The Centenary commemorations have been preceded by much publicity and rethinking of that momentous and terrible event in modern world history. Much discussion has already begun to take place about the global nature and impact of the war, and of the variety of voices, interpretations and ways of looking at the conflict and its consequences that can or should be considered this time as opposed to at previous commemorations.
Given this emphasis on the telling of the wider and essentially untold or forgotten aspects of the war – and in particular of the Allied story, and of the story of Britain – the need to clearly highlight the role of Britain's non-white Empire's contribution is of much greater potential significance. Tellingly however at a major educational conference on WWI last year attended by UKPHA, the issue of the role of these soldiers - many of whose descendants now reside in the UK - was hardly mentioned.
More widely it already appears that, unless we are careful, and despite the efforts of some educators, heritage projects and the odd media story, the mainstream narrative will again barely differ in terms of telling of Britain’s wartime history.
The current prime-time BBC drama Crimson Fields is a case in point. UKPHA acted as consultants on early drafts of a storyline centred on a wounded Sikh soldier. After many attempts to pin down the story, in the final analysis the plot line couldn't be seen to work and was deleted. Instead, aspects were rewritten as part of the story of a British officer of a Punjabi regiment, complete with authentic Punjabi slang! These things happen, and it's understandable, but it's a missed opportunity.
The BBC1 series Britain's Great War by Jeremy Paxman is another good (bad?!) example. Part One, aired in January 2014, briefly mentioned the story of Brighton Pavilion which was used to house convalescing Indian soldiers injured on the Western Front.
What the programme failed to mention was why their story is actually so critical to the War's history. The British Indian Army was sent to the mud and mayhem of Europe from the very commencement of hostilities in September 1914 onwards filling a substantial hole in the allied defences, well before early recruits for Kitchener’s Army entered the fray.
In doing so, it can reasonably be argued, that the volunteer army of Undivided India helped save Britain and its allies from a very early and potentially irreversible defeat.
Actually, the BBC has a special role to play. And with a phenomenal 2,500 hours of programming scheduled over the centenary period it certainly has the time and money to try and tell the story of these men and their families. I know documentaries are in the pipeline, and I really hope that they do justice to the service that has been rendered - even if they seem to have been reduced to mere footnotes thus far.
This kind of perhaps unwitting, and certainly limited or selective, recollection - and hence omission of startling and critical facts - is reflected in the innumerable popular and academic histories of the war. These invariably more often than not play down or totally omit the involvement of Britain’s black and Asian colonies - their troops and their financial and material support.
And yet at the time the 'Stalwarts from the East' from British India were lauded upon arrival as saviours, heroes to a man, and remembered and recognised post-war with commendations, victory parades and grand memorials. But it seems today the public knows little or nothing of the very real contribution of some 1.5 million men of the Great War's Forgotten Army.
The need therefore to tell the story of the non-white commonwealth’s contribution seems even more necessary, not less, than when I wrote the following in 2010 (http://news.ukpha.org/2010/03/empires-efforts-recognising-the-commonwealths-contribution/):
“... what is now required is proper education that explains this massive contribution to the wider public and future generations in order to allow ethnic minorities and their place in British society as equal citizens to be better understood and respected by themselves and others...”
Through our three-year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), 'Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One' we hope to do our part in helping remind the world of their enormous, and enormously undervalued, role. With your help, we will do our part to Remember Them.