A contemporary painting of the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, Sudan, in 1898

This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

The giant battleship guns parked at the entrance are almost as striking as the building’s name, the Imperial War Museum. Inside this major London tourist attraction, children run amok amongst the mothballed tanks and fighter jets that dominate its airy halls. But take the elevator to the top floor and the mood changes. It is more sombre, a shrine to what the museum calls “Extraordinary Heroes”. This gallery shares “250 extraordinary stories of men, women and children who performed acts of bravery to help other people in desperate need and were awarded Victoria and George Crosses in recognition of their actions”.

The darkened room is full of these medals, the highest honours given by the British state, flickering peacefully under the low lighting. Most are owned by the former Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft, who spent £5 million on this unique collection – and generously opened it to the public in 2010. Despite having drawn criticism in the past for his non-dom tax status, he is deeply patriotic and has written several books on British military history.

At first sight the Ashcroft Gallery reflects the standard narrative about British heroism during the World Wars. At the time of my visit, around two thirds of the medals were from men and women involved in these conflicts, who were decorated for extraordinary acts of bravery. But the gallery also has a considerable number of medals from before 1914, when the British Empire was nearing its height, and its troops were fighting wars of conquest and plunder across the globe. These medals are significant because – apart from temporary exhibits like John Akomfrah’s recent Mimesis: African Soldier – there is little else at the Imperial War Museum that explores Britain’s colonial history.

Despite its name, the museum is technically only required to cover “conflicts in which British or Commonwealth forces have been involved since 1914”, according to its press office. But Victoria and George Crosses from before 1914 are included. “As the collection in the [Ashcroft] Gallery commemorates acts of bravery in extreme situations, the majority of which are a direct result of war and conflict,” I was informed, “it is appropriate that these are displayed and the stories behind them told.”

Of course, storytelling is not as simple as it sounds. Should we view individual heroism differently when it occurred in the context of an imperial project as opposed to, say, a war against fascism? What story do these medals tell us about Britain? And who has control of the public spaces, like museums, where we learn about our national story? Let’s look at a few examples.


At least 10 per cent of the collection on display consists of medals for acts of bravery in British India. There is little else in the Imperial War Museum to explain what the British were doing in India, and no sort of debate about the impact of this presence on the colonised. The fact that India’s share of global wealth fell from almost a quarter at the start of the 18th century to less than 4 per cent when Britain left the subcontinent in 1947 is omitted from the Ashcroft Gallery.

During my visit a video played on repeat, with various people giving their views on the Ashcroft Gallery’s importance. According to one young British person in the video: “These are the people who saved our country.” That statement is partly misleading. Yes, many of the medals in the gallery are for people who died fighting heroically against fascism in the Second World War. But not all of them. The medals from British India contain several from the period 1857 to 1858 – India’s first war of independence against British rule (the gallery refers to this episode by its colonial name, the Indian “Mutiny”). This uprising, against the East India Company, was brutally suppressed, and led to another 90 years of imperial rule.

Consider one such medal from this period, a Victoria Cross that was awarded to a British captain, Henry Jerome, “for conspicuous gallantry at Jhansi, on the 3rd April 1858”. Jerome rescued a severely wounded British officer “under a very heavy fire” during an attack on the city’s fort. He went on to become a Major General and died near Bath in 1901. This is just one side of the story. In his recent book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India the author and Indian MP Shashi Tharoor claims that 5,000 civilians were massacred in the city of Jhansi during the first war of independence after it was recaptured by triumphant British forces in April 1858. In other words, Jerome’s comrades were not magnanimous in victory. But such alternative perspectives are absent from the gallery.

This is just one example of how Britain’s conquest of India is portrayed in the Ashcroft Gallery in a one-sided fashion, devoid of context and juxtaposed with genuine acts of bravery, as if restoring British colonial rule in India and fighting fascism in Europe are moral equivalents. It also seems oblivious to the debates that rage elsewhere in public life – in the UK and beyond – about how to properly assess the impact and legacy of the British Empire. Tharoor’s argument, for instance, first rose to prominence after an appearance at the Oxford Union debating society, a video of which went viral.


There are other examples of unapologetic imperial pride beyond India at play in the Ashcroft Gallery. Take the medal that was awarded to a Royal Navy gunner, Israel Harding, for his bravery during the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. When Harding’s vessel was firing on the fort at Alexandria, an incoming “10-inch spherical shell passed through the ship’s side and lodged on the main deck.” Harding rushed to the shell and put it in a tub of water to extinguish the fuse. “Had the shell burst, it would probably have destroyed many lives.” This was a remarkably selfless act, but the museum provides no context about the conflict in which this occurred, or how it is viewed from differing perspectives.

In that battle, British forces defeated Egyptian nationalists, led by Ahmed ‘Urabi, before his movement became powerful enough to control the Suez Canal, a vital artificial waterway that links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. After the bombardment of Alexandria, Britain retained its grip on Egypt for the next seven decades. The battle is a poignant moment in Egyptian history. Any visitor to Alexandria who walks along its picturesque waterfront, which was damaged during the bombardment, will most likely pass through one of the city’s main squares, Midan ‘Urabi (‘Urabi Square). The square is named after ‘Urabi, who became a nationalist hero and an important figure in Egypt’s national story. In London, his defeat is barely a footnote.


Control of Egypt was important for the British Empire not only because of the Suez Canal along her north-eastern flank. Egypt’s great natural watercourse, the Nile, served as a route for British forces to penetrate deeper into the continent, as the Scramble for Africa – competition between European powers in the late 19th century to colonise territory – intensified.
At the confluence of the Nile, where the river branches into its White and Blue tributaries, lie the Sudanese cities of Khartoum and Omdurman, the latter the site of one of Britain’s worst imperial massacres.

In September 1898, Herbert Kitchener (later Lord Kitchener of Khartoum) led British troops and some Egyptian surrogates into direct confrontation with Sudanese forces at Omdurman. The enemy wore fabric tunics and was armed mostly with spears. In the space of a few hours, the invading forces used Maxim guns (prototype machine guns) to wipe out over 10,000 Sudanese soldiers. Fewer than 50 British troops died on that day. Among the victorious British troops was a 23-year-old Lieutenant called Winston Churchill. Of course, none of the Sudanese soldiers were awarded a Victoria Cross for their extraordinary bravery in fighting Queen Victoria’s machine guns in defence of their country.

Instead the Ashcroft Gallery commemorates Captain Alexander Gore Arkwright Hore-Ruthven, a British soldier who rescued a wounded comrade 20 days after the battle of Omdurman, at a smaller firefight in Gedarif (Al Qadārif), south-east of Khartoum. The captain survived the battle, made it back to Britain and died in 1955 in Gloucestershire.

The National Army Museum in nearby Chelsea does a better job in educating the public about the battle of Omdurman. Its gallery on colonial conflicts – it has one – at least includes a cloth tunic and spear, to illustrate how poorly armed the Sudanese forces were. (But even there, I could not see the death toll listed). The total omission of Omdurman at the Imperial War Museum is particularly jarring for me because I have some understanding of how the battle is commemorated in Sudan.
When I visited Khartoum in 2011, the country was still under US sanctions and travelling by land from Egypt into Sudan was almost impossible. The only way was to fly into Khartoum, over the enormity of the desert. Sanctions were suffocating the country and the streets of Khartoum were clogged by yellow taxis from the 1960s held together by car body filler.

But the scars from that battle with Britain a century ago were so deep that Sudan, despite its poverty, could still afford to commemorate it properly. The Khalifa’s House, where the Sudanese military leader lived before his defeat, is a small museum that is open to the public and contains Maxim guns, as a stark reminder of what Sudanese people faced on that day with their spears. The feeling of being so far from Britain, in a country that is still hard to access even today, and seeing the arsenal that was waged against its inhabitants is profound.

It would be easy to dismiss this as propaganda by the current oppressive Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir using colonial crimes to whitewash its own atrocities. But I recall my conversation with a Darfuri refugee in the UK, who had fled al-Bashir’s own barrel bombs, about the battle of Omdurman. Even for him, as a Darfuri, the massacre in 1898 was still a grievance – and as such a surprising point of common ground in a dangerously fractured country.

New Zealand

Looking further afield, there are three medals in the Ashcroft Gallery for Britons who fought in the New Zealand Wars. These were a series of battles that took place between 1845 and 1872 between British troops, fighting for New Zealand’s colonial government, against Maori resistance fighters. The gallery displays a cluster of medals from the 1860s, when the fighting was at its peak during the invasion of the Waikato region. None of the three people who won these awards died in battle, and some went on to have illustrious careers. Although most people in Britain have never heard of this conflict, the invasion of the Waikato, which is near Auckland, is still a contentious issue. Its legacy is undergoing historical revision in New Zealand, in a similar way to the campaigns against Confederate statues in the American South. In 2017, residents of South Auckland staged a protest march along battle sites from the invasion of Waikato, to raise awareness and highlight an alternative history.

Shane Te Pou, a local Maori man, also called for the removal of a South Auckland statue commemorating Marmaduke Nixon. He was a colonel who led attacks on Maori communities during the invasion of the Waikato, fighting in the same campaign as some of the men who are commemorated at the Imperial War Museum. Te Pou described Nixon as a “thug, a man who raised a militia and . . . killed innocent women and children”. He called for the statue to be moved into a museum, to allow a proper discussion about its meaning. In a compromise, Auckland’s mayor talked with Te Pou and the pair agreed to leave the statue in situ but to “ensure the events of that time are explained and to recognise victims of war appropriately”. The local MP, Peeni Henare, supported the initiative and told reporters: “There could be a plaque on or at the side of the monument explaining what happened from both sides.”

Cecil Rhodes

Modern-day disagreements over imperial history are not confined to Britain’s former settler colonies; the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South African universities in 2015, spread to their counterparts in the UK itself. The campaign focused on statues and official commemorations of the British imperialist and businessman Cecil Rhodes – and there is a link of sorts to Rhodes in the Ashcroft Gallery too, by way of a Victoria Cross awarded posthumously to Trooper Frank William Baxter in April 1896. According to the citation, Baxter was part of the Bulawayo Field Force and gave his horse to a wounded comrade who was “being closely pursued by an overwhelming force of the enemy”. True perhaps, but young Baxter was fighting to put down a rebellion in Matabeleland, now part of Zimbabwe, which was then part of a territory named Rhodesia by its British rulers.

One eminent historian, Thomas Pakenham, has described the Matabeleland rebellion as the “first nationwide war of independence in any of the new colonies created during the Scramble [for Africa]”. Although Baxter died in combat, his actions paved the way for Cecil Rhodes himself to ride triumphantly into Bulawayo a month later. In retaliation for the rebellion, villages were burned down, and each volunteer who fought against the rebels was entitled to 6,000 acres of land. Around 200,000 cattle were confiscated. The vanquished Ndebele people were forced to work for the white man. Meanwhile, Rhodes consolidated his imperial project and made a fortune from diamonds in southern Africa through his De Beers mining venture.

These colonial medals show us the victor’s view of history, without giving any voice for the victims. Why should we accept this? The Imperial War Museum is a public institution substantially funded by the taxpayer. Trustees are appointed by Britain’s foreign secretary. In 2017, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport gave the Imperial War Museum £32 million, which covered over half of its annual running costs. It also gets smaller amounts of funding from the British Council and the Arts Council, as well as the European Commission – plus some private sector support, including from arms manufacturers like BAE Systems and Boeing.

Yet the way the medals in the Ashcroft Gallery are presented seems to clash with the museum’s public role. There is no critical assessment of colonial history, no attempt to examine the widespread perception among many British people that the Empire is something to be proud of, and no questions asked about why Ashcroft is qualified to play this role in shaping our national story, beyond the fact that he can afford to buy up veterans’ medals.

Even a spokesperson for the museum seemed unclear, telling me that the Ashcroft Gallery is “not intended to demonstrate in any great detail the history of the conflicts in which they were won”. They reiterated that “the medals form an important part of the museum’s mission of developing and communicating a deeper understanding of the causes, course and consequences of war.”