The Past is a Foreign Country

This project does not glorify either the First World War or the British Empire. It should not be necessary to say this, but although these are my relatives, I don’t share their opinions of 100 years ago.

This website makes some first person voices accessible. Here are the voices of three brothers, Ted, Paul and Richard, who served in the Indian Army, the Royal Navy, and as a military doctor. They were the sons of a clergyman, privately educated, privileged and in many ways fortunate, but they were there: at the Christmas Day Truce, at Scapa Flow and Jutland, in the Mediterranean, in the trenches, in Egypt, and just a few miles from Baghdad in what is now Iraq. These are the voices that Kipling reported abroad and Betjeman reported at home. At first sight they, and the letters from comrades, friends and relatives, confirm many of the myths of the First World War.

I hope this project will remind us WW1 was not only fought by Tommies in France: it slaughtered many at sea and was fought by colonial troops including a million and a half Indians on the Western Front and the Middle East.

Most modern narratives of WWI present a war that was largely white and European, occasionally American. The role of colonial troops is largely forgotten, but as these letters show, Indian troops froze in the snow in France in their light tropical kit, they baked in the desert, and they won VCs and other medals throughout the War. While working on this project, I came across others working to help us hear voices of the 1.4 million men from pre-partition India who fought in the Empire’s war. You can find out more about them by following these links.

Those who lived and died during the First World War are not allowed to rest in peace. Modern pundits and politicians steal their stories to score their own points and 100 years on the First World war is still highly politicized. Here people who were there speak for themselves; the letters have not been abridged or edited and are presented exactly as they came down to me.

These were men and women of their own time; we should not judge them by our customs and we clearly cannot judge them by theirs. As L P Hartley said “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.


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