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21 April 2022

The First World War is often referred to as an all-white European combat on the Western Front but King’s research now highlights the contribution of over 4 million non-white troops around the world.

The First World War is often referred to as an all-white European combat on the Western Front but King’s research now highlights the contribution of over 4 million non-white troops around the world.

Addressing the European Parliament in January 2020 about Brexit, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt Noted, ‘Sad to see a nation leaving, a great nation that has given us all so much […] even its own blood in two world wars.’ Yet the ‘British’ blood spilled in the two world wars is often used to promote a white triumphalist nationalist narrative.

Research led by Professor Santanu Das at the Department of English has challenged that view. By diversifying and re-examining non-white contribution from post-Second World War immigration to service during the First World War, the role of people from all different cultures and backgrounds around the world can now be reflected.

Redefining the narrative: from European trench combat to global conflict

In 1915, people from 52 countries around the world were engaged in the First World War. The contribution of four million non-white troops – Indians, Africans, West Indians – had been so completely erased that, until recently, few British nationals of South Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin knew that their ancestors fought in the First World War.

To encapsulate the experiences of non-white soldiers, including those who couldn’t read and write, Professor Das recovered objects, images, sound-recordings, and oral histories to examine non-white experiences. Through many years of archival work across Europe, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand, he recovered an extraordinary amount of previously unknown material. Including the blood-stained glasses of an Indian soldier, Private Jogen Sen, in West Bengal and an original recording of a song by a Bengali lascar and Prisoner of War.

Private Sen was the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment and was killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28. His story could easily have been forgotten had it not been for Dr Santanu Das

Chris Bond, in an article in the Yorkshire Post

He then went on to further diversify the First World War story from its traditional Eurocentric historiography by finding and giving prominence to South Asian cultural figures, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Mulk Raj Anand and elevates then to ‘a form of equality with the traditional First World War canon, to a kind of parity with Owen and Sassoon’ (Yasmin Khan, TLS). These materials and histories provided a more racially inclusive narrative.


A pair of blood-stained glasses believed to have been owned by Private Jogen Sen, discovered in the Dupleix House and Museum, West Bengal, India. Credit: Professor Santanu Das

Changing the colour of war memory in the media and public sphere

King’s research exposed the hierarchies of race and empire at the heart of the war as well as the brutality, through not only the omission of much record of non-white involvement in the war – but also through incidents since. In the 1970s, the graves of Muslim First World War soldiers buried next to the Woking mosque were desecrated, while the Memorial to the Sikh and Hindu First World War veterans on the Sussex Downs was used as a rifle-practice site in the 1990s.

Professor Das became a historical adviser to the BBC for its First World War centenary coverage including for the acclaimed BBC2 documentary The World’s War, presenting the Radio 4 series

Soldiers of the Empire and hosting Essays on Radio 3. This work helped to move the focus away from the dominant images of British ‘Tommies’ on the Western Front, to more representatively reflect on the battles and experiences in the Middle East, Persia and East Africa.

Thanks to [Professor] Das’s intervention, the BBC is more aware of the importance of achieving a proper racial balance in the stories commissioned, especially on big occasions such as this 100th anniversary

Phillippa Goodrich, BBC Producer
Colourofwar_Tiffin carrier used by Sisir sarbadhikari

A tiffin-carrier carried in Mesopotamia by Captain Dr Manindranath Das - a medical doctor who was awarded the Military Cross. Credit: Professor Santanu Das

Bringing together diverse sectors: events, visual, cultural and musical performances

Instead of telling heroic or martial tales of non-white participation, Professor Das diversified First World War commemoration by placing recovered visual, literary and musical material at its centre through collaborations with musicians, dancers and artists across India, Europe and the UK.

In collaboration with the British Academy, King’s organised an event that celebrated war writings, songs and music from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It was the first example of European and non-European literature and music of the First World War being showcased together and the first time that a substantive South Asian and West Indian audience attended a First World War commemorative programme which conventionally drew white audiences.

In the aftermath of the Brussels bombing and the associated wave of Islamophobia, Professor Das and his team of researchers brought together a wide range of sectors – members of the British Army and Navy, community leaders, curators from the National Army Museum, National Archives and Imperial War Museum, funders, academics, artists and activists – to combat Islamophobia with a discussion on commemoration. The event was filmed and facilitated dialogue for the first time among sectors that do not usually come together for political, social or ideological reasons.

King’s researchers enabled the Sikh community in the UK to claim the war as part of their shared history with Britain through projects that King’s was involved with, including dance-theatre projection ‘By My Troth’, based on an Indian First World War short story and musical performances of Sacred Sound: Sikh Music and the First World War.

Arts & Culture