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08 October 2020

Black History Month: The role of black soldiers in WWI

Throughout October, communities celebrate the history of black people in the UK as part of Black History Month. One area that has often been overlooked is the important contribution of black soldiers during the First World War.

After Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, Black recruits were 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 from the Caribbean 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 their country than the Guyanese merchant seaman Lionel Turpin. He was just 19 years old when he enlisted in the British Army and was sent out. 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 colonials who came to the aid during the First World War.

By the war’s end in November 1918, a total of 15,204 black men, had served in the British West Indies Regiment. However, the Black soldiers of the BWIR were mostly led by white officers and used as non-combatant soldiers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe. 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.

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, 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 June 1919. 2,000 white people attacked shops and houses associated with black citizens. Many were injured.

Just a few weeks after the war had ended John Archer, the former Mayor of Battersea, 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.’

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