"The colonial experience - it's this huge, teeming and absolutely fascinating underworld which is there just to come out into the open, and we are just at the tip of the iceberg..."

Santanu Das, King's College London

"We hope that Whose Remembrance? will serve as a catalyst for further discussion - particularly with the First World War centenary providing opportunities for funding for community projects and increasing attention on the global nature of that conflict."

Suzanne Bardgett, IWM Head of Research and Academic Partnerships

Whose Remembrance? was IWM’s first AHRC-supported research project. It sought to investigate the state of research into the experiences of the peoples of Britain's former empire in the two world wars, and the understanding and availability of this research to audiences and communities today. The project was carried out by Imperial War Museums in consultation with an advisory group of academics and specialists. Researchers worked on the production of three databases: published works produced by academics and community historians over the last thirty years, exhibitions and resources developed by museums and cultural organisations, and cultural outputs such as films, documentaries, novels and plays. Two workshops were held at IWM London, the first with historians and the second with museum professionals and community workers and representatives. The team also included three specialist researchers who assessed the accessibility and usefulness of IWM's collections for understanding and interpreting historical topics which they chose. You can read their reports at the end of this page. A specially commissioned film summarises the study's findings.

The story of the experiences of the peoples of the British Empire during the two world wars is rich territory and deserves to be more intensively pursued and permanently included in mainstream narratives. Cultural organisations need to forge closer links with communities and with their 'brokers' in order to make these wartime narratives more representative of and relevant to the diverse communities they serve. The dissemination of these histories to the wider British public has the potential to enrich everyone's understanding of war and its effects on society.

Members of a Wazir Khassadar at Miranshah, India
© IWM (Q 81397)
Members of a Wazir Khassadar at Miranshah, India

Almost one and a half million Indian troops served with the British forces in the First World War. Some 50,000 of them died. 

Tens of thousands from former colonies served in labour battalions. 

Over 370,000 Africans served in the Allied forces in the Second World War. 90,000 travelled to Burma to help defeat the Japanese. 

Over 10,000 West Indians volunteered for service alongside the British during the Second World War. 

By the end of the Second World War 2.5 million Indians were fighting for Britain. Over 36,000 were killed or went missing in action. 

Santanu Das, King’s College London: “The colonial experience, it's this huge, teaming and absolutely fascinating underworld which is there just to come out into the open and we are just at the tip of the iceberg I think now.”

Stephen Bourne, Historian: “And they were all fighting for the same cause; the West Indies and the West African colonies were completely behind the mother country, and we've never given them that credit, we've never given them their dues and thanked them.”

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, Swadhinata Trust: “I guess this is where historians have a role to play, policymakers have a role to play and the museum itself can disseminate this information to the wider community.”

Patrick Vernon, Every Generation Media: “What the young people learned, they learned not so much about war itself, they learned about comradeship, they learned about teamworking, they learned about respect and recognition, and they were in awe of these people because they recognised that these men and women laid their lives down for them.”

Clifford Pereira, Historian: “I think Europeans have forgotten the contribution by non-Europeans in the liberation of Europe.”

Arthur Torrington, Windrush Foundation: “It’s a story for all you know and all would be interested in that journey because we go places and we hear stories as well of other people, of Asian, of Europeans, of Eastern Europeans and in that sense it's an exchange of histories, and we're learning and we are sharing.”

David Killingray, historian: “We live in a global world, we have a community in this country which is international, we are multicultural. However, we take that word, we know what it means. And that means that the curriculum that we have in school, whether it's literature or whether it's history or geography, needs to reflect that position, that Britain, a relatively small offshore island in Europe, has played in the world. It has played a role above its weight and size. But it's an Imperial role, and it's not a very attractive history, but it needs to be taught. Service in the army opened a door, a door to new cultures, new languages, one man said to his office, he said, “I don't want to just learn Kiswahili”, he said, “I want to learn English because English opens a big door, Kiswahili opens a small door.” If you had been a young man taken from your village and put into the army and away for five or six years, that was a major experience in your life. You didn't forget it. You might not want to talk about it, that's another matter. But many men were prepared to talk about it and the experience of being recruited in that way, or enlisting and serving overseas was a dramatic one, traumatic one for some. It introduced men to a kind of world that they had not even imagined, a world of army lorries and tarmac roads and uniform and other languages and other cultures, of huge ships on a sea which went up and down and made you seasick, of being carried on these huge ships long distances across the Indian Ocean or around the Cape or through the Mediterranean, then engaging with big, big cities like Cairo or Bombay or Madras or Calcutta, Africa; and most of Africa had only small towns in this period, not the big burgeoning cities that we have today.”

Bengali merchant seamen attend the unveiling of the Tower Hill Memorial near London’s docks in 1928. 

Ansar Ahmed Ullah: “As I was saying, if you look very closely at some of the names, you can pick out the Bengali Muslim names. You can see a group of Ullas’s listed. And here, if you look closely, you'll see Ahmed, a couple of Ali’s here and then further down Hamid, Hassan, and, and I would, I would assume that there, that there were Bengali Muslims who lost their lives in the ocean.”

Santanu Das: “Just imagine these are poor villagers from northern India who are used to having lived in this kind of small huts and then from there they're suddenly kind of shoved into the trenches into all that fire, the mud and after that to be brought to Brighton Pavilion. This is like, kind of the jewel in the crown for the Indian War experience in many ways, for the range of emotions and experiences, from exaltation at having arrived at the Brighton Pavilion, to deep nostalgia, homesickness, and also this physical pain because many of the soldiers here, they were badly injured and mutilated, and suddenly they come to this place with the chandeliers, this kind of absolutely kind of Baroque decoration, and they are dazzled by it and for example, I remember vividly this letter where the CPO says: “I've seen things one doesn't even see in a dream. This is like a fairy land.” There is this great paternalism towards the Indians because, as I say, there is this connection at a personal and intimate level. On the other hand, where the Imperial and colonial structures, we have a racist ideology and that makes it both fascinating and often quite frustrating because do you look at an Imperial lens or do you look it through the lens of small individual people meeting and building bridges and connections? And I think we have to factor in both these things and that's why we need political and military maps, at the same time, we need to understand the deep emotional history. There is no one Indian war experience; it was different for different people. It was different for the Muslims and for the Hindus, it was different for the people who fought and different for the labourers who served behind them. And within that, we have to understand the Indian War experience.”

Collections footage: Presenter: “And now I'm going to ask Flying Officer Eric Cross to speak for West Indians in the services. Eric is a navigator in one of our own bomber squadrons.”

Eric Cross: “Well, it's a job to know where to start. There are so many of us doing so many different things in the army, the navy, the air force and air sea rescue and the marines and the wrens, the ATS, the WAF and the nursing services.”

Arthur Torrington: “I met one of your colleagues from the war museum who talked about what they were about to do for the Windrush anniversary, 60 years after Windrush, and I also heard that it would be called ‘From War to Windrush’, and I was also invited on the committee to help and to participate and, and to advise, and that was a great experience in the sense that we really enjoyed, you know, having discussions about Windrush as to what we need to do, what needs to be displayed and you know when the exhibition was displayed, it was quite an exciting time. It was a popular exhibition. It should have been just about nine months or a year, but it continued for like 18 months. Items from the exhibition went to Jamaica, which was another great thing to happen because the Jamaican High Commissioner came, he liked what he saw and said I'd like to have one of these things in Jamaica and Kingston and the war museum obliged. They, you know, did their own little exhibition suitable to a small venue. And it, it went to Jamaica and it's still there, actually.” 

Stephen Bourne: “Over the 10 years since I started doing the talks at the Imperial War Museum, it’s also going out to primary schools, mainly during Black History Month. So, I do an assembly at a primary school one day and it could be that the pensioners sent to the next day could be in a church, a black church the next day, Harris Academy the next day. So, I kind of brought now the National Portrait Gallery I've done talks at the BFI, South Bank. I find ways and linking up with organisations as well as community groups to spread the word around about my books and that's how it works and that's what I've done for 10 years because I learned early on that if you just focus on the Imperial War Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, the big institutions, you're never always going to reach the wider community because the wider community doesn't necessarily go to those places, but it also gave me the confidence doing this work at the Imperial War Museum to pursue doing a book on the Black Home front in Britain but it took eight years to find a publisher. It didn't matter that I was doing this stuff with the war museum, publishers were very resistant and turned the proposal down.”

Clifford Pereira: “I see myself as part of a mechanism to bring people together, and I use history as a way of doing that and archives being a way of bringing factuality to that process, so that it's not romanticised and it's not turned into something other than the facts, I use those archives to bring it and anchor it down into facts.”

Collections footage voice over: “As contingents marched past the saluting base, claims of the Royal Indian Air Force roar overhead.”

David Killingray: “I quite like the idea of youngsters engaging with images from the past and trying to interrogate them and ask serious questions about them. What I don't want is a history that says, ‘this is how you should think about it’. I want children to think for themselves, and that seems to me one of the great advantages of the kind of history that we've had.”

Patrick Vernon: “I've spent many a time in the film archive section, looking at old film footage which I've enjoyed, fantastic getting the old reels out; the taste, the feel, the you know, the creation of that It's really magical.”

Santanu Das: “Initially when it started, people would look for in the archives, but now we are like magpies; we look for whatever we can find, whether it be a little barn in France where there is perhaps a little that had been left behind by the Indians, or maybe in an Indian village where there's half a scrap of letter. Or maybe in the National Archives, where we found the diary of Bill Dust, the brother of Will Dust, who crossed over to the German side one rainy night, and I found the actual trench map he used to get back to the German side. So, I think this interdisciplinarity is very important. For example, I'm very interested in what I call this dialogue between objects, images and things and words. Just words are not enough, because after all, these are non-literate people, so we have to use these objects we have found and the images. There are hundreds of photographs, for example, the Imperial War Museum has this absolutely brilliant collection of photographs of the Indian soldiers. We often don't know who took them, but we have the photographs. So, what happens when we put the images in dialogue with some of the letters or when we compare maybe some of the letters with some of the objects that are still being unearthed in Belgium and in France, and they tell us things that we often perhaps haven't looked for, and this is the interest of research, these certain surprises.”

Collections footage voice over: “Lance Corporal Williams belongs to British Guiana, and she is in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. She retreads tyres in an army workshop.”

Stephen Bourne: “But their lives have not been given value, they've not been given recognition. It is shameful because we've got, now got a culturally diverse country with young black kids who are not being told about their history or they're told about Americans, they're told about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks but that I think is very damaging, because if they're not being told about their history, not Black America's history, then that that that really needs to change. But it is very heartening for me knowing that on the books that I do do help to restore a bit of that history and put it in the public domain.”

Arthur Torrington: “Yeah, I worked with Haringey library service, and we decided that we wanted to do a project by getting together and a number of ex-veterans meeting sixth formers. We had some young men and some young women. The young women interviewed the female war veterans, Second World War and the young men interviewed with the male veterans. And what was interesting was there was a nostalgia; the young girls said, ‘Oh, I wish we were there. I wish we were there because the way that they described their experiences of leaving the Caribbean, coming to Britain and serving in the armed forces and the whole, the fashion, the dress, the sense. I think they were captivated; they actually were captivated by that and their stories, basically. 

But when we explored more recent conflicts, they said, ‘Well, we don't understand why these conflicts happened in the first place.’ And I think when we talk about war, it's easy to say Second World War, it was very easy, we were fighting fascism and Hitler et cetera, and there was a clear mission if you want to call it that, whereas more recent conflicts, there's more the, the missions not there or there's different, there's different debates around that and obviously you know they've been whole stuff around anti-war movements as well. So, I think all the young people they see that and some of them said yes we were happy to serve in the first or Second World War, no problem at all, modern day conflicts we're not quite sure. The ex-servicemen and women also felt appreciated because again, their stories, some of them have never told their stories in to young people and in that public way and they felt validated in their experiences. They felt that they were recognised, that these young people were interested in their in their stories.”

Collections footage: “A boom train is going up the line. You couldn't fight the New Guinea War without the boom. The steady patient boom carrying his 30 lb load up the mountains, down valleys across rivers, taking the rations and the ammunition in taking the wounded out.”

David Killingray: “One of the challenges of history when you're dealing with propaganda and the way in which history in the past was written the language that is used is that it sounds uncomfortable to many modern ears and eyes, and yet that is what we have to engage in with history. You cannot interrogate the past without feeling a sense of unease and perhaps outrage.”

Collections footage: “At Dillies Irwin Stadium in the shadow of the Old Fort, India's commander in Chief, General Larkin, they gave his annual garden party foremost among the guests were members of the central legislature, representatives of India's armed forces presented a colourful war pageant.”

Clifford Pereira: “Sometimes community needs to have a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging, and that individuals, even if they're not connected to the exact story in a personal way, can have a sense of pride in the community having that sort of shared story. So, while every single Bengali in east London may not feel that the story of the Lascars on board a British ship is their story, they can be part of this community story, the shared story that belongs to the entire Bangladeshi community. We're removing the things that people are using to separate themselves and giving them at least the excuse to connect.”

Arthur Torrington: “And I think one of the key issues around health well-being is a sense of self-esteem and identity. So, if you feel that you are recognised in your heritage, if you feel that you are accepted as who you are in terms of public health, doctors and research, it tells you that you, you will have a better aspiration. You make more informed choices. If we just do more recognition of that, people feel better about themselves. It's just, it's an obvious thing, you know, if it's a lovely day like today, we feel good about ourselves. If the if it's rain, you feel, oh, and I think heritage is part of that process and heritage, it's not simply a kind of brand. Or heritage, is not simply a thing that you, you do when you watch TV programme or you read a book, it's part of who we are.”

The Whose Remembrance? film highlights the efforts which historians, museum professionals and community workers are making to discover how the peoples of the former British Empire were affected by the two World Wars. The film showcases the findings of the project and serves to act as a discussion prompt and catalyst for future research into this theme.

Related Content

  • Events


    IWM led a series of public screenings of the Whose Remembrance? film including at the UK Houses of Parliament, IWM North in Trafford, King's College London, The Tomlinson Centre in Hackney, London, in partnership with Hackney Council and the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network (BEMA), the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with Luton Culture and the Whitechapel Idea Store in London.

  • Resources


    IWM produced a variety of resources as part of the Whose Remembrance? project, including a discussion paper, poster and four databases, which provide an overview of published research and available productions in other media (exhibitions, documentary film, radio, television, websites etc.) covering the experiences of the peoples of Britain's former empire in the two world wars.

  • Workshops


    The Whose Remembrance? project has successfully strengthened and extended the network of academics from different disciplines, museum professionals, independent researchers and representatives from community associations who have a mutual interest in this area of history. Two workshops were held at IWM London, the first with historians and the second with museum professionals and community workers and representatives.

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