The Night Before the Somme

The Night Before the Somme at the Imperial War Museum #IWMLate was the museum’s first brave attempt at a museum late. With film and theatrical events, choirs and costumes, they followed the recent fashion for blending a cocktail of nightclub codes with the ‘don’t touch, keep quiet it’s a library’ rules of a heritage venue. With alcohol available (and portable in tin mugs) from the tearooms, the largely genial punters swilled around the building, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere created by the conflicts and genocide of the previous century. One man – deep in his cups and less genial than the others – objected to Nutkhut’s ‘Dr. Blighty’, a portrayal of the Indian contribution to WWI. “There were no Indian’s at the Somme” he sneered at me confidently (and incorrectly; two Indian cavalry regiments fought in this dreadful battle, and 20,000 Empire soldiers lost their lives). There have been too many disputes in the country this week. Disputes can become fights, arguments lead to wars. It was a battle I turned away from, though I admit that an unseemly post-Brexit alcohol-fuelled brawl over ancestral heritage, in the atrium of a museum decorated with tanks, guns and bombers surrounded by soldiers and nurses would have been wonderfully dramatic. It might have drawn attention to the appalling deficit of information about the real Global WWI; the missing brown and black soldiers; the Eurocentric perspective that’s repeatedly presented as truth. It would have shown how very much it matters that these stories are told. It could have demonstrated just how much we identify with our ancestors, how our idea of who we are affects our perspective on the past. It would have illustrated the connection between racist chants of ‘Go home!’ and the misguided assumption that Britain was built on the might of the Anglo-Saxon, who built the Empire, who won the wars, who made this country Great. It might have juxtaposed the regurgitated lie - that the civilizing influence of the British created the wealth that sustains us today, laying its foundations of principle and fair-play all over the Globe – with the truth – that the wealth of Britain and other European colonial powers was gathered by exploiting and enslaving indigenous populations all over the world. This truth has never been properly faced. Like a toxic family secret, it will keep oozing poison, transferring the trauma from generation to generation until it has been allowed breathe. Only then will it finally heal.