“My granddad didn’t fight the war for the likes of you.”
I heard this unoriginal insult more than once in the school playground, but as a child my rebuttal was weakened by a lack of knowledge. Today, as we mark 80 years from the onset of World War II, I know I no longer need to absorb the dominant popular belief that Britain in that war consisted only of an isolated ‘island race’ defending its country. Because I know that people who look like me, members of the Commonwealth and so-called British Empire, were just as brave, hardworking and committed during this important time as their white peers.
Did you know an estimated two million black and brown, men and women served in both World Wars? The rather stark lack of this knowledge is both an indictment of the history we teach in British schools, and of the popular narrative we tell of our wars.
I grew up in a household with a white foster father who had fought gallantly in World War II, and would never discuss the horrors he had encountered. But the poppies on Armistice Day and the keeping of the 11 o’clock silence every November were a huge part of my childhood. As a fiction author, it’s only natural that I write about this period in my novels too.
Yet, the black and white war movies I consumed growing up contained only white faces; history textbooks much the same. When our history is written by white historians with an embedded Eurocentric perspective society will follow their lead, in effect whitewashing such an incredibly important part of our history.
When Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, Black Britons and West Indian colonials readily travelled from their homes (at their own expense) and volunteered to fight. In 1915 a separate black unit within the Army, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), was formed. Recruits from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Gambia and other African colonies joined up too, fighting and risking their lives in countries with German territories.
Not all enlistment was voluntary though, with colonial officials at times seeking the help of tribal leaders to force local men to join. Indeed, Britain’s violent conscription of African soldiers is still only now coming to light.
When no black troops were included in the Peace March of July 1919 – the victory parade held in London to mark the end of the war – the message was clear.
During World War II, the life of a black soldier was simply not of equal value to that of their white counterparts. Black and Asian soldiers were paid up to three times less than white soldiers, and at times subject to physical abuse.
And even if they did return, these men were no longer needed or wanted. Instead what awaited them were race riots across the country, from Liverpool to London. Having fought on the frontlines, black people returned to find that the country for which they had defended with their lives was now denying them equal access to basic accommodation and employment.
Indeed, the individual stories of Black war heroes are now beginning to be told. Like Walter Tull, killed in action during the second battle of the Somme, or the lesser known Sidney Cornell, the first black paratrooper to land in Normandy on D-Day, who went on to earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1945. There are many other heroes like Tull and Cornell, and an equal, overdue need to highlight the contributions of men and women like them.
Their stories shall not be buried forever. Thanks to historians like David Olusoga, the internet, and simply living in a more culturally aware era, more accounts are coming to the fore. But is it enough? Schools may now mention the wider contributions to the world wars, but it needs to be talked about in classrooms more outside of Black History Month.
The memorial in London’s Windrush Square dedicated to African and Caribbean soldiers is a welcome addition. But many soldiers are still living in extreme poverty, without a war pension or compensation. The former chief of the UK armed forces General Lord Richards sums it up when he states “we should be ashamed that veterans who fought for our country are living in that poverty... It’s not too late. We can still make amends.” As each year passes though, time is less on their side. Something needs to be put in place to right this wrong. Last year, plans were announced detailing an aid package designed to assist some of the forgotten veterans and widows from the commonwealth.
The dream, surely, is for all the remaining soldiers to be acknowledged, fairly compensated, and treated with the dignity they deserve. This rich and diverse history to no longer be labelled as ‘other’ – but simply taught and viewed as a part of British history. On this day, the 80th anniversary of the start of World War Two, there’s no reason every hero, black, white or brown, shouldn’t be commemorated in the way they richly deserve.
Lola Jaye is a psychotherapist and historical fiction author. Her latest novel, ’Wartime Sweethearts’, is out now