Racism by omission

Frequently omitted from military histories, Marika Sherwood examines the vital contribution of the colonies in the First World War

© Rex Features

Africa

Although Britain would not use African troops in Europe, as this would "undermine the dignity of the white man", to Britain’s horror and disapproval, France used some 160,000 Africans from its west African colonies in Europe, with another 65,000 used elsewhere. Britain used some 50,000 African troops and about one million ‘carriers’ in the African campaigns and some 1,000 were used in Mesopotamia. The death rates were high: in the east African campaigns, over 11,000 African soldiers and around 100,000 carriers died; some 22,000 were wounded and/or missing-in-action.

Africans were awarded 39 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 24 Military Medals.

France used brutal conscription methods; the British methods were less brutal, though chiefs were threatened if they did not produce the required number of ‘volunteers’.

Why did so many die? "Often there was very little food, and what did exist was of poor quality; there was very little clothing, few blankets and no boots." There were almost no medical services, especially for the carriers who were seen as expendable.

 

India

Britain, of course, also used Indian troops – some one and a half million, of whom 114,000 were reported dead, wounded or missing at the end of the conflict. They were used in all theatres of war. An additional 600,000 served as non-combatants – as carriers or construction workers. Many others produced materials for war use: food, clothing, munitions.

The Royal Indian Marine had a fleet of minesweepers, patrol vessels and troop carriers and also carried war stores to Iraq, Egypt and east Africa. The officers were all whites. The proportion of India’s national budget spent on ‘defence’ during the First World War varies from 49 per cent to 61 per cent.

Indians were awarded 12 Victoria Crosses and received 12,445 medals and decorations for bravery. The highest rank they could achieve was that of a subadar major, who advised the British officers on morale and customs, but they were outranked by the most junior British lieutenants. However, subadars did command platoons during war.

In 1922 there was a proposal to slowly ‘Indianise’ the government of India including the military. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill doubted the wisdom "of granting democratic institutions to backward races which had no capacity for self-government".

 

West Indies

Because of the attitudes towards ‘colour’, no troops were recruited from the West Indies until 1915. The British West India Regiment of 11 battalions (15,204 men) were trained for military service under very harsh disciplinary regimes by white officers. They had little access to social facilities and resented "the discrimination in pay and conditions of service" and were not granted any leave.

Though trained to fight, many battalions were allocated to work as trench diggers and ammunition carriers in Italy. In 1918, when ordered to clean latrines used by Italian labourers the soldiers mutinied. Forty-nine men were sentenced to between three and five years’ imprisonment with hard labour; the alleged ringleader’s death sentence was commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Other BWIR battalions serving on the front line in the Middle East also "began to react to official discrimination", so it was decided to disband the regiment and ship them home as soon as possible. Some battalions also served in east Africa. (Quotations from Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War by Richard Smith, MUP, 2004)

Eighty-one West Indians received medals for bravery and 49 were mentioned in despatches.

 

Non-military contributions

But it was not only soldiers and carriers that the colonies supplied. For example, in 1915–1917 about £80,000 was raised in the Gold Coast colonies to aid the war effort and about £700,000 was contributed by the Gold Coast government. Some £40,000 came from the Gambia and £15,000 from Sierra Leone. Nigeria bore the cost of its troops in all areas of the war, including the high salaries of the exclusively white officers. The West Indies donated £2 million to the War Funds and paid for nine aircraft and 11 ambulances, and exported timber, fuel oil and cotton for the war effort.

The British west African colonies produced oil, cocoa, gold, bauxite and manganese; from the east African colonies came hides, skins, grains, rubber, fibres, tobacco, lead and copper. Much of this was produced by forced labour.

One major contribution of Indians was in the Merchant Navy, where they made up at least 25 per cent of the workforce. Though wage rates were increased for white seamen, ‘Chinese, Asiatics and Coloured’ ratings were excluded by the National Maritime Board. West Indians, Africans and Fijians also served in the merchant marine during the First World War.

 

Britain

So far there has been no research on how the black and asian population in Britain was involved in the First World War. The Manual for Military Law stated that "a Negro or any person of colour" should be classed as an "alien", so possibly very few black Britons were recruited in the UK. When conscription was introduced, some were sent to Canada or to join the BWIR.

The first black Briton to become a commissioned officer was Walter Tull, who had enlisted in the Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in May 1917, was recommended for the Military Cross, but died in March 1918.

Certainly there is some evidence that hostility towards this sector of the population increased, as did the population itself. This was partly due to black and Indian seamen in merchant vessels, where their wages were far below those of whites, seeking work on shore. Newspaper articles appeared about the ‘Black Peril’, as it was alleged that white women were particularly attracted to these men. When the discharge of soldiers began, racial hostility increased rapidly: black and Asian men were attacked in Cardiff, Newcastle and in London’s Canning Town; in Liverpool, one was lynched (ie, murdered for no reason other than his ethnicity).

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