Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire

Indian troops in France during World War II. Credit Culture Club/Getty Images
Indian troops in France during World War II. Credit Culture Club/Getty Images

Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s empire in South Asia fought in World War II. But they are missing from many British commemorations and accounts of the war — an absence reinforced by Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk,” which does not feature any of the Indian soldiers who were present at the battle.

The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.

The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain. Paddy Ashdown, a British politician, has spoken of his father’s being court-martialed for refusing orders to abandon the Indian troops under his command.

World War II is memorialized everywhere in Britain. The catchy wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” appears on greeting cards, coffee mugs, doormats. Towns still organize Christmas fairs with a World War II theme. Balls and parties that involve dressing up in 1940s styles are common on university campuses.

Yet Britain’s fixation with the war doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the subject. The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.

Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did.

This has real significance for British South Asians. Baroness Warsi, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, said both of her grandfathers fought for Britain in World War II, a connection that 20 years later inspired her father to move from Pakistan to Yorkshire.

But others are unaware that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers were involved in two world wars. Generations of British schoolchildren, including me, sat through history lessons about World War II and never heard about the connection to Asia. British South Asians have only tentatively started to see their own place in this “British” story.

There are signs of change. Many historians, including Christopher Bayly, Tim Harper, David Olusoga, David Killingray and Srinath Raghavan, have written books about colonial soldiers and the war. The Imperial War Museum London is constructing new World War II galleries to reflect a more global story. Some schoolteachers make imaginative efforts to diversify their approaches to World War II histories in the classroom. Universities usually teach an even more complex and international picture. But the core idea that the British war was an imperial war still falls on deaf ears.

Perhaps this is because it is not a rosy, heroic tale of the empire coming to the rescue of the motherland. Young men in Asia and Africa often joined the army under duress. The war was fought for freedom, but Indian political demands were brushed aside in the 1940s, with nationalists enduring heavy-handed policing and imprisonment.

The British state bungled food supply in its empire. In Britain, wartime food shortages caused hardship and great inconvenience; in India, they caused mass starvation. At least three million Bengalis died in a catastrophic famine in 1943, a famine that is almost never discussed. The famine’s causes were a byproduct of the war, but as Madhusree Mukerjee has proved in her book “Churchill’s Secret War,” the imperial state also failed to deliver relief. Many soldiers signed up as volunteers to fill their belly.

A simple multicultural twist to war commemoration tells just part of the story. Histories of the imperial role in the war are convincing only if they tell an accurate tale, which is one both of great bravery and heroism but also of exploitation, uncertainty and divided politics.

The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit. A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of those surveyed in Britain thought the British Empire was something to be proud of.

Today there is a willful distortion of the empire in the British public mind, a strange determination to misremember it. An informed history of both World War II and the empire is necessary if we want to understand modern Britain. But in post-Brexit Britain, some are more interested in turning back the clock.

Yasmin Khan, the author of Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, is an associate professor of history at Oxford.

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