Beyond Borders: The Second World War, National Identities and Empire in the UK.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology


Historians argue that for the UK the Second World War was an imperial and international conflict, rather than a national war. However, this argument has yet to be scrutinised from the perspective of those who lived through it. During the war, millions of UK adult citizens were on the move, crossing both its internal and external borders and mixing across local, national and racial boundaries. This movement included ethnically diverse and Black British military service personnel, transatlantic cable workers, land girls, conscientious objectors, medics, directed war-workers and civil servants. This project seeks to recover how people conceptualised their national identity in wartime, whether as imperial, multinational or singular and the extent to which this shifted as people moved across the Empire at war. It examines military and civilian migration within the UK, then moves in concentric circles outwards to address imperial encounters, amongst service personnel and civilian workforces, in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It then traces the post-war migratory movement of colonial and Commonwealth veterans into the UK. At the same time, it takes into account the ethnic and racial diversity of the UK's wartime population as well as within the British Empire. Through adopting a global history approach, and moving away from a purely nation-state framework, the project provides an original account of the meanings of the United Kingdom's wartime experience from the perspectives of those who lived - and moved - through it. It illuminates what happened when different groups were thrown together both within and outside their nation's borders, addressing the experiences of people of different ethnicities, Welsh and Gaelic language speakers and other minority groups. The project will not just interrogate how these encounters were experienced but also how they were remembered and commemorated. Utilizing the UK's vast array of untapped oral history archives, it will explore patterns in the evolving ways people articulated their sense of identity and and open up a whole dimension of original scholarship by enabling the analysis of individual subjectivities. This will feed into a wider study of the memory and commemoration of the war that seeks to take forward current understandings by paying full attention to the variations and nuances of race and nationhood across the UK's four countries.

Our research questions fall into three themes:

1: Crossing Borders - How did differences of ethnicity, gender, language, class and religion shape wartime encounters within the UK and inform ideas of national and racial difference amongst a mobile population? To what extent did the widely promoted image of UK togetherness skate over sites of tension and how were these negotiated?

2: Imperial Encounters - In what ways were national identities informed or transformed by the experience of serving alongside colonial soldiers within the British Empire? How did the wartime construction of national and ethnic identities interact, or not, with a sense of imperial Britishness? Did wartime encounters and experiences across a global empire produce a sense of imperial belonging or heighten awareness of cultural distinctiveness?

3: Memory & Legacies- How was the war remembered and commemorated in the constituent nations of the UK in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and did a post-imperial and post-devolutionary landscape produce change? To what extent has memory of the Second World War been utilised in campaigns for sovereignty and independence? What sites of memorialisation were claimed by migrant groups from the colonies and Commonwealth in post-war UK society?

This project is the first comparative study to integrate England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and their wartime relationships to Britishness and to the British Empire into a single frame.


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