Riding in Rickshaws – Touring the Colonies during the First World War


Colombo, Ceylon, 1919. Three rickshaws, two with Australian soldiers aboard, in the Cinnamon Gardens. Australian War Memorial

Happy New Year! As I wrote in Fresh Starts, I’m trying to come back to blogging this year, to use this space to try out some ideas, ask questions and tell stories. So in this first month of 2016, I will be talking about travel and exploration during the First World War and, as the new term starts, teaching outside your research topic.

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Fresh Starts: Blogging in my Third Year

I read Jessica Meyer’s Breaking the Silence last week and nodded and thought and sighed. I too have got out of the habit of blogging. Life, other work and teaching for the first time felt like they had got in the way. But really, as I got used to new demands on my time there was time and space to write. I had just not felt the need (or desire) to exercise those particular muscles.

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Archibald Baxter: The Encounters of a Conscientious Objector

Field Punishment Number One which Baxter was subjected to.

Field Punishment Number One which Baxter was subjected to.

Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease [1939] was a memoir of his experience of the war in its entirety that has had many published editions and been critically acclaimed for his portrayal of the horrific treatment he received as a conscientious objector.

Before the war Baxter had ‘reached the point of view that war – all war – was wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.’ Baxter had heard speeches during the Boer War and read pacifist and anti-war literature that led him to form a Christian Socialist viewpoint. This was reinforced by a speech Keir Hardie made in 1908 when he visited New Zealand and Baxter concluded that war would not solve any problems. We Will Not Cease, first published in 1939, is an exceptional story of Baxter’s bravery and resolve in resisting participation in the war, from his arrest in 1915 and subsequent imprisonment to being shipped to Europe against his will and forced to the front line.

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Reading The Kia-Ora Coo-Ee

'Coo-Ee, Won't you come?', the Kia Ora Coo-Ee magazine.

‘Coo-Ee, Won’t you come?’, the Kia Ora Coo-Ee magazine.

The literary First World War is none so evident than in the plethora of trench newspapers and magazines produced by serving troops. In the trenches, behind the lines, even on their journey to war, the men collaborated together to produce collections of essays, stories, cartoons, song lyrics and jokes of varying length and quality. These printed publications served as a creative outlet for the men’s emotional experience of the war in humorous anecdotes, poetry, short stories and art work. The issues could also be sent home to family and friends, a way of sharing one’s feelings about and experience of the war without having to write it down in your own words.

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Maoris at Gallipoli

Rikihana Carkeek of the First Maori Contingent.

Rikihana Carkeek of the First Maori Contingent.

Rikihana Carkeek enlisted with the First Maori Contingent on the outbreak of war, sailing with the contingent to Egypt, Malta and Gallipoli. He was wounded in the battle of Sari Bair. His vivid diary details his war experience, shining a light on the service of the First Maori Contingent. Continue reading

Zulu War Dances on French Sand: Confronting Irony in the Imperial Gaze

SANLC war dance

Men of the South African Native Labour Corps who had performed a ‘Zulu war dance’ during a sports day at Dannes, 24th June 1917.
© IWM (Q 2391)

Working within European archives to engage with colonial knowledge is often a problematic experience. Being confronted with the structural and personal inequalities of empire and attempting to understand the repercussions for lived experience is a challenge in recovery and the insights offered by colonial phenomenon and the actions and cultures of the past.

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Sculpting the Centenary in Rotorua

A recent research trip to New Zealand included an exploration of the Sulphur Lake Sculpture Trail in Rotorua.

The First World War has been consistently memorialised in art, even while still ongoing: large institutional commissions, artists on active duty, the sketches made by serving troops to try and illustrate their experience for their families. Based on the theme of ‘The Returning Soldier’, 17 local, national and international artists were invited to create works. These have now been located around the Sulphur Lake in the Government Gardens in a trail as part of the 2015 WWI Gallipoli commemorations, revealing the continuing artistic inspiration that this conflict has precipitated.

Visiting the gardens on a peaceful February evening as the sun dappled the grass through the leaves, the geothermal waters and the area’s historic function as a convalescent home for returning soldiers, formed a tranquil setting.

Tank Trap

Tank Trap by Jamie Pickernell. Author image. 

Jamie Pickernell’s piece ‘Tank Trap’ recalled the Hedgehog tank traps on beaches or fields, with the hope that children visiting the lakes would be tempted to climb over the structure in the same way the artist had clambered over the tank at Rotorua’s Kuirau Park as a child.The object also engaged with the brutality and the symbolism of the cross. The cross featured in Jocelyn Pratt’s ‘Anchor Peace’, representing the role of the Red Cross in the war, while the anchor stone itself acts as a symbol of the returning soldiers’ belief in having fought for future peace.

Anchor Peace

Anchor Peace by Jocelyn Pratt

One of my favourite pieces was this embodiment of Mahuika’s eternal flame by Natanahira Te Pona. Dedicated to the nursing sisterhood and drawing on Maori heritage, the spirit and hope of the sculpture was captivating.

Na Maikuku o Mahuika

Na Maikuku o Mahuika (The Flame of Mahuika), Natanahira Te Pona

Encountering the ‘Mother Country’: A Land of Four Nations?

Guest Post from me on the Four Nations History Network. Really enjoyed thinking about my research from a different perspective.

Four Nations History Network

Encountering the ‘Mother Country’: A Land of Four Nations?

This week, PhD student Anna Maguire (King’s College London/Imperial War Museum) discusses colonial perceptions of Britain during the First World War. Tweet her at @AnnaMaguire24 with your thoughts.

The First World War involved encounters across the globe, across divides of race, class, gender and nationality. Over four and a half million non-white men were mobilised from across the British, French and German Empires to serve alongside their white imperial counterparts.[1] The war would spread throughout East and West Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia as well as Belgium and France. The potential for cultural encounters, contact and interaction made between people and places, was vast.

My PhD thesis is exploring these colonial encounters for men mobilised from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, men of diverse racial backgrounds who had different places and status within the Empire. As well as…

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On being a woman and a war historian

Much needed. Much appreciated.


This one has been a long time coming. I began writing it back in March, in response to the BBC’s multi-platform debate over Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. I had been invited to take part, rather late in the day, but was unable to go as I had to prepare for my son’s fifth birthday party the following day. But, in between icing a castle cake and preparing knightly party bags, I tried to follow the Twitter discussion. I didn’t manage to engage with all, or indeed a great amount of it, but one thread of commentary did catch my attention. Someone commented on the lack of women on the television panel, starting a discussion which led eventually to the comment that, even if women had been invited to participate in the discussion, they would have been asked to speak about ‘women’s issues’.

This discussion got me thinking about…

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Lest We Forget: The Soldiers of Empire

Parade of Chinese labourers, Boulogne, 1917. © IWM (Q 2696)

Parade of Chinese labourers, Boulogne, 1917.
© IWM (Q 2696)

On the 4 August 2014, the outpourings of offerings commemorating the First World War that have been flowing over the last months will become overwhelming. Amongst the attention being shown to the familiar voices and stories of the Western Front, we should take the time to acknowledge the global reach of the war, in contribution and location. The war was fought in East Africa, in Egypt, in the Middle East, not just in Belgium and France. Over four million non-white men – including Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, West Indians, Sri Lankans, Maori, Fijians – would travel across the world to fight in a war that was so much about the Empires in which they lived. On this day and for the next four years we should remember them.

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