On 21st and 22nd October, the Centre was very pleased to support a pair of events in partnership with Leeds City Museum. The events, which were held as part of Black History Month, were designed to examine histories and perspectives that are often overlooked.
On the Friday, a study day, entitled ‘Global Perspectives on World War One, was held at the museum. Papers were presented from a variety of speakers on a wide range of topics including how Black Soldiers and the wider African and Caribbean communities helped Britain during two World Wars, the life of Leeds Pal, Private Jogendra Sen, Chinese Perspectives on the Great War and female nurses’ relationships with non-white soldiers.
Staff from the National Archives, provided insights into the material that they hold on West Africa and South Asia and discussed the challenges of researching this area of the war and the value of examining the war through the themes loyalty and dissent.
On the Saturday, the museum opened its magnificent Broderick Hall for a community day called ‘Peoples’ Pathways: Soldiers from Overseas in World War One’. This event was largely performance-based, with music, spoken word and interactive talks.
Community historian Jahan Mahmood brought items from his travelling military museum and gave an illuminating talk on Muslim perspectives on the war. Russell Smith performed a monologue in character as Walter Tull, footballer and British Army officer and the event was rounded off with a beautiful performance of the World War One inspired Sacred Songs by Alchemy and SAA UK.
The topics were intentionally varied but nevertheless a few connecting themes emerged. One was the sheer range of stories that can be told about the war; so many that it’s possible to see the First World War not as one conflict, but many. It is important to reflect on these multiple ways of seeing history, not least because it confirms the value in having so many people take the time to explore the aspect of the war that most interests them.
Another theme to emerge was the depth of history required to even begin exploring the war. Most of the sessions examined histories with connections to the histories of empire and colonialism. Any thorough reflection of the global First World War must necessarily begin with the history of the European empires and the patterns of movement and control that developed way before 1914. So too is the history of Black and Asian people in Britain. This is also a long-term history and one that supports the view that the First World War is but a moment in a far longer set of stories about how people, willingly or otherwise, come together and find themselves sharing a common, albeit distinctive, histories.
In this post, Professor John Beckett outlines the hidden history preserved in a small corner of Northern France
A few miles south of Arras, along a road tucked in behind the village of Ayette, one of those familiar dark green Commonwealth War Graves Commission signposts appears to direct you
to turn left into a hedge. In fact, on closer inspection it turns out to be an unmade lane or track. Being wise after the event, I recommend walking down the track – either that or being prepared for a long reverse since there is nowhere to turn a car around! Two hundred yards or so along the track you reach the Ayette ‘Indian and Chinese Cemetery, 1917-1918’. What on earth, I wondered, was this small cemetery doing in this remote location, and why was it dedicated to Indian and Chinese casualties? Indian we can guess since we know that many troops came to Europe to be part of the Imperial war machine. We may not know as much about them as about the white British lads who we expect to find memorialised on the gravestones of the cemeteries maintained by the CWGC, but we know about their military role, notably in 1915.
But China? Why should any Chinese people have been tied up in this war? World War it may have been, but I do not recall China being lined up on either side of the Imperial divide? Unlike India, it was not part of the British Empire.
So what is the story? As is well known, between 1914 and 1916 the British army grew rapidly in line with the recruitment policy instigated in August 1914 by Lord Kitchener as soon as he was appointed Secretary of State for War. By the eve of the Battle of the Somme the relatively tiny band of regulars and territorials who had been mobilised in 1914 had been transformed into a fighting force of more than one million men occupying almost 200 km of trenches along the Western Front. As it had grown in size and activities, front-line units had been supported with food, ammunition and war materials, largely as a result of the work of the British labour corps and pioneer battalions or combat troops resting from the trenches. These men also built camps, salvaged weapons and munitions from the battlefields, and carried out repairs to roads, railways and airfields. As such, the vastly inflated army was underpinned in order to maintain its pursuit of trench warfare.
All this changed when the Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 1916. The casualty rates were such that with a few months there was a severe labour shortage on the Western Front. Every able-bodied serviceman was needed at the front, and the British were increasingly desperate to find fresh sources of manpower. At home this was largely achieved by the introduction of conscription, but in addition to extra soldiers they also needed labourers. Where we these to be found?
In October 1916 the War Office approached the Chinese government, which was then officially neutral. It came up with a plan which led to the formation of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). Public proclamations, often promoted by local missionaries, encouraged Chinese men to join the Corps, which was non-combatant but under British military control and discipline. For poor Chinese peasants, particularly those in the cold northern provinces of Shantung and Chihli, pledging themselves to three years of service in return for pay which was far better than they could hope for at home, seemed like a winner. The first transport of Chinese labourers made its way to Europe via Canada at the beginning of 1917. By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese labourers attached to the Commonwealth forces in France and Belgium. This figure doubled by November 1918.
Meantime, and partly because the British were uncertain about the likely response in China, preparations had been made to expand the existing Indian Labour Corps. Labour battalions of men serving with the Indian Corps had been used on the Western Front since September 1915 but it was only in 1916 that steps were taken towards forming a separate Indian Labour Corps. The civil authorities in the various Indian provinces were asked to start recruitment campaigns and the first Indian labourers arrived in Marseilles in June 1917. By the end of August 1917 over 20,000 workers had arrived in France. At the Armistice the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000 and even in May 1919, 80,000 were at work in Europe.
In the course of 1917 and 1918 men from the Indian and Chinese labour corps undertook transport, maintenance; salvage and construction work on the Western Front and as such made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. They were mostly deployed beyond the range of enemy guns, and managed by officers of European extraction, many of whom were former civil servants or missionaries who were able to communicate with the workers but had little or no military background. Even so, many of the Chinese and Indian Labour Corps died as the result of long-range shelling, air raids, and enemy action during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Others fell victim to illness, particularly Spanish flu through the winter of 1918-19. In total around 2,000 Chinese and 1,500 Indian labourers died while serving on the Western Front.
The Indian and Chinese cemetery at Ayette was set up by British troops in September 1917 and used until April 1918. However, Ayette was the scene of heavy fighting in March 1918, and the village was captured by German troops during the offensive. If was retaken by the 32nd Division on 3 April 1918 and remained in Allied hands thereafter. Interments at Ayette resumed in autumn 1918, and although the cemetery claims on its perimeter wall to have burials from 1917-18 it contains a number of later burials from 1919. The cemetery has a lovely little pagoda. It holds 109 members of the Indian Army, 42 men of the Indian labour corps, 33 men of the Chinese labour corps, and one German interment (Heinrich Vodische). It has the full range of inscriptions the Imperial War Graves Commission agreed with the Chinese for their graves, including ‘A Noble Duty Bravely Done’, and ‘A Good Reputation Endures Forever’. The gravestones are a mixture of English and Chinese or Indian script.
Some labour corps units remained in France after the Armistice to help with the clearing of the battlefields, which largely meant the exhumation and re-interment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers in nominated cemeteries. How many of the Chinese Labour Corps subsequently made their way home is unclear. Apart from those who died, it seems likely that many remained in Europe.
 Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade (2010), 100
In this guest post, Dr Narveen Kaur describes some of the research that she is conducting for the Centre for Hidden Histories.
Researching World War I is rather a difficult task involving the trawling through archival material and old newspapers. In my work with the Centre of Hidden Histories, I want to uncover the family histories of soldiers involved in the War effort, specifically the participation of the Malay State Guides in the Aden Field Forces from 1915 to 1919. The Hidden Histories project aims to fill a gap in memories and as the focus on Malaysian Sikh participation in World War I emphasizes the Ghadr movement and the resulting Singapore Mutiny prior to the troop transfers in 1915, there is comparatively little on their experiences during the war. The work to date has been a challenge, in identifying families and trying to source primary material. In the Malaysian Archives, the files are restricted and require government permission while the Japanese Occupation of World War II in Malaysia meant the destruction and loss of significant chunks of material history including the regimental colours and silver.
Entering the active data collection phase of research for my project, I wanted to start blogging a bit on the experiences of collecting family memories and working with enthusiastic and passionate citizen historians. In this first blog post, I would like to put in perspective the service of this unit. As described in a newspaper article, the Malay State Guides entered the war effort in 1919, with a force of approximately 1000 men. This unit received a number of recognitions in medals and orders of merit. A complete list may be found here.
During the course of my research, I spoke with one woman, who has devoted time and effort to research on her father and his participation in the Malay State Guides, his service in Aden and later his work within the Police forces. Her father was one of the approximately five hundred soldiers who returned from Aden.
The efforts of citizen historians help to keep the artefacts and histories of these soldiers alive yet the lack of research methods knowledge impedes their work. I hope to contribute to their efforts by organising a road show in Kuala Lumpur this July. Hopefully, efforts such as this will offer the opportunity to disseminate the knowledge needed to preserve the valour and bravery of the Malay State Guides and expand our understanding of the Malaysian Sikh diaspora and their engagement with the forces of empire, pushing back against the politics of remembrance within the Malaysian national narrative that results in the loss of cultural knowledge and history. A recent investigation of cenotaphs in Malaysia demonstrated this slow erasure, where the World War I memorial that stands outside the railway station in Ipoh holds only the names of the British fallen soldiers.