Defenders of empire;Reviews;General;Resources

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Michael Duffy on a pack that highlights the role of colonial troops in the First World War

THE EMPIRE NEEDS MEN. Multi-media resource pack from The Imperial War Museum, London SE1 6HZ. pound;36 inc. pamp;p.

Some of last November's Great War anniversary documentaries were misleading for children. They implied that the war was fought and suffered by Europeans in Europe. In fact, it was fought wherever the imperial and trading interests of the combatants collided. On every front, colonial troops made a major contribution to the fighting and the casualty roll.

Full marks, then, to the Imperial War Museum for putting the record straight on the part black and Asian troops and non-combatants played in Britain's war. Without Indian units, for instance, fully-trained and equipped as they were, the western front would have been near to collapse in autumn 1914.

We see them vividly in this pack, in still and moving images, their uniform, weapons, transport, tactics. Even through the censor, in this, the first war where media images and reports were both controlled, we sense their bewilderment - and the unfamiliar, penetrating cold.

So there is an honesty in this pack, and a level of detail that makes it essential in our multi-ethnic classrooms.

The 50 sturdy A4 pictures, like the film clips, range over most of the theatres of war. They feature African and West Indian units as well as Indian ones, and deal with recruitment, training, embarkation and combat as well as with the constant preoccupation of maintaining rail links and supplies. They come with teacher notes and a scholarly background commentary, useful for A-level work, on the detail of the campaigns and manpower levels.

If that sounds dull, find out how footballer Walter Tull challenged the army's reluctance to recruit British-born black men and became, days before his death on the western front, Britain's first black army officer. Excellent, often moving, and strongly recommended.

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