“Lest We Forget” : Remembering the Contributions of Volunteer Colonial Troops in the World Wars
On Sunday 11th November 2018, just as every other year, at 11:00am the country fell into a deep silence. Two minutes were spent remembering and paying homage to the troops that lost their lives in the two World Wars and the conflicts that have ravaged the world since. Ceremonial processions took place, the Queen and the royal family lay poppy wreaths and the atmosphere was filled with patriotic pride as troops marched the streets to commemorate Britain’s efforts in the wars.
But what about the fallen soldiers from the British ‘Empire’? The West-Indian, African and Indian volunteer troops who fought for the same country that would later reject their offspring, denying them their Britishness and continuing to treat them like outsiders in their own homes. We’re taught that we should never forget the soldiers that lost their lives, but we’re never taught of the contributions made by the volunteer colonial troops during the war. We’re never taught of Churchill’s hand in the Bengali famine that caused the death of up to 4 million Bengalis by diverting food to ‘real British’ soldiers. We never hear of the racism that these soldiers faced in the trenches, while fighting for a country that hated their very existence. The war wasn’t England’s. It implicated :
Ascension Island, Basutoland, Bechuanaland Protectorate, Cameroons, Gambia, Gold Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Saint Helena, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, South Africa, South West Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togoland, Uganada Protectorate, Zanzibar Protectorate, Barbados, Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falklwand Islands, Grenada, Guiana, Honduras, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Newfoundland, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkos and Caicos, the Windward Islands, Aden, Bahrain Protectorate, Egypt, Kuwait Protectorate, Palestine, Qatar Protectorate, Transjordan, Trucial States, Fiji, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Australia, Nauru, New Guinea, New Hebrides, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, Papua, Solomon Islands, Tonga Protectorate, Western Samoa, Ceylon, India, Brunei Protectorate, Burma, Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and the Straits Settlements.*
Over four million non-white men fought in the War, yet their efforts remain to be a sideshow to the main event. Focus is always placed on Europe’s contribution and ‘successes’ with little mention of the global efforts by the colonial volunteers. India contributed over 1.5 million men to the first World War and over one million African troops took up arms for the UK. Although these men were seen as capable to fight on behalf of the British, they still weren’t considered equal to their white counterparts. The British Library describes how the army divided people into ‘warlike’ and ‘non-warlike’ races, deploying soldiers to different positions in the war because their race was either seen as inherently more ‘manly’ or ‘savage’ than others. During the First World War, black soldiers were at times not allowed to fight on the front line, and were allocated some of the most dangerous roles such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Those who were not deemed fit for fighting were often delegated roles in ‘carrier corpses’, where they were used as labourers and ‘beasts of burden’, with death rates as high as twenty percent. In 1917, over 600 black Africans from the South African Native Labour Contingent were killed by the Germans, and over 100,000 African soldiers died in East Africa from disease, exhaustion and enemy action.
What About Women?
There is little research into the resulting lives of the women and children who were left behind in African and Asian villages, having lost their husbands, brothers or fathers. While we have well-documented stories of European women’s mobilization for the wars, the stories of women living in the colonies are pretty much non-existent. Dr Anne Samson reveals that African women played a significant role in the war, from being camp followers and labourers to spies and snipers. But these women continue to be erased from history. Even the Wikipedia page for Women’s roles in the World Wars makes no mention of Africa. The only mention of Asian women is to describe the use of Japanese and Korean women as sex slaves during the war. This is further evidence of the tendency to treat non-white women throughout history as either sexual objects or possessions not worthy of their own narrative.
So reflecting on this Remembrance Sunday, take the time to educate yourself on the impact of the war on the countries that Britain invaded, claimed to be its own, and labelled its ‘Empire’. Think of the Africans, Asians, West Indians and other colonial troops who lost their lives fighting for the British flag that would later reject them from its shores.
THE BLACK SOLDIER’S LAMENT by Anonymous black Soldier
The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.
With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end.
From Scotia port to Seaford Square
Across to France the conflict there,
At Ville La Joux and Place Peronne
For God and King to right the wrong –
The number two six hundred strong.
Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Mid-day’s reprieve much needed rest.
We dug and hauled and lifted high
From trenches deep toward the sky –
Non-fighting troops and yet we die
The peace restored the battle won
Black sweat and toil had beat the Hun.
Black blood was spilled black bodies maimed
For medals brave no black was named,
Yet proud were we our pride unshamed.
But time will bring forth other wars,
Then give to us more daring chores
That we might prove our courage strong
Preserve the right repel the wrong,
And proud we’ll sing the battle song.
Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza.
*Note that for the purpose of this article I have used the colonial names for countries at the time to demonstrate the spread of the British ‘Empire’s involvement.