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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]