Britain’s history is one of the key fronts in our divisive identity ‘culture war’ – yet remembrance of shared history also has the power to bring people together in a way that few other things have.
Awareness of the vast contribution made by black and Asian servicemen and women in the World Wars has increased significantly, but still requires further promotion to majority and minority audiences alike. Research for British Future finds that eight in ten people (78%) agree that doing more to recognise the Commonwealth contribution in World War Two would be a positive way to promote understanding of the shared history of today’s multi-ethnic Britain. That sentiment is felt equally by white Britons (78%) and ethnic minority Britons (76%), with just 3% of people saying they disagree.
Remember Together is a project from British Future and The Royal British Legion that aims to bring people from different backgrounds together in remembrance of our shared history. It highlights and celebrates the service and sacrifice made by servicemen and women of all creeds and colours, engaging new audiences and helping make the national tradition of Remembrance feel relevant and inclusive to everybody in Britain today.
In November 2020, British Future assembled a coalition of voices – across politics and ethnicities and from civil society, culture, the military and faith – to urge that “more should be done to highlight the role of soldiers from across the Commonwealth, ensuring their contributions are reflected and acknowledged, and that Remembrance activity is truly inclusive.” Supported by both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, we called for greater efforts “to ensure all who served are fully recognised through better education, commemoration and documentation of our shared history.”
In 2021 we are supporting two projects that demonstrate how this can be put into practice in communities across the UK, with a view to expanding the scope of the project in 2022.
Students at two secondary schools, in Rochdale and east London, are working to uncover new history and heritage, from within their own diverse communities, that highlights the contribution of black and Asian soldiers in the Second World War and what this means today.
Calling on the local community – via students’ families and other networks such as local mosques, community organisations and local media – students are asking local black and Asian people to share the stories of their family’s involvement in the Second World War. The students then become historians themselves, conducting filmed interviews with family members and documenting these stories – with video, family photos and medals and other memorabilia – online.
Falinge Park High School has completed this first phase of the project. The response, from the students and local community, has surpassed our expectations. The project found a strong sense of family pride in their relatives’ service – and appreciation that these untold stories were finally being shared. The students also unearthed some wonderful stories – like the grandfather who would tell his grandkids never to pick up pens from the floor, following his experience fighting for the British Indian Army in Burma where Japanese troops would leave booby-trapped pens on the battlefield.
I never really thought about who the soldiers were so I feel very different about British history now.
In school we only learn about the British side of things but in reality there is a lot more to what we learn and see. If we were to learn more about British history I will know from now on that I’m not looking at the full picture. I will research more on topics that include other countries. For example, there were also Indian suffragettes that we were not aware of.
I learnt a lot. For example, India contributed the most out of any Asian country. Africa helped a lot to the economy and resources as well as in North Africa. Many debts wouldn’t have been paid off without the help of African and Asian countries.
We are now working with Falinge Park to evaluate and learn from the project, and developing plans to share these stories more widely across the local community, among Rochdale residents of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, throughout the year leading up to Remembrance Sunday.
Eden Girls School, a Muslim secondary school in Walthamstow, east London, will start a similar project at the start of the school year in September 2021. As well as documenting community stories online, they hope to host an event in November to bring members of the local community together at the school, where students will share the stories that they have uncovered alongside a short compilation video and guest speakers.
Eden Girls School took part in a Remember Together project in 2018, joining forces with Walthamstow School for Girls to learn about and commemorate the 1.5 million men from India who served 100 years ago, 400,000 of them Muslims from what is now Pakistan. You can see a video of the project here.
British Future will conduct a detailed evaluation of these two projects – examining the impacts on the students’ understanding of shared history and identity, as well as the wider impact on majority audiences of these locally rooted stories of shared history. This evaluation will inform advocacy for the project to be scaled-up nationwide in 2022, with schools, youth and community groups and others across the country helping to document our shared history.
We hoped to demonstrate the diversity of the British armed forces during the Second World War, which was a representation of the present British multicultural society. Although these contributions are placed as a footnote to mainstream narratives of the World Wars, we aimed to reconceptualise the make-up of the British armed forces, which included millions of servicemen from Asian and African heritage.
We’ve seen how this approach can work, as an inclusive way to talk about remembrance but also as a way to engage students in our diverse classrooms with more challenging topics like empire, race and colonialism. There is a growing confidence that remembrance is inclusive in schools but this has not yet translated across generations and into the local remembrance services at cenotaphs across the country.
Earlier this week, MPs debated in parliament an e-petition calling on the Government to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum, which had amassed over 250,000 signatures. The recent report from the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the Department for Education should “work with an appointed panel of independent experts to produce a well-sequenced set of teaching resources to tell the multiple, nuanced stories that have shaped the country we live in today.”
Remember Together offers one model for telling the stories of black and Asian contribution in the classroom today, bringing students and their local communities together to remember the history that we share.