Magazine article History Today

Man, Culture, War: York Membery Visits the in Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres Where a New Exhibition Demonstrates How Many Countries and Cultures Were Bound Up in the First World War

Magazine article History Today

Man, Culture, War: York Membery Visits the in Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres Where a New Exhibition Demonstrates How Many Countries and Cultures Were Bound Up in the First World War

Article excerpt

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Unlike the Second World War, the conflict--especially on the Western Front is mainly seen as a war which pitched white man (be it a Briton, Frenchman, Australian or Canadian) against white man (be it a German or Austrian). However, that is by no means the whole story, as a fascinating new exhibition opening at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, this month makes clear.

In fact, some fifty-odd cultures--among them Native Americans and Australian aboriginals, Algerians and Egyptians, West Africans and West Indians--took part.

The aim of the exhibition, which is being staged in Ypres' famous Cloth Hall where the rest of the museum is also located, is primarily to raise public awareness of the ethnic diversity of the men on the Western Front, whether combatants or non-combatant, who in large part have been written out of history.

Historian Dominiek Dendooven of the museum, who carried out most of the research for the exhibition and has written an accompanying book, says: 'As far as I can tell, it is the first time a museum badge of devoted to warfare African has focused on the infantry, ethnic diversity of soldiers on the front--which amazes me given the ethnic diversity of so many West European countries today.'

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The British, whose empire covered some quarter of the world's land mass, drew a sharp distinction between races they regarded as 'martial' (such as Gurkhas and Sikhs) and 'non-martial' (such as high-caste Hindus). But with the exception of Indian troops during the first year of the war, 'coloured' men were hardly used in a fighting capacity on the Western Front--most non-white units, such as the Egyptian or Fijian Labour Corps, being used in a strictly non-combatant capacity.

'The British were very ambivalent about using "coloured" men in a combatant role on the Western Front,' says Dendooven. 'They feared that doing so could harm the "superior image" of the white man, and also provide colonial subjects with the weapons training that could one day perhaps be turned against them.'

However, the dominions did make somewhat greater use of their nonwhite peoples. There was a long tradition of British, French and American armies in North America making use of Indian fighting skills. And some 2,000 Native Americans fought, some with great distinction, on the Western Front for the Canadian Army where their abilities as snipers and scouts were highly valued.

In contrast to Britain, France, which was in desperate need of extra manpower, was happier using 'coloured' men from its possessions in North Africa (such as Algeria, Morrocco and Tunisia) and West Africa (such as Mall and the Ivory Coast). 'In their eyes, Africa was simply a reservoir of men,' observes Dendooven.

Germany made next to no use of 'coloured' men on the Western Front, largely as a result of the Royal Naval blockade which cut off it off from its African colonies. Perhaps as a result, German propagandists were all-too-willing to make capital out of the fact, branding the very deployment of non-whites on the Allied side a disgrace, and frequently portraying such troops as 'barbarians' who would happily cut off people's ears should Germany be defeated. …

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