The First World War has often been defined as the ‘clash of empires’ but we argue that it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters. Between 1914 and 1918, on French soil alone – in its trenches, fields, farms and factories – there were over one million Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Chinese, Vietnamese) and African (Senegalese, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) men, in addition to soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Europe would never be the same again not just in terms of the war’s wreckage but in terms of people, ethnicities, and cultures encountered, manipulated, studied, and befriended – in battlefields, boardrooms, billets, brothels, towns, villages, hospitals, and prisoner-of-war camps. ‘My French mother is teaching me her language’, wrote an Indian sepoy billeted in France, while in the trenches the English war poet Wilfred Owen avidly read the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems Gitanjali which had won the Nobel Prize in 1913.

Simultaneously, a different kind of ‘cultural encounter’ was being engineered within Europe: the belligerent states were each trying to win over the neutral nations by funding cultural institutions and trying to influence artists, writers and opinion makers such as Georg Brandes from Denmark and Albert Verwey from the Netherlands. The cultural sphere of the neutral countries became much more a zone of international cultural encounter in 1918 than it was in 1914. What is the relation between the personal, ‘direct’ encounters in wartime and these state-sponsored, ideologically motivated, ‘indirect’ encounters? Do encounters necessarily involve exchange and what were the structures of power – asymmetries and hierarchies – in these processes? How did exchanges occur across linguistic, national, legal, religious, ethnic, and social barriers and what are their traces and legacies in today’s Europe?

This project sought to explore this complex area through two strands: the colonial and the neutral. The war experiences of the colonies/dominions were investigated by the research teams in London and Berlin, while research on the experiences of the neutral nations was undertaken by the teams at Utrecht and Poznań. Researchers engaged in dialogue, comparing and contrasting their findings through a set of common conceptual and methodological questions.

This project closely involved our Associated Partners: the Imperial War Museum in London; the Lautarchiv at Humboldt University, Berlin; Museum Europäischer Kulturen, also in Berlin; the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach; the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam; Stichting de Jazz van het Bankroet in Belgium; In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium; and the Dutch-Flemish House deBuren.

As a team, we drew on a broadly interdisciplinary and culturally mobile methodology. We investigated a diverse range of material, including archival documents, newspapers, journals, literary texts, films, photographs, paintings, book trade practices, and sound-recordings.

Our activities included workshops, conferences, publications, and public lectures, as well as a multi-venue poster exhibition.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development, and demonstration under grant agreement no 291827.


The project ‘Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War’ is financially supported by the HERA Joint Research Programme (www.heranet.info) which is co-funded by AHRC, AKA, BMBF via PT-DLR, DASTI, ETAG, FCT, FNR, FNRS, FWF, FWO, HAZU, IRC, LMT, MHEST, NWO, NCN, RANNÍS, RCN, VR and The European Community FP7 2007-2013, under the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities programme.

Project partners


Image details (left-right):

  • ‘It’s not easy to stay neutral’ – found in in two locations
    • (1) Go to image location. Description reads: Cartoon on Dutch neutrality during World War One. A Dutch sailor is approached by a number of pretty ladies (the belligerent countries). Date unknown. Photo HH/Spaarnestad Photo.
    • (2) a catalogue from Legermuseum Delft, 2004, accompanying the exhibition Verre van vredig. The picture appears on page 18, as a reprint from a book by R.L. Schuursma (ed), 14-18: de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Amsterdam 1975/1976, p. 750. Legermuseum relocated and renamed.
  • J. Simont, ‘It’s good’. Keletike Taraoré, who gave his blood for France, receives his present. From L’Illustration, 9 January 1915.