Why were they forgotten?
The black British soldiers of the First World War have often been forgotten. People from across the British Empire signed up eagerly to play their part in the First World War, but black recruits were not given the same opportunities as everyone else. Black units were barred from fighting on the Western Front because, it was feared, allowing colonial soldiers to fight alongside and against white Europeans would undermine British colonial rule. In Africa and the Middle East black units fought only because their enemy on those fronts was also non-white. Though black units played a vital role in Allied victory, after the war their contribution was deliberately forgotten in an attempt to protect the British Empire. In this episode of IWM Stories, Alan Wakefield looks at who these men were, what they did, and why they've been forgotten.
These are soldiers from the first battalion of the British West Indies Regiment these men would soon mount a very successful attack on Turkish lines in Palestine in 1918. Along with the second battalion they would advance across five kilometers of open land under heavy fire and take their objectives with minimal losses. Thanks in no small part to attacks like these, the Ottomans would surrender the following month. But despite their service stories like these featuring black British soldiers in the First World War were largely forgotten
These photographs show the victory parades in London on July 19th, 1919. The centrepiece of the celebrations marking the end of the First World War. Thousands of soldiers marched past the newly created Cenotaph to pay their respects to their fallen comrades. British, French, American, Belgian and Greek troops are all present as well as men from the British empire but what is most striking is who is missing. No black units were invited to take part from the West Indies or from Africa. It was less than a year since the war had ended and already black soldiers were being deliberately forgotten.
So today we're going to take an in-depth look at black soldiers who served for Britain during the First World War from the West Indies, Africa, and the UK. Who they were, what they did, and why they've been forgotten.
The view of the First World War we normally have is very eurocentric. I mean especially for Britain it's primarily the Western Front where the bulk of the British army fought the Germans from 1914 to 1918. And this has really neglected other stories from the wider world in the wider history of the war and quite often it's the non-white stories that have actually been neglected mainly because in a way they weren't seen as central to the narrative.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 the British Empire was one of the world's great powers, a quarter of the world was under its control. To win the war Britain had to mobilize as many people as possible and at home and across the empire people largely signed up for the same reasons. In the West Indies for example many were intensely patriotic and saw it as their duty to fight for king and country. Others saw the war as an opportunity to escape from poverty at home and see the world in the process.
And of course, another reason why some of these men join up they think that if they come and serve and fight for Britain, Britain will reward them they will see these guys as having a stake in the empire but actually deserving some more political representation and uh some more social rights as well.
"We were told that we must leave all our belongings and go to the war", one West Indian veteran wrote, "and if we lived to return we would be given a plot of land for ourselves a cow and money and the government would treat us good and give us even work in its department so that we can live happily until our services are required again." However, although many colonial subjects signed up willingly, the British government was less than enthusiastic about recruiting so many black soldiers.
They don't really want to do it. The idea is if these men are signed up in large numbers as soldiers and they get to fight alongside whites and against whites then this undermines the whole colonial hierarchy, the whole colonial system which is based on white supremacy. And obviously when these soldiers would come home the great fear was that they would demand equality and perhaps even independence and they would know how to fight for it as well.
Those fears though were not enough to stop the British from recruiting black troops. As the war grew in scope more and more men were needed and so instead of refusing their help the British placed restrictions on what black soldiers from different places could and could not do. For starters, non-European subjects of the empire were effectively barred from holding ranks above sergeant. Some did manage to flout those rules, especially later in the war, but those cases were rare. Black colonial units were barred from fighting on the Western Front. For the men of the British West Indies Regiment that came as quite a shock.
These men signed up under the same pay and conditions as British volunteers and they all expected to go and fight as infantrymen. But the majority of these battalions went to the western front where they were not allowed to fight so they were used as labour battalions. They did have rifles issued to them, they were normally old really out of date rifles, but they never got a chance to use these in action.
Similarly, while white South Africans fought in their thousands, black South Africans didn't even get the chance to sign up as soldiers. Instead, they were confined to labour battalions, in particular, the South African Native Labor Corps and were completely segregated from other Allied soldiers and even from French civilians. Lieutenant Colonel Godley, second in command of the unit, likened their housing to that of German prisoners of war. "The camps occupied by our men are identical in every respect, except that as regards to locality those occupied by prisoners are in the majority of cases more favourably situated."
These men again did some vital labouring jobs. They were unloading ships in harbours, building railways, building roads, felling trees. It's always logistics, logistics is key. If you can't keep the railways, the roads etc running you can't unload the ships, you can't have the army fighting.
This is one of the reasons that black stories are so often forgotten. In the First World War we tend to remember the fighting soldier rather than the people behind the lines and that's the role that black soldiers were forced to take on the Western Front.
Many of these people died. Many of them were killed by shells, by bombs, but they also died of disease they died of harsh conditions. Without the contribution of those people, those campaigns could not have been fought. We need to look wider than the man with the gun, we need to cover all those people that contributed to that victory.
The exception to this rule was the Indian Army which held a special place in the colonial racial hierarchy. Indian troops helped save the Allies from defeat on the Western Front in 1914, before being gradually moved to the Middle East. In contrast, the French were happy to use their colonial troops on the Western Front when the situation demanded it. After heavy losses in 1914 and 15, West and North African troops played a key part in defending Paris. But the British, despite manpower shortages after the disastrous offensive on the Somme, always put racial considerations first. Even future Prime Minister Winston Churchill couldn't convince the authorities to let black soldiers fight on the Western Front. This was supposed to be a white man's war. In Africa though it was a completely different story.
The Germans have a network of colonies from which they can use their navy to attack British sea lines of communication. We need to knock these out quickly. We can't send regular army soldiers because they're needed in France so we need locally raised troops. Supported by hundreds and hundreds of thousands of African men, women, and sometimes children in the support role carrying the supplies, carrying ammunition. That's why the African soldier actually got to fight those campaigns. It was out of necessity, but also the fact that they were fighting primarily other Africans.
It was a similar story for the British West Indies Regiment. A small contingent joined British forces in East Africa and two battalions joined the fight against the Turks in the Middle East. Once again they were only able to fight there because the enemy they were fighting was seen as a non-white non-European enemy.
This is where the British West Indies Regiment gets a chance to actually do what the men signed up to do which was to fight in the front line as infantry. Alongside Australians and New Zealanders in 1918 and take a number of turkish positions in a very successful attack. Unfortunately for the majority of that British West Indies Regiment they never got that opportunity.
When these men were fighting they were generally fighting in areas which we haven't looked at. The British focus has always really been the Western Front so that's why these stories have traditionally been neglected and quite often totally forgotten.
Alongside these colonial forces were black Britons who managed to join British Army units. The recruiting rules for these men were somewhat murky and relied on decisions made by individual recruiting officers. Arthur Roberts was one of those men. He was a shipyard worker in Glasgow before joining the King's Own Scottish Borderers where he served as a private during the Battle of Passchendaele. His diary is part of the IWM collection which includes these battlefield watercolours. This is an extract from his diary for September. "The trench was only about four feet deep so we very nearly had to crawl about. Jerry didn't half plaster us here. Good heavens he nearly had us daft. There was practically no trench at the pillbox seen in the pictures so every day there was a victim." Along with those black Britons, some citizens of the empire came to Britain to try and join British units rather than waiting for local regiments to be formed.
One of the men who did this was William Robinson Clarke or Robbie Clarke. He was from Jamaica and before the war he was a chauffeur and mechanic. What Clarke did was he went directly to Farnborough, the home of the Royal Flying Corps, and asked to join the RFC. The RFC obviously is a very technical branch of the military and these men were in short supply. There was not that many people who could drive a motor vehicle in 1914. So when Clarke turns up, first and foremost, this man is a mechanic and a driver. They're not looking at the colour of his skin they're thinking this is the sort of man we want in this role and they sign him up.
Clark ended up as a mechanic in France before being put forward for pilot training in 1916. When he returned in 1917 he joined No. 4 Squadron flying R.E.8's, two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. After being attacked by five german aircraft he was shot down and had to crash land. He was badly wounded with bullets in his leg and one just missing his spine. He did survive, but he was unable to fly again and served as a Sargeant mechanic for the rest of the war before returning to jamaica in 1919.
He is, we think at the moment, the only black pilot to serve with the British during the First World War. In 2020 we managed to secure his identity bracelet and this is a very important object because, again just as stories have generally been forgotten, the collecting of material by museums was also not really done. We are actively trying to actually collect this material now because we want to tell those wider more diverse stories.
When the end of the war arrived in 1918, many colonial troops were expecting to finally receive some reward for their service. But for the British West Indies Regiment that did not come to pass. First, they were denied a pay rise given to the rest of the British Army on the basis they were so-called 'native' troops. Then in December they were concentrated into the port of Taranto in Italy for demobilisation, but were badly mistreated. A Guyanese soldier named Gershome Brown said "Since we came here we couldn't understand why these British soldiers they didn't seem to want any attachment with us. We'd always seem to get on good together in Egypt."
When they arrive they find that many of the recreational facilities in the camp are off-limits to them, it's for whites only. They are then given the job of digging latrines for Italian labourers. Now you can imagine that men who are signed up as British soldiers find that an absolute disgrace and there's a riot in Taranto and the British West Indies Regiment men get suppressed by armed soldiers. They're disarmed and then they're very, very quickly shipped back to the Caribbean and demobilised as quickly as possible.
The men of the British West Indies Regiment got their pay rise, but they were now seen as a threat to British colonial rule. Armed guards would greet them on their return to the Caribbean. Meanwhile in Africa, many soldiers found it difficult to fit in back home. They had been out, seen more of the world, and had come home with new ideas which were not always welcome in existing village hierarchies. On top of that, many of those pre-war promises were not kept. Pensions were lower than that of white British soldiers, medical provisions were negligible, and that all-important land granted to returning soldiers in the Caribbean was often of poor quality or so remote that it was impossible to bring goods to market.
Their wartime service was seen as something inconvenient to remember by the political authorities. Because if you reward these men for their service too much the argument was they would start to want political and social reform. So very quickly the idea is to recruit these men, use them for the campaign, and then unfortunately, very very quickly forget what they've done and make them go back to their villages. Almost as though their military service had never happened.
Perhaps the clearest example of deliberate attempts to forget black British soldiers came at the Allied victory parades in the summer of 1919. Men from each Allied nation marched through the streets of London including soldiers from the British Empire. Absent though were black units from either the West Indies or Africa, they were not invited to take part. Since then the black British soldiers of the First World War have continued to be forgotten. In part because of the kinds of work they were restricted to, in part because of the fronts they were restricted to fighting on, and in part because acknowledging their service after the war threatened the existence of the British Empire.