‘Black people’s involvement in WW1’ – Free Public Workshop at Imperial War Museum London, 15th October 2016


“Black soldiers have been omitted from mainstream history because those who research and write that history are predominantly white, middle-class and educated at Oxford and Cambridge. So they are almost exclusively the sons – and in some cases the daughters – of white colonials whose families were part of the ruling elite when Britain had an Empire. In my experience, these so-called historians have never shown any interest in the story of black people in Britain, and certainly not the two world wars.”

So said historian, Stephen Bourne, talking about his book “Black Poppies” – and something similar could be said about those who sanction official commemorations of WW1. Such claims are backed up by a visit to a typical British bookstore where you will likely find it easier to find a book on the role of animals in WW1 than the role of black or colonial people. This is despite the fact that over a million black and colonial soldiers from Africa, Asia and the Americas fought in WW1 and many more laboured in its cause.

Historians like Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey and David Olusoga in his book, “The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire” which looks at colonial troops, are redressing this gross oversight and revealing stories of institutional racism as well as individual sacrifice and bravery.

The Imperial War Museum London and The Centre for Hidden Histories are holding a free public workshop on “Black People’s Involvement in WW1” on Saturday 15th October 2016. It will be held at the Imperial War Museum London on Lambeth Road, near Elephant & Castle. It is free to register for the event.

The workshop will examine the history of black people’s involvement, both in Britain and from the colonies, and also ways that experiences can be researched through official and private records. How black peoples’ contribution is remembered today will also be discussed in a talk by Patrick Vernon on ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’.

The event will feature talks from historians of Black Britain, Stephen Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey, John Siblon, and Anna Maguire, and social commentator and political activist Patrick Vernon.

Scheduled speakers at the event

Dr Caroline Bressey will talk on ‘Black Britons on both fronts’. She is a lecturer and researcher of the black presence in Victorian and Edwardian London based in the Department of Geography, University College London. She has researched, amongst other areas of Black history, Black women and their experiences in four arenas of Victorian life: institutions, imperial elite society, work and anti-racist politics.

Watch Dr Caroline Bressey talk about some of her research in this mini-lecture from UCL, 2010.

Stephen Bourne will discuss ‘Family, first-hand testimony and local publishing.’ He is a community historian and author of several books on the presence of black people in Britain; his most recent book is Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community & the Great War (The History Press), for which he received the 2015 Southwark Arts Forum Award for Literature.

Anna Maguire, a AHRC Colloaborative Doctoral Award Student at IWM and King’s College, London, will talk about ‘From the Islands of the Sea: Reading West Indian experience during the First World War.’ She has recently completed her thesis: ‘Colonial Cultures and Encounters during the First World War’

John Siblon is a history teacher and part-time PhD student researching commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen at Birkbeck College London. John will speak on ‘Between hierarchy and memory: commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the First World War’.

Patrick Vernon OBE will discuss, ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’. He is a Clore Fellow, Associate Fellow for the Department of History of Medicine at Warwick University; founder of Every Generation Media and 100 Great Black Britons, which develops education programmes, publications and films on cultural heritage and family history.

Professor David Killingray, who will chair the event, is from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, formerly taught at Goldsmiths, London, and has written several books and articles on the two world wars and also the black diaspora.

There will also be the opportunity to find out more about conducting research in this area, learn about IWM’s collections and enjoy free refreshments.

Books currently available in IWM London’s bookshop


“In 1914, there were at least 10,000 black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage, fiercely loyal to their Mother Country. Despite being discouraged from serving in the British Army during World War I, men managed to join all branches of the armed forces, and black communities made a vital contribution, both on the front and at home. By 1918, it is estimated that the black population had trebled to 30,000, and after the war many black soldiers who had fought for Britain decided to make it their home. Black Poppies explores the military and civilian wartime experiences of these men and of women, from the trenches to the music hall. Poignantly, it concludes by examining the anti-black race riots of 1919 in cities like Cardiff and Liverpool, where black men came under attack from returning white soldiers who resented their presence, in spite of what they and their families had done for Britain during the war. The first book of its kind to focus on the Black British experience during World War I; this new offering from Stephen Bourne is fascinating and eye-opening.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review).

“In a sweeping narrative, David Olusoga describes how Europe’s Great War became the World’s War – a multi-racial, multi-national struggle, fought in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe, which pulled in men and resources from across the globe.” (Publisher’s Amazon review)


“Very little attention has been given to black British and West African and Caribbean citizens who lived and worked on the ‘front line’ during the Second World War. Yet black people were under fire in cities like Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Manchester, and many volunteered as civilian defence workers, such as air-raid wardens, fire-fighters, stretcher-bearers, first-aid workers and mobile canteen personnel. Many helped unite people when their communities faced devastation. Black children were evacuated and entertainers risked death when they took to the stage during air raids. Despite some evidence of racism, black people contributed to the war effort where they could. The colonies also played an important role in the war effort: support came from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Nigeria. Mother Country tells the story of some of the forgotten Britons whose contribution to the war effort has been overlooked until now.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review)


The Falsity of Museum Neutrality


Code of Ethics launch by the Museum Association, 2016 (Museums + Heritage Advisor)

In a recent speech, Dr David Fleming, President of the Museum Association, discussed the ethics of museum funding and partnering. He recognised the ethical responsibility of museums in making such decisions – and decried the falsity of the claim that museums are neutral.

“I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.”

Dr Fleming gave two examples of decisions made by his own institution, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) where he is director. It was important, he said, for staff to “stifle any personal view” – though, he recognised that they will unavoidably play some part.

A political party with “a whiff of racism” successfully hired a conference space from NML. Dr Fleming argued that, as the political party did not reject democracy and the deal could be done on a purely business footing, with no association with NML – it should not be spurned.

On the other hand, the hiring of an exhibition from another museum that was funded and named after a company involved with a military railway in a conflict zone was aborted. NML found “an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation”.

In both decisions, Dr Fleming admits that, however much he and his colleagues tried, personal views necessarily affected the outcomes. “Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.”

The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums rejects the idea that museums should be neutral. If personal views of staff should be “stifled” the institutional code of ethics should be positively upheld. The Code of Ethics requires museums to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity.



For a museum to resist influence and promote “editorial integrity” it must have positive institutional ethical values and must certainly not be neutral. Without editorial or intellectual independence, it fails its public service duty. Specifically, it can no longer “(e)nsure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum.” (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.7). Nor can it fulfil its duty of providing and generating accurate information (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.4).

Not only must museums have Ethics Committees advising their decision-makers, as the NML has, but, also, a clear statement of ethical values. Most museums endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics but, I believe that more institution specific statements are required, addressing ethical issues in their subject matter.

Moreover, rather than estimating public perception and just worrying about their reputation – museums should directly involve the public in their decisions.

This way, ethical decisions of funding and partnering are not mainly decided in a murky mixture of personal staff views (and it’s not the cleaning or security staff’s views that usually creep into the decisions) and estimates about the public reaction – but, also, a clear and considered internal ethical assessment.

If the Science Museum accepts oil company, BP, as a sponsor can it remain editorially independent and uphold its ethical views? Or, what about when the Imperial War Museum accepts donations from the Ministry of Defence and arms manufacturers? Perhaps, it is possible, but we certainly cannot know unless we know what their ethical views are and how they make each particular decision.

Review: ‘Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS’

Fighting Extremes

Fighting Extremes: From Ebola to ISIS (iwm.org.uk)

At Imperial War Museum London until 13th November 2016

Fighting Extremes is the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition on recent British military engagement. The new exhibit uses images and objects to tell the story of the British military’s efforts, particularly the construction efforts, to help contain the Ebola virus epidemic in Sierra Leone between August 2014 and November 2015 and the combat efforts against ISIS in the Middle East.

Like its predecessor exhibition, War Story, which was supported by the MOD and arms manufacturer, Boeing, “Fighting Extremes” does not examine the context or history of the increased conflict in the Middle East.

What would a genuinely critical exhibit on the British role in fighting Ebola and ISIS say? It would not just praise the work of military personnel. Many were, indeed, courageous, like the British health worker volunteers. A critical exhibit would acknowledge the serious responsibility Britain has for the deaths caused by both the scourges of Ebola and ISIS.

Britain and its coalition partners, lead by the US, helped to create the conditions for ISIS to be formed through their invasion and occupation of Iraq. This has been conceded even by Tony Blair who lead Britain into the invasion. President Obama described ISIS as “a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion.”

When Syria’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 developed into a civil war, the US and Britain provided “non-lethal” support, training and financial aid to the anti-Assad forces – and helped neighbouring allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to ship weapons to the rebels – amongst whom were extremist jihadis – despite the warnings.

“Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country,” two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned in 2013.

Now, Britain has turned its attack on ISIS in Syria – whilst its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, continue to support ISIS. The decision by the British Parliament to bomb ISIS targets in Syria has been condemned by many who reference disastrous recent interventions, such as the 2011 bombing of Libya, in which the UK and its allies exploited a UN mandate to protect civilians to attack Gaddafi forces. Libya has descended into civil war and mayhem and a hotbed for extremism and human and weapons trafficking. Some recent news reports suggest Britain will soon turn towards fighting ISIS in Libya.

The Imperial War Museum’s decision to juxtapose ISIS with Ebola is, perhaps, to depict ISIS as a disease that sprang out of nowhere. In truth, neither emerged ex nihilo but there are parallels which emerge from a look at the evidence.

ISIS and Ebola both “take advantage of the weakness and internal conflict of countries” according to UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Since its December 2013 outbreak, there have been 28,041 recorded Ebola cases and 11,302 deaths in West Africa. Many of those deaths were easily preventable.

The international response was “slow and derisory” according to charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) whose staff were overwhelmed from March 2014 by the virus. It was then that West Africa recognised that a public health crisis was underway but the World Health Organisation (WHO) only made the declaration in early August 2014. By then, some 900 people had died of the virus and many more were dying due to crumbling health systems.

The UK’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) would find in review that the UK response had been “inadequate”. As a major donor to international organisations, particularly, the WHO, the UK could have raised the alarm sooner to mobilise action, they said. The Committee found the UK government failed to release funds quickly enough and paid insufficient attention to NGOs, such as MSF, who were arguing for the necessity of a massive deployment of health workers and resources. Moreover, there was “no scientific justification for the UK Government’s decision to prevent direct flights to the affected region from the UK, which has likely increased the cost of dealing with the outbreak.”  Had the government acted sooner, “both lives and money would have been saved,” according to the report.

Why the inaction and delay? MSF was clear in its publication at the end of August 2014, when there were 1,427 reported victims of Ebola: “the international community community simply doesn’t feel responsible for responding to what is happening in regions that are not perceived as politically or economically interesting.”

The UK deployed 70 Royal engineers to Sierra Leone from August/September 2014 to commence building treatment and training centres. In all 1,500 British military personnel were deployed during an operation that lasted just over a year. The result, according to the government, was 6 UK funded treatment centres and the training of over 4,000 health care workers. “They are a credit to our country, they have saved a nation,” UK Defense Secretary, Michael Fallon said. The MOD was also able to call on hundreds of NHS volunteers in their efforts.

The morality of the UK and other states can be best judged by attitude before Ebola became an international security threat. As MSF identified, member states of the UN had allowed the operational capacity of the WHO to be weakened through reorganisation. The WHO’s haemorrhagic fever unit, for viruses such as Ebola, had been closed.

Between 2010 and 2012, experimental drugs and vaccines to combat the Ebola virus had been tested successfully on animals. However, they sat on the shelf untested on humans because they were not profitable. Only some 1,590 people had been killed by Ebola prior to the 2013/14 outbreak. “Malaria kills as many people each day as this outbreak has killed so far. We must try to keep things in perspective,” Peter Holez, director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington said, when the death toll was around 900 in early August 2014.

Clinical trials have been brought forward and results published this year are promising. One vaccine, the rVSV-ZEBOV showed 100% effectiveness in interim trial results. The few samples of experimental drugs/vaccines that existed in 2014 also showed promise when used in emergency situations during the outbreak, mainly benefiting Western aid workers.

The IMF has played a key role in preventing the development of health services in countries such as Sierra Leone. At the start of the Ebola outbreak, that country had 120 doctors and 1 virologist, who was to be an early victim of the epidemic. A 20 year long IMF policy of requiring debtor nations to prioritise debt repayments and building foreign exchange reserves over healthcare spending had, “contributed to under-funded, insufficiently trained and poorly prepared health systems in countries with Ebola outbreaks,” according to a study published in the Lancet.

The UK is a shareholder in the IMF and World Bank and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and International Development Secretary sit on the ministerial committees of the Washington-based organisations.

Some concession to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the worst hit nations, was made in early 2015 when the IMF cancelled almonst $100 million debt and made new loans of $160 million. The immediate relief was welcomed but longer-term IMF indebtedness of these countries will increase from $410 to $620 million. The West has a responsibility to cancel the debt owed by these devastated states to the IMF which made $9 billion in lending over the last three years.

When the Western states did act, some five months and hundreds of deaths after help was asked for,  it did so along familiar imperial lines. The US, UK and France intervened in their areas of colonial influence: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea respectively. Moreover, they responded to a public health crisis primarily through their military.

“The only positive development to come from the epidemic is that it attracted long needed attention from drug makers,” according to Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Neglected diseases affect some one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – and threaten many more.

The legacy of Ebola will live long. With Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone having lost many of their health workers, maternal mortality could rise as much as 74% in Sierra Leone and 111% in Liberia, according to the World Bank.

As long as we deny vast swathes of history and evidence regarding the UK’s and other developed nations’ role in the world, we can expect the devastation to continue.

The ‘Education’ in the WW1 Commemorations

Indian Army gunners (probably 39th Battery) with 3.7 inch Mountain Howitzers, Jerusalem 1917

It is obvious to just about all that Britain’s WW1 centenary events, lead by the Imperial War Museum, should not be celebratory or jingoistic in nature. But, the ‘Commemoration Vs. Celebration’ semantic argument is superficial. An unanalytical commemoration is a celebration, albeit, perhaps, a sombre one.

The key question about the WW1 centenary events this year and onwards is whether they are analytical and educative. In order to be this, they should re-examine the facts, search for new evidence, test the theories and offer new perspectives – in a way that engages the public.

To this end, IWM have setup a number of online digital projects designed to pool information about events across the world (www.1914.org), as well as the pictures, videos and stories of the war belonging to the public (www.livesofthefirstworldwar.org and the flickr page, Faces of the First World War).

IWM have selected a large committee of academics, chaired by Professor Richard Grayson of Goldsmith’s, University of London, to advise them on these digital projects. Professor Grayson sees this an opportunity for everyone to gain: “I hope that this will be an opportunity for academic expertise to have an impact on the public. It is certainly an opportunity for academic historians to learn from the vast amount of expertise to be found among those working on First World War projects inspired by local or family interests.”

IWM’s advisory group is selected only from Britain and Ireland, missing out on crucial perspectives from across the globe. Professor Grayson replied to my concern:

“(E)xpertise on a number of aspects of the war in the wider world is represented on the group perhaps more than obviously apparent at first glance. Though consisting of academics based in two countries, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, all of us who teach on WWI would have significant engagement with material relevant to the countries you mention, as well as many others besides. We are not only knowledgeable on our own primary areas of interests, simply because it is not possible to be a WWI historian now without possessing a very broad knowledge of the issues involved.”

Without doubting the broad knowledge of the selected academics, Professor Grayson himself argued in a Guardian article that views on history are necessary subjective: “…there are many approaches to history.” The approach to WW1 outside of our borders, especially in former colonies or former enemies, will thus be somewhat different – and, therefore, necessary to a full understanding.

Nonetheless, IWM’s inclusion of academics with specialism and local experience of the Republic of Ireland is certainly positive for a wider understanding of the war. Professor Grayson discussed in the Guardian, “the recent upsurge of interest in the role of Irish nationalists in the British army in the first world war has radically revised a dominant narrative that focused on unionist sacrifice on the Somme in 1916. Over the past two decades many historians have shown that nationalists were also there.”

Dr Santanu Das, reader at Kings College, London is a rare member of IWM’s advisory group raised and educated outside of Britain and the Republic of Ireland. In this short lecture produced for the ‘Word War 1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings’ project, an online open resource lead by the University of Oxford and funded by academic digital technologies organisation, Jisc, he looks at the role of the Indian Sepoy in World War 1. He discusses, amongst other things, how their experiences and views have often been overlooked due to the lack of written records – and how, in this absence, prejudice was often used to define them.

In this lecture, Dr Catriona Pennell, another member of the IWM advisory panel and Lecturer in History at University of Exeter, questions the media depictions of the mass of the British public being blindly eager to fight at the outbreak. Whilst the evidence shows that there was a huge surge in volunteering to the army, the numbers show peaks and troughs that respond to the apparent threat that was perceived through media and government reports.

It is analytical, critical work like that presented in Dr Pennell and Dr Das’ lectures and other such material from the University of Oxford’s online centenary project that should be included in the WW1 centenary events – and such inclusion or otherwise will define whether the commemoration is meaningful or not.

Dr Catriona Pennell, Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, exposes the reaction to be much more complex than traditional images have led us to believe..

Dr Santanu Das, reader at Kings College London, considers the global and colonial dimensions of the conflict and asks how the War continues to resonate for diaspora communities in Europe and America.

Editing the ‘Secret War’

Declassified CIA records show Britain's joint involvement in 1953 Iran coup

The secret service only work to protect us against enemies. This is the government’s line and it is the one portrayed by the Imperial War Museum’s “Secret War” exhibition. Such an idealised claim can only be made by ignoring significant parts of the historical record and, unfortunately, IWM’s ‘Secret War’ exhibition does just this.

IWM dedicates a significant part of its “Secret War” exhibition to the Special Air Service (SAS) rescue mission during the 1980 Iran Embassy siege, in London. Six gunmen from an Iranian-Arab group seeking the establishment of an Arab state in the Iranian province of Khuzestan had seized the Iranian embassy and taken twenty-seven people hostage, mainly embassy staff. The hostage-takers demanded that the British government enforce the release of Arab prisoners in Khuzestan and give them safe passage out of the UK. The government refused and, after the hostage-takers killed a hostage, sent in the SAS. Abseiling from the roof of the building, the special forces stormed the embassy, killing five of the hostage-takers and rescuing all but one of the captured.

Not included in the “Secret War” exhibition is the British involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mossadegh, and subsequent imposition of the brutal regime of the Shah. British and US joint execution of the coup has recently been formally acknowledge in declassified CIA documents.

A CIA summary document states: “It was the aim of the TPAJAX project to cause the fall of the Mossadeq government; to restablish the prestige and power of the Shah; and to replace the Mossadeq government with one which would govern Iran according to constructive policies. Specifically, the aim was bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party.”

Mossadegh’s chief crime was to successfully put forward a bill to the Iranian Parliament to nationalise Iran’s oil industry, removing it from the hands of the British company, Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP). Britain’s government, lead by Winston Churchill, could not accept losing what it considered its property and was ready to employ terrorist tactics as recourse.

The CIA documents confirm British involvement in the coup: “In April (1953) it was determined that CIA should conduct the envisioned operation jointly with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). By the end of April, it was decided that CIA and SIS officers would draw up a plan on Cyprus which would be submitted to CIA and SIS Headquarters, and to the Department of State and the Foreign Office for final approval.”

The plan involved a propaganda campaign to inflame existing discontent regarding the weak economic situation in Iran and the bribery of mobs to riot and march on Mossadegh’s residence in Tehran. A struggle broke out in which 300-800 people were killed. Mossadegh was arrested and subsequently tried in a military court. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment and then consigned to house arrest for the rest of his life. Many of his supporters were imprisoned and some given death sentences.

Following the coup, the Shah was restored to power as an absolute monarch for 26 years. He was supported during this time by the US and Britain and his secret service SAWAK, trained by the CIA, developed a fearsome reputation. Two of the hostage-takers in the 1980 Iran Embassy attack claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured by the SAWAK.

Such examples of British secret service involvement in aggression and terrorism are not rare. During the lifetime of the British empire, special forces infilitrated and attacked nationalist movements, resulting in many deaths and leaving a terrible legacy, whether in Kenya, Congo or Indonesia.

Even in recent times, British secret service (and the US’) played a role in the misinformation campaign that prepared the way for an attack on Iraq in 2003. False information was spread regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal and his supposed connection to 9/11 and al Qaeda to create a pretext for aggression. Allegations of torture and abuse have been made against British forces in Iraq. British secret services, in the least, provided intelligence to US forces, enabling them to kidnap suspects who would, in many cases, go on to be tortured.

The revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, have shown that Britain’s GCHQ agency has been actively supporting its American counterparts in hoovering up Internet records and phone information on vast swathes of the public – regardless of suspicion or activity. Such untrammelled invasion into the lives – and sharing with other governments – of the citizenry creates real scope for government abuse, especially in suppressing dissent against its policies.

For the Imperial War Museum, or any other source, to overlook the secret services role as an agent of anti-democratic and, sometimes, brutal government policies, is to severely misrepresent the historical record and undermine its own credibility as a source.