Simon Barlow, a research volunteer for Far From the Western Front, reports back on the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum London after a project visit in last week:
“With the daunting prospect of covering the full narrative history of the First World War across a few exhibition rooms, the Imperial War Museum successfully illustrates the important tactical position India had in the conflict and the wider context of the war as a late-imperial conflict. Perhaps understandably the exhibition is primarily focussed on the origins of the war, the impact on Britain, and the Western Front and yet within that there is space for wider ideas to find expression.
In recognition of the global aspect of the conflict the uniforms of the troops from the imperial territories on both sides sit alongside those of the British, French, German, and Belgian soldiers’. The multiple fronts of the war and the diversity of the troops drawn from around the world are shown. In one particularly illuminating display the recruitment posters from around the British territories are put side by side, providing the opportunity to compare how the war effort was depicted in differing contexts. The lion symbolism and shared responsibility of Empire which adorn the posters of South Africa and Australia are absent from those posted in India and in their place is the more humble offer of “Good Food, Good Pay, Good Treatment, and a Healthy Life”.
India’s greatest significance for Britain at the time was (as is reflected by the exhibition) as a centre for trade and generation of revenue for the British war effort rather than the contributions of its people. Untouched by the fighting it provided the British with the means to raise revenue and draw on resources to a far greater extent than the Central Powers were able – a situation recognised in one exhibit quoting the Kaiser as declaring that Britain’s loss of India was a key aim of the war.
Perhaps most tantalisingly of all is the allusion to the prospect that India could be united by their contribution to the war effort. The nationalist movement, with Gandhi emerging at its head at the time, was an enthusiastic and vocal recruiter during the war believing that collaboration would earn them their place as equals in the empire alongside South Africa and Australia. That this version of events would not unfold and the nationalist movement would have to take a different trajectory is not the concern of this exhibit – and nor should it, with the key moments of change happening in 1919, after the war concluded.
The exhibition therefore fulfils its purpose – it provides an overview of an incredibly complex conflict efficiently and finds time to expose some of the nuances of how its repercussions were felt around the world, away from the western front. Capturing the thinking of the time with a diverse range of tools, from posters and uniforms to original displays, it leaves the door open for others to undertake further research and investigation to explore the smaller and more specific facets this exhibition alludes to.”
Image © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12574)