In World War One the Labour Corps cooked, cleaned, carried and cared for the soldiers on the front line and behind the lines. They built roads and railways, carried the wounded and buried the dead. Men and women from across the Commonwealth made a vital contribution to the war effort as workers. Many died, yet today their contribution and sacrifice is rarely acknowledged. Many are buried in unmarked graves or only referenced on generic monuments. Their names have been lost. They are The Unremembered.
Starting in 2017, as part of our Remember Together commemoration programme, Big Ideas created The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers, a national community commemoration project that asked the public to remember the hundreds of thousands who almost never experienced battle but were integral to the war effort. They were (mainly) men from across the world including China, Kenya, the Caribbean, South Africa, and Egypt, Tanzania and India, the British Isles and the Cook Islands as well as many other countries. The project asked one task of the groups; find a way to commemorate these forgotten heroes. The response was incredible and has helped shape national conversations around meaningful and diverse commemoration.
Groups created wreaths dedicated to the Labour Corps from across the world, using the flower of remembrance of each country and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database to add names of the fallen that we do have. Some groups held their own commemoration events, visiting local Labour Corps sites, holding a minutes silence or playing The Last Post. Poems and songs were created to commemorate the different regiments. In February 2017 as part of The Unremembered launch, jazz legend Hugh Masekela performed Hambe Kahle for the 600 plus men from the South African Native Labour Corps, who died when the SS Mendi troop ship sank in the English Channel. You can watch his performance here: https://vimeo.com/205063463
In collaboration with Clear Channel, in November 2018 billboards around the UK showed members of the public holding names of Labour Corps members. Ben Elton, comedian, author, playwright, actor and director, legend of South African theatre John Kani, and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan took part. The billboards campaign brought names that had previously been hidden to the public’s attention, inspiring people to look into the stories of the lives behind the names.
On the Centenary of the Armistice 10,000 members of the public were invited to walk in the People’s Procession as part of the Remembrance Sunday parade at the Cenotaph in London. Over 130 community members from across the UK joined Big Ideas in the procession, laying their Unremembered wreaths at the Cenotaph. The colourful wreaths dedicated to The Unremembered stood out in a sea of red poppies, bringing interest to the stories of often overlooked heroes. Two community members spoke to the BBC about the project and The British Royal Legion have now taken the Remember Together project to their members, encouraging and helping the public to continue exploring, remembering and commemorating diverse history.
The Unremembered continues to inspire. In June, the British High Commission and the United Services Institution of India, laid the an Unremembered wreath that was created by members of the public at Diwali in London, City Hall’s celebration in Trafalgar Square, at the Imphal Stone of Remembrance marking Imphal75.
This week, David Lammy MP featured in a documentary with Channel 4 looking at the African story of The Unremembered, challenging historical orders that did not allow equal commemoration of British and African service personnel. Over 100 years since the end of World War One the conversation is now focused on how we pay tribute to those who have laid in obscurity for so long.
Although memorials to some regiments of the Labour Corps exist around the world, and more are planned for the future, there is much work to be done to ensure diverse stories from history become part of the core history we all learn. David Olusoga, who wrote the foreword to The Unremembered resource pack in 2017, has spent years working with the countries and communities who are devastated that their sacrifice has been forgotten, and are hopeful yet wary at the changes we are seeing:
All these groups have reason to be surprised at the sudden upsurge in interest. There is at this moment a tentative sense that things are changing…. Europe’s cities in 2014, with their mix of races, cultures and faiths, better resemble the militarised zones of 1917 than they do the streets of Edwardian London, Third Republic Paris or imperial Berlin. This enormous demographic shift is without doubt one of the forces behind the current clamour for an expanded, more inclusive retelling of story of the First World War. Britain, the most confidently diverse of the former combatant states of Europe, is perhaps uniquely placed and uniquely willing to undergo that process of historical reassessment.
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The Unremembered was led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), with additional funding from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund to work in the Home Nations.