The Things We Forget to Remember on Armistice Day
On the centenary of World War I, the digital project 'Cause and Effect' is telling the stories that have been overlooked to suit Britain's narrative of red poppy patriotism.
Of the past 3,400 years of human history, 3,132 have been years in which we've been at war. To put it another way: 92 percent of our recorded existence as a species has been lived out against a backdrop of war, and the death, destruction and suffering it brings. Four of those years form the conflict known as World War I.
Dubbed by HG Wells as "the war to end all war", it officially ended 100 years ago, at 11AM on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. It was, according to historian David Olusoga, "the most important event of the 20th century [and]... the modern age". A war, Olusoga says, that "created the world that we have to live in".
Artist Nabihah Iqbal – whose relatives fought for the British Empire in the trenches of France – is one of eight artists commissioned by the Roundhouse to produce a short film to mark the centenary of the war. The digital project, "Cause and Effect", aims to "investigate the complex, fractured relationship between the First World War and young people in Britain today".
"When I started researching [for the film] my grandparents were in London, and I discovered I had two relatives that fought in the war for the Indian army – I had no idea," says Iqbal, whose film If I survive, I will tell you everything focuses on colonial soldiers during WWI. "I wanted to try and find primary sources to base it on. [If I survive I will tell you everything] comes from this letter from 650 letters written by Indian soldiers serving on the western front, [which I read, as well as] oral testimonies from Senegalese soldiers who were fighting for France."
"It really stuck out for me because it's a poignant line," Iqbal adds. "He was worried about the immediacy of his death [and it showed his] desperation. He knew his letter would go through censors, so he couldn't tell his relatives everything."
Letters and packages from the trenches would be censored by the army to avoid leaks of vital information, locations and tactics. This means that the only stories we know are from those who survived to tell them. But the narrative goes beyond just having survived.
"When I was learning about World War I at school, every picture in the textbooks was of white soldiers," Iqbal tells me. "There were 4 million non-white men… from [all over] Africa, India, indigenous peoples in Australia, Canada and America, and 400,000 indentured Chinese labourers sent in to clear the battlefields after it finished. [Their] stories haven't really been told and haven't really survived, and I was trying to shine a light on that."
The exclusion of those stories is no accident. "This is an active omission – an active effort to exclude people out of the mainstream narrative – and that is wrong," Iqbal adds.
Poet Hollie Mcnish's film, Wars Whores, also looks to forgotten or ignored stories.
"That we don't include [sex workers] in the narrative says a lot about our attitudes to sex over violence," she tells me. "I'm not allowed to learn that a young virgin man went to a sex worker on the eve of a major battle, but I can learn that he was shrapnelled into oblivion."
"Not every woman laboured on the home front," says Mcnish in the film, as she pours the stories of long forgotten women onto the screen in the form of a spoken word poem.
"There are reports of one woman sleeping with 100 men in the two days before a major battle. On one day, 300 men lined up outside a brothel. [But] the pain [of sex] is always forgotten," she tells me. "The amount of problems women get from having sex compared to men is massive, but it's ignored, just like these women. [We shouldn't] just ignore these women, then no one talks about their rights, or their stories. These women must have such an insight into war, but most were illiterate."
As with the stories of the colonial soldiers in Nabihah Iqbal's film, no one thought to ask about these women's stories, and so injecting colour into the whitewashed history of World War I has become an essential tenet of the project. "Officers do not share lower ranking soldiers' whores… Blue lightbulb for officers, red lightbulb for the common man," says Mcnish in her poem.
"The bit where I speak about the lights is really interesting. Sometimes when the troops had captured an area, the officers would then use the enemy’s brothels, rather than their own common troops' brothels," says Mcnish. "Officers on both sides of the war had been intimate with these women – they'd rather share these intimate experiences with an enemy than across a class divide. I found that quite amazing. Not shocking, because obviously class is a massive thing and isn’t spoken about. Way more working class men die in war, [yet] we learn all about the patriotism but never about the class divide."
What is striking about watching the films and talking to the artists and historians that brought them to life is the sheer number of issues that were live 100 years ago that still shape our lives today. At the launch event for the project at Camden's Roundhouse in late October, rapper and anti-war activist Lowkey spoke of his film Refuse2Kill, about conscientious objectors of the war. The film begins with text on the screen: "In Britain 20,000 men refused to kill. 6,000 of them were imprisoned for this refusal. 80 of them died in there. 34 were sentenced to death."
One of those who refused to fight was Kier Hardie, then-leader of the Labour Party, who was lambasted in the press. He was dubbed "Kier Von Hardie" by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, leaders of the suffragette movement, who were deeply opposed to pacifism, unlike their sister Sylvia, who was featured in the film.
"A leader of the Labour party taking a principled anti-war stance, vilified by the press and lampooned as an agent of a [hostile] foreign state – does that not sound a little familiar?" asked Lowkey.
That's the thing. It does all sound a little familiar. Perhaps too familiar. That soldiers of colour were sent to the frontlines to die for a country that would not recognise them as equal speaks to the inherent racism raging in society today. That sex workers were ignored speaks to the misogyny we still see on our streets today. Where officers would rather share intimate moments with women who slept with their sworn enemy than those of a different class goes some way to explaining the deep class divides that still exist in this country.
Earlier this week, WWII veteran Harry Leslie Smith took to Twitter to say, "Instead of wearing a poppy for #RemembranceDay2018, we should wear our shame because as a human race we've learned nothing since 1918."
"History is written by the winners, true. But when the heroes are of another hue. Another religion. Another point of view. Are they remembered at all? By whom?" repeats the refrain of rapper and author Akala's contribution to the project, The World’s War. It's a refrain that begs the question: by wearing a poppy, by only commemorating the history we've been taught and told – whose war are we remembering? Whose sacrifice are we recognising and validating? Whose horror are we forgetting, and at what cost?
In creating their films, each artist referred to notes made by notable historians. In one such note, World War I academic Clare Makepeace states, "If we prefer to overlook this aspect of a war that happened 100 years ago, what chance do we have of tackling it today?"
On this centenary, as the world becomes more and more unstable, as conflicts rage across it and an impending climate crisis slowly turns up the heat on the human race, surely it is beholden to us to remember the war as it truly was, lest we forget who we are and who we should be fighting for, before it's too late.