“The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness”
With Remembrance Day (or Poppy Day as it is commonly known) approaching on 11th November; this year it is celebrating 100 years of World War l. I thought it would be beneficial to establish the involvement BAME people from the Commonwealth (Africa, Caribbean and India) contributed during this “Great” war.
As a black British woman growing up in the UK, I was led to believe that the heroes that made a pivotal difference during the war were predominately white American’s, British and Europeans. During the Remembrance Sunday ceremony I would watch these servicemen marching with pride as they take part in the national ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall annually.
As a child I wore a poppy on my coat, for me I did not understand the significance and I also think that it was the same for my mum who would buy it for me without hesitation. As an adult I realised that BAME people from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia actually played significant roles in both world wars and without their assistance the victory could possibly have been a very different scenario.
During World War 1, 15,600 Caribbean men from the British Empire served in the Allied forces with Jamaica making up two thirds of the volunteers. In excess of 55,000 men from the African colonies of the British Empire served as combatant soldiers, carriers and auxiliary troops and over 1.5 million volunteers from India fought on the front line, in active service and auxiliary battalions. All were deployed in various parts of the world with the Caribbean men in Italy, Cameroon, East Africa, France and the Middle East; the Indian men fought in Palestine and Iraq and the African men remained in Africa to fight the war.
Although, they were accepted to fight in the war, it was feared that BAME soldiers would out perform their white colleagues and the British did not want them to acquire their governance after the war. However, these sentiments was rejected by the Colonial Office and King George V as they wanted to ensure that there was unity during the war and the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed in 1915. This unit was limited to labour work and support roles on the Western Front (the main theatre of fighting) their participation mainly involved digging trenches, building roads, loading ships and trains, stretcher bearers and working in ammunition dumps. All BAME soldiers were commanded by white officers and no Caribbean soldiers could rise above the rank of sergeant nor could an Indian soldier rise above the rank of Subedar, a junior Commissioner Officer.
Not only did they volunteer to fight in the war their countries also contributed money, materials and goods to support the war with the West Indies donating approximately today’s equivalent of £60 million, nine planes, 11 ambulances, 3,800 boxes of oranges, 2,700 boxes of grapefruit, chocolate, sugar, cigarettes, clothing, bandages, walking sticks and crutches. India gave the British government a loan which is equivalent to £2billion today, 170,000 animals, 3.7 million tonnes of supplies and jute to make sandbags.
In Africa, most of the conflict occurred in East, South and West Africa, Togoland and Cameroon as these areas were controlled by the Germans and were places which the British and French troops wanted to seize. So not only were they forced or coerced into taking part in the war by the Europeans in collusion with their tribal chiefs. They were also fighting for the protection and livelihood of their people who were innocent bystanders and casualties of the war.
None of the BAME soldiers were treated fairly during the war, they had poor living conditions and pay and many died from diseases such as Malaria due to these poor conditions. In total there were over 1 million BAME deaths and wounded soldiers during WW1 with the West Indies losing over 1,200 (of which 185 were from BWIR), India lost 74,000 and Africa lost 165,000 service men; however these figures do not account for those who returned home from the war and later lost their lives due to illnesses sustained during the conflicts. There are very few WWI black soldiers that have been acknowledged, and all week news outlets have said very little about their contributions, The most but popular soldier mentioned is Walter Tull, who was the first black officer to fight in combat and lead white British troops in battle, despite the military rule preventing BAME people from instructing and leading commands. Another recognised war hero is Lionel Turpin, a Guyanese sea merchant who participated in the Battle of Sommes and who died 10 years later due to the effects of the war time gassing.
Although many BAME people across the world contributed to WWI, little recognition or stories have been acknowledged of the African and Caribbean soldiers over the years thus excluding a large number of people; I think we should be educating ourselves and our children about our ancestors role in the war. They were assigned some of the most dangerous jobs during the war which assisted those who did receive an acknowledgement and are recognised as being heroes. Yes, many will say, some did not fight on the ‘front line’ however, that was not through a choice of their own, they were willing and able but because of institutional fears they were not allowed. In addition their role was vital as they provided the tools and support to enable their white “colleagues” to concentrate of the roles they were excluded from.
What I have realised is that BAME soldiers during this time would have a very different version of account, they would talk about their contribution and their pride to have represented their mother land. They would talk about their efforts and commitment to the cause and the motherland.
Yet on another level they had to fight a different war at the same time as the physical war and this story is the one that is often buried away and wilfully forgotten. It has taken nearly 100 years for African and Caribbean service men and women to be recognized and in June 2017 the first ever memorial service took place at Windrush Square, Brixton.
As I have got older, I acknowledge Remembrance day; it is only right that I do, as it is a big part of today’s modern history, but rather than wear the red poppy I now wear a black one as mark of respect, recognition, pride and symbol of my fellow BAME war heroes who had to fight TWO wars during that time. One for King and Country and the other fight (the battle that never came to an end) to have the right to be treated as a person and equal to their fellow white serviceman.
Black poppies can be purchased online from Black Poppy Rose.
‘Lest we forget’!