop on war, citizenship and public memory. Convened by Vron Ware and hosted by Autograph, the arts organisation based in Rivington Place, Hoxton, a number of historians, curators, campaigners and educators took part in discussions about the process of remembering war, public memory and commemoration. The discussions centred around the contribution of soldiers from empires in both world wars, and during other twentieth and twenty first century conflicts.

The session began with everyone sharing an image to represent their area of interest. These were fantastically stimulating, ranging from Ministry of Information photographs of colonial troops during the First World War, to book covers such as that researched by Stephen Bourne for his new book Black Poppies to images of current recruits from the Commonwealth in the British Army chosen by Les Back. These were then displayed on the wall as a visible reminder of our own individual perspectives and stories, but also of the collective desire to learn and teach and share more about colonial and postcolonial experiences.

The images shared during the War, Citizenship and Public Memory Workshop. Image courtesy of Autograph.
The images shared during the War, Citizenship and Public Memory Workshop. Image courtesy of Autograph.

The discussions were challenging and stimulating. We talked about the language of commemoration, the difficulty in talking about remembering without implying the celebration or promotion of war. The term ‘contribution’ was challenged in relation to the Empire in its many guises across the twentieth century: does it detract from the reality that many were coerced into fighting these wars? What about the wide range of motives for volunteering for service, which did not necessarily stem from patriotism, but often from economic need or a sense of adventure? What about the efforts of the colonial home fronts?

The role of the media in contemporary commemoration was critiqued and questioned, and a good deal was said about the lack of visibility of colonial troops on television and radio programmes or newspaper articles. Can the media deal with the complexity that the challenging histories of colonial participation present? We also talked about museums and cultural institutions and how they can change the way we remember war to reflect more diverse and complex narratives.

We spoke about multiculturalism. There was a strong feeling within the group that viewing the First World War as some kind of foundation of multiculturalism be challenged. The racism and discrimination, the separation of troops of different races and ethnicities was not representative of an empire united, brought together, brothers in arms. I would argue and did argue for the recognition of the diversity of encounters that were enabled by the war, between the troops themselves as well as the civilians they met in the countries where they were stationed. This was, though, an element of racial and cultural interaction that could only happen due to the mass mobilisation of war and that was not sustained as the troops were decommissioned and sent back to their own countries.

Though there was lively debate and disagreement, the overwhelming feeling I left with was of a need to recognise that narratives and commemorations of war need to be complex, if they are to reflect more thoroughly the realities of war for colonial and postcolonial communities and if these narratives are to be made more visible. The IWM Research Guide is available to download now.