Contact Zones of the First World War

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Anna Maguire, Queen Mary, University of London


In his oral history, A Chief is a Chief by the People (1975), Stimela Jason Jingoes, who served with the South African Native Labour Corps, recalled arriving in Liverpool in 1917.

When we boarded the train, before we left Liverpool, the girls of that place arrived with teapots, cups, and biscuits to serve us with tea. They were so friendly and we warmed to their concern for us […] Although white women had served us in Cape Town we knew they were only doing it because we were going to war. These girls were different.”

Back in South Africa at another port, New Zealander Norman Coop docked in Durban on his way to Britain and, as many of his compatriots had done at Aden or Colombo, rode in a rickshaw pulled by a Black African man.

Later in 1917, Jingoes developed a relationship with William Johnstone, from Folkestone in England, whilst they were working together on the docks at Dieppe.

We hit it off at once and spent our breaks drinking tea and talking about our two countries, until at last we were close friends. After the war we corresponded for many years, but at last we lost touch and I do not know what became of him.”

Where Jingoes sought commonality, others used time on leave away from the fighting front to seek out that which was novel or exotic. Harry O’Donnell Bourke wrote home to New Zealand from London that year about taking a bus to Petticoat Lane in the East End during a spell on leave: ‘this place is an eye-opener for a colonial’.

Elsewhere in the city, his compatriot Randolph Gray fell ill; his ‘good landlady made things very cheerful and nursed me as though I were her own son.’

Over in France, Alfred Horner, a white British padre serving with a battalion of the British West Indies Regiment, described his ‘boys’ ‘doing odd jobs for the lady of the house, regaling themselves with coffee, and so far as they were able carrying on a conversation in which “home” – so very different in every way from what they were experiencing – had a prominent place.’ And in Mesopotamia, VAD nurse Marjorie Thomas tried to make sense of the racial logic of the hospital where she worked where ‘the British Tommies did not want sit with the “blacks” and the “blacks” did not want to sit with each other.’

A Maori lumber worker talking to a Frenchwoman. Forest de Nieppe, March 1917 © IWM Q 4740

What did these moments, taken from one year of war, mean? The tenderness, the friendship, the exotic spectacle, curiosity or racist exploitation? These mobile and global interactions with new peoples and places found a place in narratives of military service, part of the war stories told in letters, in diaries, in memoirs and oral histories.

In Contact Zones of the First World War, I argue that we cannot understand the colonial experience of the First World War without looking beyond the battlefield. Military authorities relocated the space of the colonial encounter in support of waging an imperial war. Away from the frontlines, troops from the British Empire occupied new ‘contact zones’, sites of encounter during this period of global war. On troopships, in ports, in military camps and hospitals, in cafes and city streets, new spaces for interaction, fleeting moments or ongoing relationships, became an everyday part of First World War Experience.

I trace the journeys of enlisted men from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies through the contact zones of the First World War. I don’t tell these war stories as they often appear – charming, evocative, potent – employed to demonstrate the possibilities of the ‘Empire United in Arms’ or the hope that encounters might provoke a ‘great reorganization of Empire.’ Colonial troops were not mobilized at the same time, in the same number or with the same status. These asymmetries were determined by persistent colonial logics of race and gender which shaped the perceived loyalty, ‘competence’ and ‘suitability’ of colonial servicemen. Instead, contact zones provide an extraordinary opportunity for individuals to elaborate upon and confront the givens of colonialism and the realities of empire beyond their home environments. By following these individual and collective narratives of wartime journeys through new contact zones, I offer a more intricate understanding of imperial power relations and contact, conflict and collaboration during the First World War.

 

Contact Zones of the First World War. Cultural Encounters across the British Empire is published by Cambridge University Press

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About the Author:

Anna Maguire is the author of Contact Zones of the First World War. Cultural Encounters across the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2021). With Santanu Das and Daniel Steinbach, she is the editor of Colonial Encounters in a Time of Global Conflict, 1914-1918 (Routledge, 2021). She is currently writing a history of sanctuary in Britain, 1951-2000, as part of her Leverhulme postdoctoral research on refugees and charity at Queen Mary, University of London.

 

 

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