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Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War


The near-total exclusion from our history books of black servicemen in the First World War is shameful. One of the few exceptions has been Walter Tull (1888-1918). In recent years he has become the most celebrated black British soldier of the First World War.

Walter Tull enlisted in December 1914, suffered shell shock, returned to action in the battle of the Somme and was decorated with the 1914-15 star and other British war and victory medals. Commissioned as an officer in 1917, Walter was mentioned in dispatches for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ at the battle of Piave in Italy in January 1918, but two months later he was killed in No Man’s Land during the second battle of the Somme. Books and television documentaries have ensured Walter his place in British history but he did not exist in isolation. There are many others who have been overlooked in the history books and need to be acknowledged.

After Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces. From 1914 black Britons volunteered at recruitment centres and were joined by West Indian colonials. They travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ at their own expense to take part in the fight against the Germans. Their support was needed, and they gave it. Soon after the war started, soldiers from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies were recruited. They helped to defend the borders of their countries which adjoined German territories and later played an important role in the campaigns to remove the Germans from Africa. Throughout the war, 60,000 black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units.

No one could have been more loyal to his king and country than the Guyanese merchant seaman Lionel Turpin. He was just 19 years old he enlisted in the British army and was sent out with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front in Europe. He was in the battles of the Somme and his army service ended in 1919 with two medals, two gas-burnt lungs and a shell wound in his back. Lionel died in 1929 from the after-effects of war-time gassing. Lionel’s story is typical of many black and Asian colonials who came to the aid of the ‘Mother Country’ during the First World War.

In 1915 a proposal for a separate West Indian contingent to aid the war effort was approved. Consequently the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed as a separate black unit within the British Army. The first recruits sailed from Jamaica to Britain and arrived in October 1915 to train at a camp near Seaford on the Sussex coast. The 3rd battalion arrived in early 1916 in Plymouth while other battalions sailed direct to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria in March 1916. By the war’s end in November 1918, a total of 15,204 black men, representing British Guiana and all the Caribbean colonies, had served in the BWIR. 13,940 had been rejected. Of the total accepted, 10,280 (66%) came from Jamaica. However, the black soldiers of the BWIR received lower pay and allowances than their white compatriots and they were mostly led by white officers and used as non-combatant soldiers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe. For example, in July 1916 the BWIR’s 3rd and 4th battalions were sent to France and Belgium to work as ammunition carriers. The fighting was to be done by the white soldiers. The BWIR spent much of their time at labouring work, such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches, but they were not permitted to fight as a battalion.

By the end of the war the BWIR had lost 185 soldiers (killed or died of wounds). A further 1,071 died of illness and 697 were wounded. In Seaford Cemetery there are more than 300 Commonwealth War Graves and nineteen of the headstones display the crest of the BWIR. 

Racism after the war

At the end of the First World War, many African and West Indian soldiers who had fought for their ‘Mother Country’ decided to make Britain their home, but in some cities, including the seaports Cardiff and Liverpool, they came under attack. After demobilisation, many ex-servicemen faced unemployment and returning white soldiers resented the presence of black men, especially those who had found employment and married white women. Between January and August 1919, there were anti-black ‘race riots’ in seven towns and cities in Britain. Cardiff’s black population had increased during the war from 700 in 1914 to 3,000 by April 1919. The tensions between the white and black communities exploded into violence in Butetown (aka ‘Tiger Bay’) in June 1919. 2,000 white people attacked shops and houses associated with black citizens. Many were injured.

In Liverpool the race riots made a deep impact on future generations of Britain’s oldest black community. By 1919 the numbers had risen to 5,000, mostly working class, but there was fierce competition with poor whites for jobs. In 1919 many black Liverpudlians had their employment terminated at local oil mills and sugar refineries because whites refused to work alongside them. Chased by angry rioters from his home, Charles Wotten, a young black seaman, jumped into Queen’s Dock in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool and drowned. His body was recovered some hours later. At the inquest into his death the Coroner for Liverpool decreed that the cause of Wotten’s death was, indeed, drowning, but added “how he got into the water the evidence is not sufficient to show.” It was a cover up that Liverpool’s black community has never forgotten, or forgiven.

The brutal and shameful murder of Charles Wotten, who had served his King and country in the First World War, was soon followed by another disgraceful incident. Says Peter Fryer 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 a flash of lightning.’

The ultimate sacrifices of black merchant seamen and soldiers during the First World War, the murder of Charles Wotten, and the anti-black riots in British cities during 1919 remained in the consciousness of an entire generation of black Britons and colonials. Thereafter they and their descendants knew what their fate would be if they did not fight for equality and justice. It is a struggle that continued for decades: the 1958 Notting Hill anti-black race riots, the 1981 Brixton and Toxteth uprisings and the tragic murders of Kelso Cochrane (1959) and Stephen Lawrence (1993). It carries on to this day but, in 1918, just a few weeks after the war had ended, it was addressed by John Archer, the former Mayor of Battersea, when he made a speech at the African Progress Union’s Inaugural Meeting:

‘Our compatriots from Africa, America and the West Indies have been fighting on the fields of France and Flanders against a foreign foe. The people of this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire...if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough to receive the benefits of the country.’

By Stephen Bourne

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