Oh well, at least the BBC tries to commemorate the First World War beyond the Western Front – Poppycock just wishes it employed somebody with an informed overview to fact-check and coordinate the effort. Yesterday was Commonwealth Day and so, to its credit and my satisfaction, the Beeb’s main evening news rolled out a story about the very considerable part played by soldiers and labourers from the British Empire during the Great War. It was delivered in two parts – first a look at troops from British India fighting on the Western Front, and then an on-location report from Kenya about the role of South Asian troops in the long battle for control of what was then German East Africa. It was a lazy effort, and I’m afraid it needs shooting down.
Yes, Asian troops fighting in Europe make an interesting story, and servicemen from British India did perform much of the fighting in East Africa, but there is so much more to tell. What about all the other fronts where Asian and other peoples from the modern Commonwealth fought and died? Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, stands out as an obvious and newsworthy example, but Imperial forces fought on literally every front contested by the British.
And what about all those Imperial troops that weren’t from British India? I can see why the Canadians and ANZACs, well covered by heritage commemorations of their own, don’t need the BBC to remind us of their participation, and remembering Irish soldiers can sit uneasy in an Imperial context – but this report made no mention at all of the thousands of Africans, West Indians and men from other Imperial outposts who were caught up in the world at war.
Maybe that’s because they don’t all sing to the happy, clappy Commonwealth tune, or project the same comforting acquiescence that characterises so many South Asian responses to the relative success of the Raj. Or maybe, as mass-media newscasters are wont to do, this team simply reported the easy story it was given on a plate and chose to let the audience assume it was the full story.
The tendency peaked in East Africa, where the estimable Reeta Chakrabarti managed a (very) loose description of the four-year campaign for the region, focused on Indian Army involvement, without even mentioning the many, many Africans who fought there for both of the empires at war. I happen to know people at the BBC who’ve heard of, for instance, the King’s African Rifles, and it’s a shame they don’t know Reeta.
So, once again, a pat on the back for the BBC for noticing anything but Tommies in French trenches, followed by a stern lecture for staying fixated on the Western Front and completely failing to join up a few very obvious dots.
Finally, and just before I pack away the rifle for the day, the East African report featured one contribution from an actual historian. I’ll spare him the namecheck, and it may be that editing took out any reference to non-Indian Army troops or auxilliaries, but he was allowed to get away with referring to the East African campaign as ‘our success’. Just for the record, the battle for East Africa was arguably the most successful German campaign of the entire War. A small German/African force was still running rings round a relatively massive British Empire contingent when the War ended, and ‘our success’ in the region was delivered by the post-War peace process. Poppycock thinks Reeta, or someone, could protect the public from casual misinformation by devoting a few valuable minutes to research.