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Once Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) history month commences Gypsy and Traveller histories are largely ignored. This is on par with the the erasure of GRT history and contemporary culture within mainstream Britain. Given this, I was surprised that the very popular Peaky Blinders starred Birmingham based main characters and their families who appear to be Brummies, of Romany, Gypsy and Irish Traveller heritage.
In many ways representation within Peaky Blinders is problematic, it is typical that once GRT people appear as main characters their lifestyles are associated with gangs, sex and violence. But there are a lot of positives, the episodes are filled with fabulous costumes, interesting characters, plots, settings and music. There is certainly a lot of pride that comes with the representation of Birmingham based lives of mixed heritage Gypsy and Traveller families on screen.
Peaky Blinders is set in a time era which is just after WWI and appears to end in the 1930s. Whilst the series is fictional, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the lives of the fictional main character Tommy Shelby and his family and the real-life lived histories of Gypsy and Traveller people.
Peaky Blinders does well to de-mythisise the assumption that Gypsy and Traveller people do not mix with gorgers and do not participate within mainstream society. To illustrate, Tommy and his brother’s fought in WWI and experienced the damaging aftereffects of war participation. In reality, despite previously being subjected to British colonial practices and being treated with distain by the State many British Gypsy and Traveller people would have had no choice but to fight in this war due to conscription. Many would have lost their lives because of this.
Note that Tommy’s family mostly lived within housing and were working within mainstream industrial society. In reality, in industrial cities like Birmimgham many nomadic Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles would have been under threat due to land purchases made by gorgers for the purpose of building factories and housing (Green, 2009). Upon purchase of this land nomadic groups would be evicted from it, this would have left many homeless, with the increased the pressure to assimilate. This would result in work life changes, hence, Gypsy and Traveller people worked alongside gorgers in factories, where the pay and conditions would have been poor (Green, 2009).
Just like prejudice in reality, even when living within housing Tommy and his family experience prejudice from within and outside of their own community. Tommy is referred to as a ‘dirty didicoi’ seemingly due to the perception of his mixed heritage and not being of ‘full-blooded’ Gypsy stock. In response to an anti-gypsy slur Tommy mocks stereotypes by stating that as well as his day job he ‘also sells pegs and tells fortunes’.
Towards the end of Peaky Blinders the promotion of fascism by elite figures is central to the storyline. Just as in reality, there was the development of the British Union of Fascists political party. Prejudice and fascist ideas contributed to categorising Gypsys as an inferior race. Whilst Peaky Blinders ends before WWII it is harrowing to know that these ideas influenced the extermination of Roma and Gypsies during the Nazi regime. Many British Gypsy and Traveller soldiers lives would have also been lost in fighting the Nazi’s in WWII due to this.
It is unfortunate that the women have less screen time in Peaky Blinders, but their personalities did shine. Ada’s character and response to prejudice is ace, whether this is responding to street hecklers, an elite eugenicist women’s ethnic cleansing ideas, or her son’s prejudice towards his sister. When her son refers to his sister as a ‘thing’ and states that she would ‘get them killed’ as she was a Black-mixed race child she responds by stating, ‘where will they send you Karl?’ whilst making him aware that he could also be subjected to persecution due to having a Jewish father and a Gypsy mother.
This year marks the end of Peaky Blinder’s episodes, the last episode is great. Tommy returns to his roots – choosing to end his days with his horse, wagon and photographs of his family. But he then wins against all the odds! Unfortunately, whilst Peaky Blinders has been celebrated there is less celebration of Gypsy and Traveller ethnicities, these were completely ignored within the documentary The Real Peaky Blinders.
Through whitewashing Gypsy and Traveller peoples histories are frequently denied. To adapt David Olusoga’s words, ‘[Gypsy and Traveller] history is British history’. An awareness of Roma Gypsy and Traveller history should not only reside with Gypsies and Travellers alone, or exist at the margins, as these are connected to all of us. As Taylor and Hinks (2021) indicate, if there is increased awareness that past and present themes of percecution this might enable increased support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights – this is vital.
Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten History, BBC [online].
Taylor, B. and Hinks, J., (2021). What field? Where? Bringing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History into View. Cultural and social history, 18(5), pp.629–650.
In criminological discourses the term “war crime” is a contested one, not because there are no atrocities committed at war, but because for some of us, war is a crime in its own right. There is an expectation that even in a war there are rules and therefore the violation of these rules could lead to war crimes. This very focused view on war is part of a wider critique of the discipline. Several criminologists including, Ruggiero, DiPietro, McGarry and Walklate, to name a few, have argued that there is less focus on war as a crime, instead war is seen more as part of a metaphor used in response to social situations.
As far back as the 1960s, US President Johnson in his state of the union address, announced “The administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America”. What followed in the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, was seen as the encapsulation of that proclamation. In some ways this announcement was ironic considering that the Vietnam war was raging at the time, 4 years before the well documented My Lai massacre. A war crime that aroused the international community; despite the numbers of soldiers involved in the massacre, only the platoon leader was charged and given a life sentence, later commuted to three and a half years incarceration (after a presidential intervention). Anyone can draw their own conclusion if the murder of approximately 500 people and the rape of women and children is reflected in this sentence. The Vietnam war was an ideological war on communism, leaving the literal interpretation for the historians of the future. In a war on ideology the “massacre” was the “collateral damage” of the time.
After all for the administration of the time, the war on poverty was the one that they tried to fight against. Since then, successive politicians have declared additional wars, on issues namely drugs and terror. These wars are representations of struggles but not in a literal sense. In the case of drugs and terrorism criminology focused on trafficking, financing and organised crimes but not on war per se. The use of war as a metaphor is a potent one because it identifies a social foe that needs to be curtailed and the official State wages war against it. It offers a justification in case the State is accused being heavy handed. For those declaring war on issues serves by signalling their resolve but also (unwittingly or deliberately) it glorifies war as an cleansing act. War as a metaphor is both powerful and dangerous because it excuses State violence and human rights violations. What about the reality of war?
As early as 1936, W.A Bonger, recognised war as a scourge of humanity. This realisation becomes ever more potent considering in years to come the world will be enveloped in another world war. At the end of the war the international community set up the international criminal court to explore some of the crimes committed during the war, namely the use of concentration camps for the extermination of particular populations. in 1944 Raphael Lemkin, coined the term genocide to identify the systemic extermination of Jews, Roma, Slavic people, along with political dissidents and sexual deviants, namely homosexuals.
In the aftermath of the second world war, the Nuremberg trials in Europe and the Tokyo trials in Asia set out to investigate “war crimes”. This became the first time that aspects of warfare and attitudes to populations were scrutinised. The creation of the Nuremberg Charter and the outcomes of the trials formulated some of the baseline of human rights principles including the rejection of the usual, up to that point, principle of “I was only following orders”. It also resulted in the Nuremberg Code that set out clear principles on ethical research and human experimentation. Whilst all of these are worthwhile ideas and have influenced the original formation of the United Nations charter it did not address the bigger “elephant” in the room; war itself. It seemed that the trials and consequent legal discourses distanced themselves from the wider criminological ideas that could have theorised the nature of war but most importantly the effects of war onto people, communities, and future relations. War as an indiscriminate destructive force was simply neglected.
The absence of a focused criminological theory from one end and the legal representation as set in the original tribunals on the other led to a distinct absence of discussions on something that Alfred Einstein posed to Sigmund Freud in early 1930s, “Why war?”. Whilst the trials set up some interesting ideas, they were criticised as “victor’s justice”. Originally this claim was dismissed, but to this day, there has been not a single conviction in international courts and tribunals of those who were on the “victors’” side, regardless of their conduct. So somehow the focus changed, and the international community is now engaged in a conversation about the processes of international courts and justice, without having ever addressed the original criticism. Since the original international trials there have been some additional ones regarding conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The international community’s choice of countries to investigate and potentially, prosecute has brought additional criticism about the partiality of the process. In the meantime, international justice is only recognised by some countries whilst others choose not to engage. War, or rather, war crimes become a call whenever convenient to exert political pressure according to the geo-political relations of the time. This is not justice, it is an ad hoc arrangement that devalues the very principles that it professes to protect.
This is where criminology needs to step up. We have for a long time recognised and conceptually described different criminalities, across the spectrum of human deviance, but war has been left unaccounted for. In the visions of the 19th and 20th century social scientists, a world without war was conceptualised. The technological and social advancements permitted people to be optimistic of the role of international institutions sitting in arbitration to address international conflicts. It sounds unrealistic, but at the time when this is written, we are witness to another war, whilst there are numerous theatres of wars raging, leaving a trail of continuous destruction. Instead of choosing sides, splitting the good from the bad and trying to justify a just or an unjust war, maybe we should ask, “Why war”? In relation to youth crime, Rutherford famously pondered if we could let children just grow out of crime. Maybe, as an international community of people, we should do the same with war. Grow out of the crime of war. To do so we would need to stop the heroic drums, the idolisation of the glorious dead and instead, consider the frightened populations and the long stain of a violence which I have blogged about before: The crime of war
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the final of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
Chapter III: Your Problem but not Your Problem
Despite women’s investment in football, at least socially, in terms of Women’s Football (much better than the men’s game in my opinion), it was interesting to observe the reactions of White men that positioned themselves as progressives when I challenged the national response to racism in the game. When we realise that ‘football hooligans’ all have jobs across sector, I would bring people to consider this is not just a working-class issue, as football is a game that transcends socioeconomic lines. This post isn’t necessarily about the violence White women have commited against me but is certainly their problem, and they could have a deciding voice of how White men act at football matches. When we consider racial hiearchies, I am reminded of the gendered components of colonialism where White men are at the top of that hierachy followed by the White woman. In spite of White women’s complicity in those histories of racism (Ware, 1992), logic dictates that White women’s privilege will have some sway when White men act in hostility to people of colour. That said, still today I find White women all too happy to take on misogyny / patriarchy but not racism / White supremacy. In this blog, I will start with a Twitter encounter where I dared to say there isn’t a “racism-in-football-problem” but a more societal issue of White supremacy. Until we start thinking about White supremacy as a political system, just as women have done patriarchy (DeBeavoir, 1949; Friedan, 1963; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1991; Adichie, 2014) and others have done class (Marx and Engles, 1848; Chomsky, 1999; Tom Nicholas, 2020), we will never solve this racism issue.
When I challenged the concept of “racism in football” in July 2021, a local BBC journalist claimed I could make it both about ‘racism in football’ and in society. The problem with this is, dominant media discourses have already stitched it all up by relegating racism to specific spaces somewhat divorced from a global system of violence. At this time as well, I saw the term ‘football hooliganism’ being used as double talk for ‘working-class thuggery’. However, to understand how football got to where it is today, we need to know how football was not originally made by the working-class.
Much alike my favourite sport cricket (Tre Ventour Ed, 2021), football started as a sport for characteristically ‘English gentlemen’. It was made for the rich by the rich to really celebrate themselves. Their game by their rules. When the working-class started to advocate for players playing for money, in its day (so the late nineteenth century), it was thought controversial. Yet, the rich controlled the boards and they could afford to play for free, taking days off for matches. The proleterians could not. Here, then you see that it came down to money, where a game made by the wealthy for them and their friends was then changed forever by working people, no less than mill and factoryworkers.
Actions that society most associates with the working-class majority today – including public fights, vandalism, brawls, and riotting in Britain are not new phenomena but has a long history going back to even before 1900 uncoincidentally coinciding with the construction of London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 (Storch, 1975). Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, for example, so-called ‘race riots’ took place in no fewer than nine port communities between January and August 1919 (Jenkinson, 1996: 92). However, media footage and pictures of British riots before the Second World War have rarely been seen by the public but “…individual memories of civil disorder [in those days were] surprisingly widespread” and when riotting did happen, “governments often denied they had, and censored the newsreel pictures” (Forbidden Britain). Historically speaking, these uprisings grew out of a response to state-sanctioned violence frequently mass unemployment and poverty. Under the threat of poverty, homelessness, or even death, groups will attack shops and other structures to acquire food where “the turbulence of the colliers is, of course, to be accounted for by something more elementary than politics: it was the instinctive reaction of virility to hunger” (Ashton and Sykes, 1967: 131). Yet, the male violence that occured at the England v Italy Euro finale football match in London July 2021 has a precedent going back to the days of Walter Tull where his biographer historian Phil Vasili writes:
“In 1919, working-class Britain was in a rebellious state. Whether the war created the mood of revolt among workers – sometimes taking a horribly distorted and misguided form as we saw with the race riots – or merely speeded up the process that had been years in fermentation, is not for debate here. The fact is it happened. Families, individuals, veterans were changed by the war, including Tull, his eagerness to enlist souring to a hatred for carnage.”Vasili, 2010: 229
On the morning of the final, I saw evidence of local Northamptonians heading to the pubs to get their fill as early as 8AM before the game that evening at 8PM (@cllrjameshill). In London, however, White (let’s be honest of course dominantly heterosexual cisgendered) patriarchal violence, was in full swing on Leicester Square, described as a “fanzone for thousands of England fans” before even two o’clock. Furthermore, according to Hutchinson (1975), “riots, unruly behaviour, violence, assault and vandalism, appear to have been a well-established, but not necessarily dominant pattern of crowd behaviour at football matches, at least from the 1870s” (p11). Whilst football today has united people across racial and class lines, many Black men of my dad’s generation (born 1971) would not find themselves anywhere near a match when they were my age or even as teenagers purely for the fact that these crowds were frequently racist and the risk of violence was significant. Today, while racism in football is largely in response to the actions of White people against Black players, there is a further history of White racism against Black fans too.
As I do not doubt that there is racism in women’s football (there is racism at every level of society), I wonder why women’s sports (especially football) is not associated with violence. Heck, other men’s sports do not have these connotations attached. We do not see it in cricket, nor do we see it in rugby to these extremes or tennis. Looking at the conversations in what happened following the game, it seemed to me that people were trying so hard to divorce this male violence from the rest of society, as if it is only specific to football. I would argue this is Britain’s soul, an unfiltered and grandiose example of the gendered racial privilege that comes with being a White man in the UK. It is very easy to stigmatise the working-class in this instance and call them “thugs”, but when we know football unites across class divides, it would do us well to consider how lots of the perpetrators were also probably middle-class as well, with jobs that permeate every level of British society: from accounting to education to sports, unions and more. That while it is incredibly easy to scapegoat them as there are histories of working-class responding with riots against state violence (no less than sports riots), we must think about how for some reason, football in particular, turns lots of men feral.
I was talking to one family member who claimed this is where men get to claim their base instincts, that violence seems to come naturally. I would need to think more on this, but it must be said that many social settings condition violence out of us, from school to the workplace. Even so, that in schools violence is punished, many students (especially boys) being placed pupil referral units. Whilst society brutalises in many ways, the pugilistic scenes we are witness to at football matches is one that is considered unsavoury by most. Men gathering together at the football … does this flick a switch? In the late nineteenth century, polymath Gustave LeBon writes about what he called “the collective mind” (1896: 2) whilst another scholar later states “the natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits … it does not recognise houses, doors, or locks and those that shut themselves in are suspect” (Canetti, 1962: 16). Football matches may be an apt site to discuss what the psychology profession now calls ‘crowd theory’ which was further developed on by psychologist Neil Smelser analysing the American ‘race riots’ in the first half of the last century (1962: 253, 260-61).
In my last post, I talked about ‘Karen’ in relation to racist middle-aged White women that harrass Black people minding their business. Yet, one does not see White women congregating like this together in mass as instigators of violence, where if at all in my experience violence from White women has been more individualistic or covert. Though, if women friends/colleagues disagree and know more, I’m happy to be put right from their personal experience (and do more reading). Rioting, however, is frequently often hypermasculine (Gary Younge in: DDN, 2020) and so is the violence around football. The role of White women in racism can be more insidious but my encounter on Twitter with this White man comes after my many encounters with White men that think they know more than Black people about racism.
Both White men and women are complicit in White supremacy as aggressors and bystanders. To keep this on topic, every time a White woman watches a White man’s racism but stays silent, they are as bad as they are really showing how White supremacy is the symptom and racism is the problem.
Now, you have three entries. Have a think on them.
Adichie, C.N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists. London: 4th Estate.
Ashton, T. S., and Sykes, J. (1967). The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century. 2nd ed. New York: A. M. Kelley.
Canetti, E. (1962) Crowds and Power. London: Gollancz.
Chomsky, N (1999) Profit over People. New York: Seven Story Press.
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race, and Class. London: Penguin.
DeBeauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
[DDN] Double Down News (2020) Black Lives Matter & The Question of Violence | Gary Younge. YouTube [online].
Forbidden Britain (1994) Riots Episode 3 [via YouTube]. London: BBC 2.
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters. MI: University Press.
Friedan, B (1963) The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin.
hooks, b (1991) All About Love: New Vision. London: HarperCollins.
Hutchinson, J. (1975) Some aspects of football crowds before 1914. In. The Working Class. University of Sussex Conference Report.
Jenkinson, J (1996) The 1919 Riots. In: Panayi, P (ed) Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester: University Press, pp. 92-111.
Le Bon, G (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Marx, K and Engels, F. (1848/1967) The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.
Smelser, N. (1962/2011) Theories of Collective Behaviour. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro.
Storch, R.D. (1975) The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57. International Review of Social History, 20 (1), pp.61-90
Tom Nicholas (2020) Whiteness: WTF? White Privilege and the Invisible Race. YouTube.
Tre Ventour Ed. (2021) 22 Yards of Whiteness: ‘You Don’t Have to be Posh to be Privileged’. YouTube.
Vasili, P. (2010) Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me. London: Raw.
Ware, V. (1992/2015) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso.
Over a century ago in Sarajevo (Serbia), an Austrian archduke was shot. And next, millions more non-archdukes were shot, faffing about at The Front. And for what? And to me, learning about this war at school, it seemed more of a class war than anything else. Kaiser Wilhelm II being the grandson of Queen Victoria and his cousins being the monarchs of Britain and its vast empire, from India, to the Caribbean and bits of Africa.
And I never saw anyone that looked like me; I thought this war was for White people. And, I know now over four million non-Whites contributed, giving their lives, but that’s not the narrative I was sold at school. And at eleven o’clock on the 11th November 1918, screams sang into silence.
Knowing what I know now about history, even if it is just a basic knowledge (I’m no historian) Armistice Day does not mark peacetime. The fallout of the war to end all wars was a Pandora’s Box no signed treaty could contain. And in all conflicts it’s always the working-class who suffer most.
And it would be the archdukes of that world who would be having a jolly old time as if nothing had happened. But 1919 ushered in a wind of change: mass unemployment and uncertainty followed working-class communities from France and Belgium onto the streets of London, Cardiff and Liverpool.
When I think Armistice, I’m scratching my head as to when peacetime really does begin. 1919 brought in the Liverpool Race Riots where a one Charles Wotten was lynched at Albert Dock. Films like Doctor Zhivago depicting the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922) remind me of the violence that occurred outside of the main narrative of the war (during and after). What of those calls for independence, Easter Risings on streets of Dublin?
HBO’s Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore comic – a vivid depiction of Tulsa, a section of American history most people haven’t heard of, including Black people. Why would people have heard of it? Vital parts of our own history have been erased, (I think) because it makes “the victors” look bad.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921:
Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot), this was when a White mob attacked the residents, livelihoods, homes and businesses of the majorly Black Greenwood area of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma. This was what we’d now call a White supremacist attack and an act of domestic terrorism, or even genocide. Hundreds killed and thousands displaced.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released and has often been blamed for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. After The War, there was a spike in racial tension in America, and Tulsa was basically Black Wall Street. The U. S Army was racially segregated in itself too. 1921 Greenwood was booming, a success story for Black business owners, despite high crime rates and racial segregation. However, history is a hotbed for Black excellence, but when Black people gain momentum, the establishment shoots them down, literally – from Fred Hampton to Medgar Evers.
At school, I was not taught, not once, about the four million non-Whites non-European that fought and laboured in those four years. I think if I was able to see myself in this history from when I was a child, I would have more time for Armistice. The great stage of the First and Second World War is tied up in Britain’s popular memory / national identity, and British identity is in crisis. Still, today, I’ve found to be British, is to be White.
The yearly cycle of remembrance; from the procession in Northampton to interviews on BBC with veterans of the Second World War, I’ve always found it’s the voices of White British people. But there was racism at the front. The imperial mindset of European colonialism ran rampant in the British and German armies, tools of institutional racism, and by extension an instrument to whip up hate and institutional violence against colonial servicemen from places that included Senegal, China and the West Indies.
“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
Where are those stories of race at war? To be a soldier of colour, British-born or otherwise would not be the same as being a White (European) soldier, soldiers that toiled in France but also in the skirmishes of the African continent, Asia and the Middle East – erased out of our nationhood.
Over a million soldiers from what was then British India (pre-1947) fought for the allies, along with over two million from French Indo-China, as well as 100,000 Chinese labourers. But I did not have this on my history curriculum, when we looked at the stories between 1914 – 1918. But I was bludgeoned with images of White European soldiers having a great time.
To me, Armistice Day is in remembrance of a White Man’s war. And to (begrudgingly) mimic poet, colonialist and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, it feels like a “White man’s burden,” even if people of colour fought too. In seeing how Britain portrays those wars in schools but also how they are represented in popular memory, can you blame activists and academics looking at the stories of race and racism on the front lines under a microscope?
Race / racial identity are massive factors in these conflicts, as historian David Olusoga talks about in his article. We would not need to keep talking about race if race wasn’t treated like a minor inconvenience and those often treating it like an that are White people, refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness and White Privilege.
However, if we really are serious about Armistice, we have to acknowledge that working-class people yet again were at the whim of the titled and the entitled. We remember the soldiers but never their victims, portraying death (murder) as honorable, as said in Wilfred Owen’s (from Horace) Dulce et Decorum Est “pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). What is sweet about sending good men to the slaughterhouse?
Both wars are riddled with nationalism, and portray patriotism with grandeur. Great Britain raised at half-mast, celebrating Britain’s militarism –from Churchill to the Dreadnought (but no love for Bengal or Dresden). In how the wars are taught (popular nationalism), we encourage the living to join the dead, an ode to the Union Jack, even today in a postcolonial world.
“The colour bar on non-regular officers in the armed forces, designed and imposed by the political and military, is explicitly in the Short Guide to Observing a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1912.” – Phil Vasili
The world wars are full of people that are products of empire, in the ruins of class but also race. An archduke gets shot and millions of non-archdukes pay the price. Millions dead. After the war – widespread unemployment, uncertainty, race riots, class divides, The Depression, a grim state of affairs.
When you add the layer of race into that, it makes it more complex. Colonial soldiers coming to Britain after the First World War who were left out of the victory parades. Charles Wotten’s lynching in Liverpool. Men from British colonies who came here after the Second World War – to fill in labour shortages – White Supremacist fever and contested Britishness.
The narrative of Black soldiers goes all the way back to Roman Britain. Olusoga stated “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgotten” and I agree. In erasing Black and brown soldiers from the narrative, it’s a declaration of White lives being worth more than Black / brown lives.
And yes, we have the red poppy which is supposed to include everyone but it feels very exclusionary; and Britain’s popular memory is selective and needs to explore its colonial legacy – how imperial racial thinking played a role in both wars, otherwise we are continuing to tell stories that only include the experiences and memories of a White European majority.
“Black subjects had their actions during the war written out of history.” – Emma Dabiri
1914 Manual of Military Law
BBC Stories. “Alt History: White-washing black soldiers from WW1- BBC Stories.” YouTube. 27/06/19. Online. 10/11/19.
BBC Stories. “Alt History: A British lynching – BBC Stories.” YouTube. 13/07/19. Online. 10/11/19/
Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1915, Epoch Producing Company. YouTube.
Channel 4 Documentary. “Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Read by Christopher Eccleston | Remembering World War 1 | C4”. Youtube. 07/11/13. Online. 08/09/19.
Doctor Zhivago. Dir. David Lean. 1965, MGM. DVD
History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com. 2019. Web. Accessed: 10/11/19.
Lindeloff, Damien, creator. Watchmen. White Rabbit, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 2019.
Olusoga, David. “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” theguardian.com. 2018. Web. Accessed: 09/11/19
Vasili, Phil. Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918 Officer, Footballer […] Surrey: Raw Pres, 2010. Print.
Today marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and commemorations will be taking place across the land. I will be overseas for much of the pomp and circumstance, but the build-up each year appears to begin earlier and earlier. As a pacifist, I always find this time of year very troubling, particularly the focus on the Royal British Legion [RBL] poppy.
Most combatants (both axis and allies) in both world wars were conscripted, that is they were legislatively compelled into military uniform. This was also the case in the UK, with the passing of the Military Service Act, 1916, Military Training Act, 1939 and National Service Act, 1948 ensuring that men had little option but to spend a period of time in the military. Objections on the grounds of conscience were legally tolerated, although not always upheld. As I have written about previously, this was a particularly treacherous path to follow in WWI.
So, for many men* during the period of 1916-1960, military service was not a choice, thus it makes sense to talk about a society which owes a debt to these individuals for the sacrifice of their time, energy and in some cases, lives. Remember these men were removed from their jobs and their families, any aspirations had to be put on hold until after the war, and who knew when that was likely to occur?
Since 1960, military service in the UK has been on a voluntary basis, although, we can of course revisit criminological discussions around free will, to ascertain how freely decisions to enlist can truly be. Nevertheless, there is a substantive difference between servicemen during that period and those that opt for military service after that period. Such a distinction appears to pass by many, including the RBL, who are keen to commemorate and fetishize the serviceman as intrinsically heroic and worthy of society’s unquestioning support.
The decision to wear a poppy, whether RBL red or peace pledge union [ppu] white is a personal one. The former is seen as the official national symbol of commemoration, designed to recognise the special contribution of service personnel and their families. The latter is often attacked as an affront to British service personnel, although the ppu explicitly note that the white poppy represents everybody killed during warfare, including all military combatants and victims. It draws no distinctions across national borders, neither does it privilege the military over the civilian victims. These different motifs, each with their own specific narratives, pose the question of what it is as individuals and as a society we mean by ‘Lest we forget’.
- Do we want to remember those conscripted soldiers and swear that as a society we will not force individuals into the military, regardless of their personal viewpoints, desires, aspirations?
- Do we want to remember soldiers and swear that as a society we will not go to war again?
If it is the latter, we should take more notice of the work of RBL, who although coy about their relationships with arms dealers, accept a great deal of money from them (cf. Tweedy, 2015, BAE Systems, 2018). We should also consider the beautiful and poignant display at the Tower of London in 2014, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Cummins and Piper, 2014). The week after this display began to be dismantled, a dinner for arms dealers was held at the same venue. Whilst RBL is keen to deny that their poppy is partisan and political, it is evident that this little paper flower is not neutral. Discussions and arguments on social media have demonstrated that this motif can and is used as a battering ram to close down questions, anxieties and deliberation. Even more worrying is the rewriting of history, that WWI and WWII were won by British forces, neglecting that these were world wars, involving individuals; men, women and children, from all over the globe. This narrative seems to have attached itself to the furor around Brexit, “we saved Europe, they owe us”!
For me, on an extremely personal level, we should be looking to end war, not looking for ways in which to commemorate past wars.
*For more detail around the conscription of women during WWII see Nicholson (2007) and Elster and Sørensen (2010).
BAE Systems, (2018), ‘Supporting the Armed Forces,’ BAE Systems, [online]. Available from: https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/our-company/corporate-responsibility/working-responsibly/supporting-communities/supporting-the-armed-forces [Last accessed 20 October 2018]
Cummins, Paul, (2016), ‘Important Notice,’ Paul Cummins Ceramics, [online]. Available from: https://www.paulcumminsceramics.com/important-notice/ [Last accessed 11 November 2016]
Cummins, Paul and Piper, Tom, (2014), Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, [Ceramic Installation], (London: Tower of London)
Elster, Ellen and Sørensen, Majken Jul, (2010), ‘(Eds), Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology, (London: War Resisters’ International)
Military Service Act, 1916, (London: HMSO)
Military Training Act, 1939, (London: HMSO)
Milmo, Cahai, (2014), ‘The Crass Insensitivity’ of Tower’s Luxury Dinner for Arms Dealers, Days After Poppy Display, i-news, Thursday 27 November 2014, [online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-crass-insensitivity-of-tower-s-luxury-dinner-for-arms-dealers-days-after-poppy-display-9888507.html [Last accessed 27 November 2014]
National Service Act, 1948, (London: HMSO)
Nicholson, Hazel, (2007), ‘A Disputed Identity: Women Conscientious Objectors in Second World War Britain,’ Twentieth Century British History, 18, 4: 409-28
peace pledge union [ppu], (2018), ‘Remembrance & White Poppies,’ peace pledge union, [online]. Available from: https://ppu.org.uk/remembrance-white-poppies [Last accessed 11 November 2018]
Tweedy, Rod, (2015), My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance, (London: Veterans for Peace UK), [online]. Available from: http://vfpuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/my_name_is_legion-web.pdf [Last accessed 14 May 2017]