The Black Heroes of WW1 and WW2

By A Prisoner in HMP Birmingham

Thanks to the wonderful distribution network, Editions Lifestyle Magazine has reached many people including prisoners at HMP Birmingham and inspired by Black History Month we are publishing verbatim a story he wrote about Black people who served in the Great War and World War 2.

On the 4th August 1914, Britain went to war, A ‘war to end all wars’ is what it was called, men died in their thousands on the battlefields of France and other theatres of war across the world.  It wasn’t the war to end all wars. So who were those men who gave their lives for their king and country? Where did they come from? Not all came from the British Isles, not all were white men. At recruitment centres around Britain black men were queuing to volunteer themselves into the armed forces. These black men were joined by West Indian Colonials. The West Indian Colonials travelled to what they saw as their ‘Mother Country” at their own expense to add their weight to the fight against the Germans, their support was needed and they gave it. Soldiers from Nigeria, The Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies were recruited also defending the borders of their own countries that bordered German territories in Africa, later playing an important role in campaigns to remove the Germans from their countries.
Troops from Barbados
There is shame attached to our history of this war, and the war that followed some 21 years later, and that shame is the near exclusion of black servicemen who fought in these wars from our history books. There are few exceptions to this fact but one of them, Walter Tull (1888-1918) became the most celebrated Black British soldier of the Great War. Alongside Walter Tull stands another Black man and this man was Lionel Turpin. Although exceptional and compelling as these two men’s stories are, I am not going to recount their exploits over all the other Black servicemen who, in my opinion deserve to be lauded with the same passion that has been afforded to Walter and Lionel.
In 1915 a proposal was approved to form a separate West Indian contingent to aid the war effort, the British West Indies Regiment was born, with the first recruits arriving in Britain from Jamaica in October 1915. They were billeted at a camp bear Seaford on the Sussex coast. After being deployed to Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe, the BWIR were used mainly as labourers loading ammunition, laying telephone wires, digging trenches and other such activities. Led by white officers these men were not allowed to fight as a battalion alongside their white compatriots. Of the 29,144 Black men who volunteered for the BWIR, 13,940 were rejected, 66% of those accepted came from Jamaica and received lower pay and less allowances that their white compatriots.
By the end of WW1 the BWIR had lost 185 soldiers (killed or died of wounds), a further 1071 died of illnesses and 697 were wounded. In Seaford Cemetery there are more than 300 Commonwealth War Graves, 19 of which display the crest of the BWIR.
When America came into the war in 1917, a realisation by the US War Department illuminated the desperate need for more men to ensure a victory. With this realisation came the decision to allow African Americans to join the armed forces. Some were forced to sign up and some  were even arrested as draft dodgers. That fact aside though, when the call came, approximately 1 million Black Americans actually volunteered.  However, because of the vast numbers of Black volunteers, the then President,  Woodrow Wilson, was forced to limit the numbers of volunteers. 370,000 were actually accepted.
As with their European ‘Brothers in Arms’ they were not trusted to take part in actual combat; they were not trusted to carry arms, although this attitude did change as the war progressed. By the end of the war African Americans had served in cavalry, infantry, signals, medical, engineer and artillery units as well as serving as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists and intelligence officers. Some Black Americans were still suffering harsh conditions in the South at this time and the choice of serving their country was better than toiling until death on the plantations.
As well as African and Caribbean soldiers there were also Asian soldiers who fought. India sent over 1 million men to aid the war effort.   India at this time included Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all different ethnicities, as well as Pathas, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus.

There were so many Black and Asian men and in some places women that gave of themselves in both WW1 and WW2, many paying the ultimate sacrifice with the hope that through their actions and sacrifice the world would be a better place.
At the end of WW1, many African and West Indian soldiers who had fought for the mother country decided to put down roots in Britain however, they came under physical and verbal attack in some cities including the sea ports of Cardiff and Liverpool and as with their white counterparts many faced unemployment  and returning white service men resented the presence of black men especially those who had found white brides.  The new year of 1919 and the following August saw anti black race riots in several towns and cities across Britain.
In Cardiff the Black population had increased during the war from 700 in 1914 to 3000 by April 1919 and tensions between the black and white communities exploded into violence in Butetown (Tiger Bay) in June 1919.  2000 White people attacked shops and houses that were perceived to be associated with black citizens and many were injured. Although no deaths were recorded there was said to be one death in Liverpool.  Chased by an angry mob from his home, Charles Wotten, a young black seaman jumped into Queens Dock in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool and drowned. His body was recovered some hours later. The coroner who presided at the subsequent inquest  ruled that the cause of death was from drowning but said “…how he got into the water the evidence is not sufficient to show…”. This was deemed a cover up that Liverpool’s black community has never forgotten.
This brutal and shameful murder of a man who had served his king and country in WW1 was followed not long after but yet another shameful incident. Peter Fryer wrote in Staying Power, 1984 ” for the entire black community in Britain, the final straw came a month after the riots when it was decided not to allow any Black troops to take part in London’s victory celebrations, the much trumpeted Peace March on 19 July 1919…for Britain’s black community 1919 illuminated reality like flash of lightning”
The sacrifices made by Black and Asian merchant seamen and solders; the ultimate sacrifice in many cases and the murder of Charles Wotton; the anti black riots in British cities during 1919 and the ban of black troops in the Peace March all remained in the consciousness of an entire generation of Black britons and Colonials.
In November 2014 a memorial dedicated to African and Caribbean soldiers was unveiled in Brixton South London, an area where many ex-servicemen settled after the war. Like so many empty gestures and words, this monument has been placed in storage, “until a permanent home for it can be found.”
main photo credit: Troops of the British West Indian Regiment on the Albert-Amien Road by LT Ernest Brooks Imperial War Museum
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