The We Will Remember Them project, funded by the Centre for Hidden Histories, aims to uncover hidden narratives that will strengthen the coverage of under-represented groups in relation to the centenary of the Great War. Empire troops fought in the most infamous battles of the war, including at Ypres and Passhendaele, but the hidden histories of soldiers from the Caribbean and South Asia still need to be recovered and their stories told, not only in scholarly monographs but in other cultural forms too. Consequently, this project aims to ensure that we try to avoid the real risk that younger generations will conceive of the war as fought entirely by white soldiers.
The research output has been constituted in the form of a travelling exhibition which will facilitate the general public becoming (more) aware of the courage, sacrifice and stories of “Commonwealth” soldiers. The exhibition will tour the East Midlands and London and will launch at New Art Exchange on the 22nd September.
Following the launch, the exhibition will travel to the following venues:
25th-29th September Nottm. County Hall, West Bridgeford NG2 7QP
2nd-5th October Clifton Cornerstone, Southchurch Drive, Clifton NG11 8EW
6th-12th October Bulwell Riverside, Main Street NG6 8QL
12th-18th October Mary Potter Centre, 76 Gregory Blvd. NG7 5YH
18th-23rd October Nottm. Central Library, Angel Row NG1 6HP
23rd-26th October Nottm. City Council, Loxley House, Station Street NG2 3NG
27th October-1st November St Anns Valley Centre, 2 Livingston Rd NG3 3GG
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This project is delivered in association with Renaissance One
Community, Identity and Commemoration: Britain and the First World War
Friday 23 June, Heap Lecture Theatre, University of Derby, Kedleston Road
The Passchendaele campaign, fought in the Flanders mud, provides many of the most enduring images of the Western Front. It also remains one of the most controversial battles of the War. At this public conference, the continuing reinterpretation of the battle will be discussed as we approach the 100th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Mud’. The academic controversies concerning the Passchendaele campaign have often reflected differing viewpoints on British identity and the extent to which the War exemplified British values. The conference will explore how the War impacted on Britain’s communities and the impact it has had on the evolution of a shared identity. It will examine the various ways in which Britain has marked the First World War centenary, examining the social, cultural and political influences that have shaped the commemorations. As the Silk Mill Museum hosts the Weeping Window, from the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by Paul Cummins, the Conference at Derby University provides an opportunity to discuss what impact the centenary events have had on public knowledge and understanding of the Great War.
13.15: Dr Ian Whitehead: ‘The Battle of Mud’: Perspectives on the Passchendaele Campaign, 1917
14.15: Professor Paul Elliott: Derby Public Parks in the First World War and Beyond: Recovering a Hidden History of the Home Front
15.15: Christopher Batten, BA (Hons): Life in Ruhleben Camp: Edwardian Britain in Microcosm
15.45: Thomas Debaere, BA (Hons): Requiem: Foulds, Beaverbrook and a ‘British’ Festival of Remembrance
16.15: Dr Kathleen McIlvenna: Communities, Government and Heritage: The Centenary of the First World War and Public
Booking is now open. Please click here to register your interest.
As part of UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature, award-winning British writer Pat Barker will be appearing at Nottingham Playhouse on Wednesday 15 June.
Barker is one of the leading novelists of the First World War. She was awarded the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road (1995), the final novel in her much acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy.
Noon Day, the third novel in her Life Class trilogy, which spans the First and Second World Wars, was published in 2015 and she is working on a new novel.
Pat Barker is renowned for her imaginative exploration of war and has regenerated interest in historical figures including the army psychiatrist W.H.R Rivers and artist-surgeon Dr Henry Tonks, as well as war artists in both world wars. As we mark the centenary of the First World War, Barker’s writing has particular and contemporary resonance.
Barker’s novels have been adapted for the stage and filmed in the US and the UK. They are studied in schools and enjoyed by readers across the generations.
Pat Barker will be in conversation with Sharon Monteith, Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, who has followed Barker’s work since the 1980s and written about it since the 1990s. She published Pat Barker (Northcote House and the British Council, 2002), the first critical study of the writer, and co-edited Critical Perspectives on Pat Barker (2005).
Dr Nigel Hunt explores a cemetery dedicated to the often-forgotten Czechs on the Western Front
Between Arras and Bethune, near the village of La Targette there are two monuments, one on either side of the road. On the left is a Czech cemetery, containing the remains of the Czech people who fought for France. The cemetery was constructed where the 2nd Battle of Artois took place, where the French and allied forces were trying to retake Vimy Ridge, which had been captured by the Germans in 1914 and provided clear views of the French positions. The area had been heavily fortified with a complex of tunnels, dugouts and machine gun posts – and was known as the Labyrinth.
The battle started on 9 May 1915, with British troops attacking in the north and the 10th French army attacking in the south. While the allies successfully recaptured a number of villages, they failed to retake Vimy Ridge.
The Czech cemetery is at the site of the original hamlet of La Targette (the modern town is to the south). It was originally built to commemorate the contribution of the Czechs to the 2nd battle of Artois, but was later extended to include Czechs who had died elsewhere on the Western Front.
The Czechs were in an unusual position at the outset of the war. Officially there were to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the side of the Germans, but many were trying to obtain independence for Czechoslovakia, so would rather fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the east many were captured by the Russians (sometimes voluntarily) and they formed the Czech Legion to fight against the Austro-Hungarians. In the West, the Czechs who lived in France and elsewhere joined the Czech section of the French Foreign Legion in order to fight for independence. The first unit to fight for the French was the Nazdar Company, made up of 250 men. The name Nazdar comes from the unit’s battle cry, and means ‘Hi’. Eventually the number of Czech and Slovak soldiers came to 150,000 men who had volunteered from around the world. The initial men of the Nazdar company were the ones who fought on 9th May, assaulting and capturing a hill. Around 50 were killed, with another 20 dying of wounds.
The men stayed in the French Foreign Legion until the end of the war, and then joined their own army of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. In 1925 the Association of the Czechoslovakian Volunteers of France decided to erect a memorial to those who died. [memorial picture here] It was created by the artist Jaroslav Hruska. A commemorative service is still held here each May.
It wasn’t until 1938 that it was proposed to put a cemetery at La Targette. Twenty four lime trees were brought from Czechoslovakia and planted but the Second World War interrupted the development of the site and the cemetery wasn’t built until 1958. In the end 206 graves (including 136 from the Second World War) were brought here from cemeteries around France. The cemetery was officially open in 1963 and the last burials took place in 1970.
There is a Bohemian cross in the centre of the cemetery [cross image here] reminding the visitor of John of Luxembourg, the king of Bohemia, who died at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He was blind at the time of the battle, and when he realised the battle was lost, he order two of his soldiers to lead him at the English, who killed him. There is also a monument at Crecy commemorating this suicidal act.
Opposite the Czech cemetery is a memorial to the Polish troops who fought in the French Foreign Legion at the same time as the Czechs. They too were fighting to obtain independence for their homeland.
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