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Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War’ (CEGC)

The First World War has often been defined as the ‘clash of empires’ but we argue that it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters. Between 1914 and 1918, on French soil alone – in its trenches, fields, farms and factories – there were over one million Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Chinese, Vietnamese) and African (Senegalese, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) men, in addition to soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Europe would never be the same again not just in terms of the war’s wreckage but in terms of people, ethnicities, and cultures encountered, manipulated, studied, and befriended – in battlefields, boardrooms, billets, brothels, towns, villages, hospitals, and prisoner-of-war camps. ‘My French mother is teaching me her language’, wrote an Indian sepoy billeted in France, while in the trenches the English war poet Wilfred Owen avidly read the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems Gitanjali which had won the Nobel Prize in 1913.

Simultaneously, a different kind of ‘cultural encounter’ was being engineered within Europe: the belligerent states were each trying to win over the neutral nations by funding cultural institutions and trying to influence artists, writers and opinion makers such as Georg Brandes from Denmark and Albert Verwey from the Netherlands. The cultural sphere of the neutral countries became much more a zone of international cultural encounter in 1918 than it was in 1914. What is the relation between the personal, ‘direct’ encounters in wartime and these state-sponsored, ideologically motivated, ‘indirect’ encounters? Do encounters necessarily involve exchange and what were the structures of power – asymmetries and hierarchies – in these processes? How did exchanges occur across linguistic, national, legal, religious, ethnic, and social barriers and what are their traces and legacies in today’s Europe?

This project sought to explore this complex area through two strands: the colonial and the neutral. The war experiences of the colonies/dominions were investigated by the research teams in London and Berlin, while research on the experiences of the neutral nations was undertaken by the teams at Utrecht and Poznań. Researchers engaged in dialogue, comparing and contrasting their findings through a set of common conceptual and methodological questions.

This project closely involved our Associated Partners: the Imperial War Museum in London; the Lautarchiv at Humboldt University, Berlin; Museum Europäischer Kulturen, also in Berlin; the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach; the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam; Stichting de Jazz van het Bankroet in Belgium; In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium; and the Dutch-Flemish House deBuren.

As a team, we drew on a broadly interdisciplinary and culturally mobile methodology. We investigated a diverse range of material, including archival documents, newspapers, journals, literary texts, films, photographs, paintings, book trade practices, and sound-recordings.

Our activities included workshops, conferences, publications, and public lectures, as well as a multi-venue poster exhibition.

Summary of Findings

Within the framework of the project, ‘Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War’ (CEGC), researchers suggested that the First World War – conventionally defined as a military ‘clash of empires’ – could be conceptualised as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters. The project has sought to understand and analyse how the First World War created new spaces for, as well as put pressures on, encounters between peoples and cultures from belligerent, colonised, and politically neutral countries. CEGC also sought to unravel the lasting consequences – social, cultural, and literary memory – of these encounters for Europe as well as for its former colonies. Over a three-year period it brought together a cross-disciplinary and multilingual team of researchers and eight cultural institutions from across Europe to illuminate and examine these areas of research during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration. The CEGC team adopted a comparative, interdisciplinary, and culturally nuanced methodology in order to study a complex range of material, such as archival documents, newspapers, journals, literary texts, book trade practices, films, photographs, paintings, and sound-recordings.


Research for the project was divided along two main strands: the war experience of the ‘colonials’ and ‘neutrals’, in various combinations with the belligerent states. About four million soldiers with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds from British, French, and German colonial empires served in the war. Researchers from King’s College London and Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin have worked in various archives across Asia, Africa, Europe, and New Zealand, recovering and examining the wartime encounters and exchanges of a variety of colonial subjects, including: troops from Africa, South Asia, New Zealand, and the West Indies at various battlefronts; prisoners from South Asia and North Africa in prisoner-of-war camps in Europe; and civilians inhabiting the colonial homefront (particularly South Asia and East Africa). While the London team (Das, Maguire, Steinbach) examined the experiences of colonial troops and non-combatants and their encounters with local populations in various spaces (the Western Front, Mesopotamia, and East Africa) and their legacies, the German team (Liebau and Schmid) complemented such findings through in-depth focus on the encounters taking place in special prisoner-of-war camps in Zossen and Wünsdorf, south of Berlin. During war, these spaces (battlefields, hospitals, towns, prisoner-of-war camps) became sites of encounter between different cultures and ethnicities. Simultaneously, within Europe, a different kind of ‘cultural encounter’ was being engineered; the belligerent states were each trying to win over the neutral nations by funding cultural institutions and trying to influence artists, writers, and opinion makers from the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. This cultural propaganda included: art exhibitions; theatre and music performances; film distribution and screenings; the founding and funding of magazines, cinemas, and bookstores; and the flooding of the book market with imported books and translations to address mass audiences as well as influence opinion. The neutral countries soon became regions of international cultural encounters with a long-lasting impact. The teams of researchers from Utrecht University (Buelens and Lobbes) and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (van den Berg, Stachura and Kliks) investigated cultural encounters in neutral countries, focusing specifically on the Netherlands. Collectively, members of CEGC asked: what is the relation between the personal, ‘direct’ encounters in wartime (battlefield, POW camps, hospitals), and these state-sponsored, ideologically motivated ‘indirect’ encounters (through literature, film, propaganda)?


CEGC brought together a solidly interdisciplinary, comparative, and multilingual European community of scholars, formed of established academics, museum curators, and early career researchers (postdoctoral and doctoral), to debate the above issues. Within these networks we generated new knowledge through extensive collaborative archival work and analysis across Europe (Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, France, and Belgium), as well as in other parts of the world – particularly India, New Zealand, and Tanzania – about the unprecedented degree of cultural encounters created by the war across ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries and its legacy in literature, art, and film. We examined critically the term ‘cultural encounter’ in wartime by choosing particular sites of encounter and different communities (political, ethnic, and cultural) of people. We ask, does encounter necessarily mean contact and exchange, does it always depend on mutuality, and what is the role of culture and propaganda (overt or covert) that underpins wartime exchanges? And most importantly, what are the power relations and hierarchies behind these processes?


Through this research project we have provided new knowledge and materials to inform the exhibitions, policy decisions, and outreach programmes of major European museums. Our Associate Partners include the Imperial War Museum in London, the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam, the Deutsche Literaturarchiv in Marbach, and the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, and we organised many high-profile events with these partners (see below). In addition to the production of key scholarly texts, we reached out beyond the academic community through the dedicated website, workshops, public lectures, literary festivals, radio programmes, television interviews, concerts, and project days at schools. A poster exhibition showcasing the project’s findings opened in Berlin in September 2016, followed by displays in Poznań and London in October, and in Utrecht in November. We have generated new understandings of how legacies of the First World War are negotiated within the large diasporic population with diverse religions (Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism) across Europe. Our contribution, in terms of new archival findings, academic interventions, and public engagement activities played a highly visible and significant part in the ‘global’ and ‘transnational’ turn in WW1 studies during the last few years while, at the same time, questioning these terms.


Research conducted between September and December 2013 contributed directly to the central CRP objective of examining the ‘spaces of encounters in Europe between peoples and cultures from colonial, neutral, and belligerent countries’ and the ‘legacies’ generated by them through documents, literature, and film. Members of the CRP co-organised (Marbach am Necker – took place in February 2014) or participated in (Hannover) two major international conferences that resulted in publications (print and online open-access) and widespread dissemination.


2014 was singularly intense and productive with the marking of the centenary of the outbreak of the war and CEGC played a prominent role in this in various ways. Many of our researchers communicated their work in the form of conference papers, public talks, media interviews (radio and television), journal articles, book publications, and newspapers and magazine articles, nationally and internationally. The UK Arts and Humanities and Research Council (AHRC) produced a film on the colonial strand of the project, presented by Das and with contributions from Suzanne Bardgett (AP Imperial War Museum) and Dominiek Dendooven (AP In Flanders Field Museum), showcasing archival findings and an interdisciplinary methodology: From Bombay to the Western Front.


Some highlights of 2014, suggesting the variety of activities within the project, include high-profile and hugely popular public cultural events, such as the Grote Woorden event on 18 October that coincided with History Night at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and an Armistice Day concert Terrible Beauty: Music and Writing of the First World War held in the Chapel at King’s College London. International conferences were organised: van den Berg with AP DLA Marbach (13-14 February), Liebau with the Indian Embassy in Berlin (May), Dendooven from AP IFFM (24-25 October), and Das with the British Academy (12-13 November). CEGC received a lot of visibility through various public talks and seminars by members to diverse audiences: Stachura and Kliks contributed to UAM’s European Researcher’s Night; Das gave talks at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (January), the United Services Institution in Delhi (February), the Indian Embassy in Paris (June), the Commonwealth Parliament Association at Westminster (December) and at the Cheltenham Literary Festival; Buelens gave a presentation to the Europe Desk at the Dutch Foreign Office in The Hague (September), the ‘Het Betere Boek’ festival in Bruges and Ghent (October), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (October), and the Rijksmuseum in Enschede (November); Liebau gave talks in Wünsdorf and Zossen (March and October); Liebau, Buelens, and Schmid attended the European Commemoration Conference at the German Foreign Office (December); and van den Berg gave a widely publicised and well attended public lecture in relation with the exhibition ‘Avantgarde!’ at the Kulturforum in Berlin. A number of research publications came out in 2014, including monographs, book chapters, and journal and online articles. In this year, the PIs presented CEGC research on national and international radio and television. Buelens and Liebau were interviewed several times for Deutschlandradio Kultur and several other German, Dutch, and Belgian radio stations, while Das was interviewed several times by BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 and the BBC Asian Network. Liebau was interviewed by Al Jazeera, and Das and Liebau were interviewed and involved in the acclaimed BBC 2 television documentary The World’s Wars: Soldiers of the Empire, thus reaching an audience across the globe. AP MEK-SMB put on two exhibitions: ‘Feeling War’ and ‘Phonographed Sounds and Photographed Moments’ (‘Phonographierte Klänge und Photographierte Momente’). These ran until August and April 2015 respectively and were related to the HERA project.


After a particularly intense year in 2014, 2015 allowed the members of the CEGC team to focus on research in a more focused manner. This was important given the discovery, through collaborative archival research, of the full transnational scope and nature of the German Revolutionary Programme that allowed a real dialogue between the two strands of the project. Nevertheless, researchers continued to disseminate their research in a variety of ways to diverse audiences. All project members spoke at national and international conferences and workshops, with Das and Buelens delivering keynote papers. There were public lectures, such as those at Plymouth University given by Das and Steinbach or the Open Academic lectures given by Stachura and Kliks in Poznań. Buelens participated in another of the highly popular and public Grote Woorden event (organised by Associated Partner deBuren) in March 2015. In September 2015, the project held an international workshop on ‘Colonialism, War and Photography’ in London. This generated stimulating research and led to a follow-on event in March 2016 that took place in Berlin. A selection of the papers presented at these two workshops will appear as the volume Colonialism and Photography in the Time of the First World War, edited jointly by Das, Schmid and Steinbach, and under contract with Bloomsbury.

CEGC project members at the Poznań meeting (left) and viewing exhibition poster proofs (right); October 2015

There has remained sustained media interest in the research stemming from the project and this has meant bridging the gap between academia and general knowledge on what is sometimes seen as a ‘popular’ subject. For example: Das was interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on the centenary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle; Das presented an ‘Essay’ on Tagore for the BBC Radio 3 series Minds at War; and Schmid was interviewed for Deutschlandfunk on the first mosque in POW camp. In March 2015, the film commissioned by the AHRC (see above), From Bombay to the Western Front, was released and has been viewed over 1000 times.


Researchers have engaged with groups outside of academia, allowing for stories of colonial troops and the neutral nations to be heard and understood by new and different audiences. Liebau and Schmid continued to support the art project ‘Digging deep, crossing far‘, which collaborates with artists from Morocco, India, and Pakistan to relate their artistic positions to the historical phenomenon of the Wünsdorf camp. Das was involved in the national debates around the opening of the Muslim Burial Ground in Woking, Surrey. As part of this, he highlighted the multi-religious nature of the Indian army and commented on the importance of the Muslim contribution, while warning against the sanitisation of WW1 public memory. He wrote an article for The Independent newspaper around the question of faith-specific war memorials and he was interviewed extensively for the BBC 1 programme Britain’s Muslim Soldiers, which so far has been watched by around 1.3 million people.


Opening of the Muslim Burial Ground, Woking, Surrey; November 2015

Steinbach delivered a knowledge briefing to staff from the Heritage Lottery Fund on ‘The First World War and Africa’. It aimed to widen the knowledge of HLF staff, who advise on grant applications made by community groups and help these groups to develop heritage projects related to the Centenary. The briefing contributed to the HLF’s important aim to encourage community groups to explore the history of the war in a global perspective and the impact on the UK today. Liebau has continued her work with school-aged children, leading project days. This has led to the publication of an article in a collected volume on the didactics of teaching the history of WW1, in which she connects the history of the POW camps in Wünsdorf and Zossen with aspects of WWI global history: Heike Liebau, Antje Liebau, ‘Weltgeschichte vor Ort. Kriegsgefangenschaft im Ersten Weltkrieg in Zossen und Wünsdorf, Fallstudie für Sekundarstufe I’, in Barbara Christophe, Kerstin Schwedes (eds.), Schulbuch und Erster Weltkrieg. Kulturwissenschaftliche Analysen und geschichtsdidaktische Überlegungen (2016).


A number of publications appeared in 2015, including: Indian Troops in Europe, 1914-1918 (Das), featured by BBC Asia; Everything to Nothing (Buelens), featured by the Times Higher Education; an article in English on Frederik van Eeden in the series European Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies (Lobbes); two articles in the journals Frames: Cinema Journal and Czas Kultury (Stachura); ‘Colonial Encounters’ in History Today (Maguire); and an article in Czas Kultury (Kliks).


As the project moved into its final phase in 2016, there was a real focus on consolidating research findings and writing up, in preparation for publication. Publishers were approached and, in many cases, contracts have been given. The results of this will be seen after the end of the project. The main events of the year were the international London conference ‘Cultural Encounters during Global War, 1914-1918: Traces, Space, Legacies’ (21-22 January 2016), at which many members of the project delivered papers on their research; the concert In Different Skies: music and writing of the First World War (20 January 2016) that took place in the Chapel at King’s College London; ‘Colonialism, War, Photography (part II)’ (10 March 2016), a follow-up session in Berlin to the London workshop in 2015; ; ‘South Asia and the FWW: a forum for debate and reflection’ (27 April 2016), at which an important new network was established of military personnel, archivists, funding bodies, museum professionals, artists, and academics. A film encapsulating the findings was produced – ‘Beyond Commemoration: South Asians and the First World War’.


Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Manish Tayal and Major Sartaj Singh Gogna (British Armed Forces Sikh Association), ‘South Asia & FWW’ workshop, 27 April 2016

The final year of the project saw the launch of the collaborative sourcebook, which has over 200 entries contributed by researchers of the project, contacts from our Associate Partners, and external academics working in the field of FWW studies. This will be a resource invaluable to scholars, students, and more general publics. Researchers continued to disseminate their research at to academic and non-academic audiences, at conferences, in radio and television interviews, in blog posts, in journal articles, in newspapers, in books, and in book chapters, amongst other formats.


Throughout the project, members of the CRP have been cultivating networks and seeking future collaborations. The following give a snapshot of some of these efforts. Das has forged deep links with a number of organisations and institutions to disseminate the findings of CEGC, from the United Service Institution in India, the Indian Embassy in London, and the UK Punjab Heritage Association to various Heritage Lottery-funded projects such as ‘Empire and Faith’ and ‘The Salt of the Sarkar’, to mention a couple. Liebau initiated discussions with the HERA project ‘Iconic Religion’ to look at potential collaborations and to discuss the concept of cultural encounters. Liebau, Schmid, and research assistant Jan Brauburger have engaged in developing a partnership with students, producing materials for use by schoolchildren and this came to fruition in 2015. Van den Berg developed networks and collaborations with the HERA project ‘Asymmetrical Encounters’ and the international research project ‘Circulation of Dutch Literature’ (CODL). There have been strong links developed with the HERA project ‘Making War, Mapping Europe’ (MWME), with researchers from each project attending the other’s workshops and events. For example, in October 2014 Das, Steinbach, and Lobbes attended a workshop on ‘War, Colonies and Cultural Encounters, 1789-1920’, while Maguire attended the MWME project meeting in Swansea in January 2015. There has been a sharing of information, particularly with regards to the online sourcebook. Several of our researchers, including Buelens, Lobbes, AP de Jazz van het Bankroet, AP deBuren, and AP EYE, attended meetings in The Hague with other researchers within the Netherlands to discuss activities

Project status: Completed