World War One’s Army of Workers
In April 2021 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission responded to the Review into Historical Inequalities in Commemoration with an unreserved apology. The apology represents a watershed moment in the history of the CWGC and presents a significant opportunity to address the shared heritage of our diverse nation and world.
Moving forward, the CWGC has committed responses to 10 recommendations which will address this historic injustice, including a commitment Community Engagement and Education which promises to “promote increased awareness of our work and the contribution and sacrifices of those who served and died in two World Wars… increasing awareness of our global memorial sites and the stories and histories of the people commemorated in them… enabling communities wherever they may be, to discover, create and tell their own stories of the conflicts and the people in them.”
This is a welcome commitment and resonates strongly with everyone who took part in The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers during the WW1 centenary. Schools and grassroots community groups commemorated those mainly Black and Asian servicemen, women and children whose historic unequal commemoration has been highlighted.
With core funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the National Lottery Fund, Big Ideas brought together a coalition to support the project.
The South African High Commission and the Indian High Commission worked in partnership providing funding and opportunities for engagement; the Cabinet Office enabled the project to showcase activity at CHOGM; the National Army Museum held events and displayed the Unremembered wreaths, the British High Commission in New Delhi held events and engaged stakeholders.
Leicester City Council supported the Indian Story; the Greater London Authority welcomed the project to six public events in Trafalgar Square including Diwali, Africa in the Square, Eid and Vaisakhi; RUSI held an event featuring musician Courtney Pine commemorating the Caribbean contribution; legend Hugh Masekela gave one of his final performances for the South African Native Labour Corps; USI of India provided research; the Premier League education team held events; Royal Holloway College, the British Council, the British Army, the Imperial War Museum, the English Football League, the BBC and The Voice comprised the Advisory Group; the project foreword was written by historian David Olusoga.
This ‘army of workers’ are the majority of those the Imperial War Graves Commission neglected. They were labourers, carriers, and followers: non-combatants who supported the frontline soldiers and whose stories are the content of The Unremembered project. They cooked, cleaned, carried and cared for the soldiers on the frontline. Deprived of the dignity of bearing arms by the pervasive racism of the time, these service personnel were vital to the war effort, suffered the horrors of war and often died in service. Sidelined from the heroism of battle they were rarely acknowledged in commemoration.
The Unremembered provided schools and community groups with rich resources and engaging activities to include them in the commemoration of the First World War Centenary. Materials included research support to engage with the CWGC Archives and databases, archive photographs, music, creative activities, research materials and an emphasis on bringing the databases to life by holding up the names of the individuals who had died.
In 2017 and 2018 high profile events in Liverpool, Leicester, Portsmouth, Birmingham and London raised awareness of the rarely commemorated contributions of men and some women and children who served in non-combat roles.
Nine thousand participants in more than 200 groups across the UK came together in 2018 to commemorate through the Unremembered project. High profile activities included the Billboards programme in which photographs were taken holding the ‘Unremembered names’ and then displayed by the Outdoor Advertising Industry on digital billboards across the country.
Groups across the UK created unique wreaths dedicated to Unremembered groups which were presented to the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, displayed at the National Army Museum and processed by 120 groups in The People’s Procession – A Nation’s Thank You to lay the wreaths amongst the sea of poppies at the Cenotaph on Armistice100.
Nine out ten of participants in the Unremembered project reported an increase in their awareness of the contribution of people beyond Western Europe to the First World War. The Unremembered was the most far-reaching and sustained programme that highlighted these stories and brought the public to the conversation about commemoration and national identity.
It is important to communicate that despite historic inequalities in remembrance, government departments, communities, schools, academics, artists and individuals across the UK engaged in commemoration of the Unremembered during the First World War centenary.
Were you involved? Share your memories with us. #TheUnremembered