War and Colonies, 1914-1918: a look back at the forgotten heroes
The travelling exhibition War and Colonies, 1914-1918, is meant first and foremost as a tribute to the colonial troops engaged in World War I. Having been dubbed the Great War, it saw the largest mobilization of troops in human history, an event that changed the global financial and political matrices. The exhibition pays tribute to the soldiers who fought on both sides of a conflict that ended the colonial epoch only to begin a world order premised on a new Capital-driven ambition.
Memory, including historical memory, is selective. Accordingly, the essential participation in the war effort of colonial troops in their various capacities as infantrymen (often shock troops), members of labour corps in the first total war, tends to be too often overlooked. This lapse of memory is obvious in the former imperial powers such as France, Great Britain or Germany, where very few references to colonial troops can be found in the flood of contemporary publications about the war and where only a handful of events commemorate the sacrifice of these men from Africa and Asia, though their graves can be visited in the war cemeteries of northern and eastern France.
This lapse of memory also seems to be affecting the peoples who were once colonized; apart from the experts, who, in the Indian subcontinent, remember that 1.5 million Indian troops were sent to the various theatres of the conflict? Subsequent events, World War II, decolonization, regional wars, and in the case of Bangladesh, the Liberation War, may well help explain this amnesia. Yet they do not justify it, for the participation of colonies and colonial troops in the Great War did indeed pave the way for future independence – it helped debunk the myth of the so-called 'superiority' of the colonizers; mass civil disobedience movements started just after the end of the war; the independence of a part of the island of Ireland owes a lot to the breaking out of the war and the Easter 1916 insurrection in Dublin, etc. The Great War both strengthened the colonial hold and weakened it. In this respect, we hope the accompanying panels will provide viewers with contextual elements that will drive home the significance of the contribution of colonies and colonial troops to the war effort as well as the importance of the Great War in dramatically altering the relationships between the colonizers and the colonized.
In its own humble way, this exhibition alongside the companion conference proposes to fill in this memory gap. It seeks to give back their rightful place to the colonies of Europe through a presentation of their indigenous troops. In these outstanding photographs taken a century ago, the human element is of paramount importance: there is no sensationalism, just the faces and expressions of men who, often far away from home, in an alien environment, are seen to relax or go about their business as soldiers or labourers, all the while showing great human dignity, even when wounded, or about to march up to the front line towards an uncertain future.
War and Colonies, 1914-1918 ran its course from February 24 to March 08, 2014, at La Galerie, Alliance Française de Dhaka. The exhibition also on view at the Liberation War Museum, where it was open from March 11 to 18, 2014.
Olivier Litvine, director of Alliance Française and also curator of this exhibition, has played the role of the catalyzer who launched this project two years ago after culling photographs from world renowned archives and museums. The exhibition served as a site of reemergence of the forgotten heroes whose worlds have completely changed due to cataclysmic clashes between nations. A two-day international conference under the same title had provided the Dhaka cognoscenti a lens through which to look at the very first war of global scale and the end of colonialism. The seminar was organized in partnership with the University of Dhaka.
- DEPART DESK