The first world war and the colour of memory

Main atrium of the Imperial War MuseumMore than 4 million non-white men were recruited into the armies of Europe and the US. In a grotesque reversal of Joseph Conrad’s vision, thousands of Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were voyaging to the heart of whiteness and far beyond – to Mesopotamia, East Africa, Gallipoli, Persia and Palestine. Two million Africans served as soldiers or labourers; a further 1.3 million came from the British “white” dominions. The first shot in the war was fired in Togoland, and even after 11 November 1918 the war continued in East Africa.

Today, one of the main stumbling blocks to a truly global and non-Eurocentric archive of the war is that many of these 1 million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans, did not leave behind diaries and memoirs. In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a returned soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished. Read more

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