Race, memory and posthumous justice during the First World War centenary commemorations

Smith, Richard W. P.. 2018. 'Race, memory and posthumous justice during the First World War centenary commemorations'. In: Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities: Memory and Transformation. Birmingham Conference and Exhibition Centre, United Kingdom 21 November 2018. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

25 March 2018 marked the centenary of the death of Walter Tull, a professional footballer generally regarded as the first officer of African descent to serve in the First World War. As the anniversary approached, parliamentarians called for Tull to be awarded a posthumous Military Cross, citing bravery displayed during the Allied assault on the Piave River, Italy over New Year 1918, already mentioned in dispatches. This followed an earlier, unsuccessful movement for a retrospective award in 2006.

The Tull campaign intends to address past injustices and promote inclusiveness and community cohesion in contemporary Britain. However, this paper contends the initiative also raises problematic issues around history, memory and emotion which need to be considered by public collections, creative organisations and educators, and which have implications for other aspects of what is now understood as the multi-cultural First World War.

The focus on the singular figure and experience of Walter Tull, who has previously been commemorated in multiple geographical, media and creative spaces, risks overshadowing the presence of other similar figures whose participation is starting to be researched and understood. The experiences of black and Asian soldiers throughout the British Empire, including others who achieved officer status, involved many subtleties and paradoxes, as well as outright discrimination. While the endeavours of some were overlooked, others received praise and official acknowledgement for acts of bravery and sacrifice that in some cases were framed outside the limits imposed by contemporary racial attitudes.

A focus on military heroism may raise the esteem and sense of belonging of BAME communities. Retrospective recognition may also generate feelings of resolution and redemption among society in general. However, these intentions and consequences may also ultimately airbrush the past, exclude more contentious wartime experiences, such as insurrection, pacifism and non-military labour, and even minimise connections with current inequality.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Walter Tull, First World War

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


1 June 2018Accepted

Event Location:

Birmingham Conference and Exhibition Centre, United Kingdom

Date range:

21 November 2018

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Dec 2018 11:29

Last Modified:

13 Dec 2018 11:29



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