“The Forgotten Soldiers” – originally published in The Guardian (U.K.), November 6th, 2002:
More than four million men and women from Britain’s colonies volunteered for service during the first and second World Wars. Thousands died, and many more were wounded or spent years as POWs. Yet throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, their sacrifices were largely ignored…
. . .
There was a time when George Blackman would have done anything for the mother country. In 1914, in a flush of youth and patriotism, he told the recruiting officer he was 18 – he was actually 17 – and joined the British West Indies Regiment.
“Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world,” Blackman recalls. “We sang songs: ‘Run Kaiser William, run for your life, boy’.” He closes his eyes as he sings, and keeps them closed for the rest of our interview. “We wanted to go. The island government told us the king said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us.”
Enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals. The islands donated £60m in today’s money to the war effort – cash they could ill afford.
While Kitchener’s private attitude was that black soldiers should never be allowed at the front alongside white soldiers, the enormous losses – and the interference of George V – made it inevitable. Although Indian soldiers had been briefly in the trenches in 1914 and 1915, Caribbean troops did not arrive until 1915.
When they arrived, they often found that fighting was to be done by white soldiers only – black soldiers were assigned the dirty, dangerous jobs of loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Conditions were appalling. Blackman rolls up his sleeve to show me his armpit: “It was cold. And everywhere there were white lice. We had to shave the hair there because the lice grow there. All our socks were full of white lice.”
A poem written by an anonymous trooper, entitled The Black Soldier’s Lament, showed how bitter the disappointment was: Stripped to the waist and sweated chest Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest From trenches deep toward the sky. Non-fighting troops and yet we die.
Yet there is evidence that some Caribbean soldiers were involved in actual combat in France. Photographs from the time show black soldiers armed with British Lee Enfield rifles, and there are reports of West Indies Regiment soldiers fighting off counter-attacks – one account tells how a group fought off a German assault armed only with knives they had brought from home. Blackman still remembers trench fights he fought in, alongside white soldiers.
“They called us darkies,” he says, recalling the casual racism of the time. “But when the battle starts, it didn’t make a difference. We were all the same. When you’re there, you don’t care about anything. Every man there is under the rifle.”
He remembers one attack with particular clarity. “The Tommies said: ‘Darkie, let them have it.’ I made the order: ‘Bayonets, fix’ and then ‘B company, fire’. You know what it is to go and fight somebody hand to hand? You need plenty nerves. You push that bayonet in there and hit with the butt of the gun – if he is dead he is dead, if he live he live.”
The West Indies Regiment experienced racism from the Germans as well as the British. “The Tommies, they brought up some German prisoners and these prisoners were spitting on their hands and wiping on their faces, to say we were painted black,” says Blackman.
He didn’t make friends. “Don’t have no friend. A soldier don’t got friends. Know why? You believe that you are dead now. Your friend is this: the gun. That is your friend.”
. . . Notice from the West Indian Contingent Committee (1915):
Directions regarding gifts – this is a list of articles which experience has shown to be useful to our soldiers…
Handkerchiefs, boot laces
Chocolate, peppermints and sweets
Guava jelly and preserves
Hot sauces for salmagundi etc.
Briar pipes and tobacco pouches
Tobacco (in thick tinfoil if possible)
Cigarettes, cigarette papers and cigarette tobacco
Automatic lighters (not containing oil, spirit or similar substances)
Safety matches (in sealed tins)
Boracic ointment or borated vaseline for sore feet (in small tins)
Brompton cough lozenges
Notepaper, envelopes and pencils
. . . . .