At the outbreak of World War I, Britain recruited people from its colonies in India, Africa, and the West Indies to contribute to the war effort. As a result, millions of Black and Brown soldiers and auxiliaries saw service. However, from the British West Indies Regiment and the King’s African Rifles to the African American Harlem Hellfighters, the non-white servicemen who fought, worked, and died in the war have been eradicated from our history.
Beyond the western front
While recently erected war memorials in Brixton and Cardiff dedicated to servicemen of Colour are a step in the right direction, they present a deeply sanitised version of history. Black and Brown servicemen and auxiliaries experienced the horrors of the war alongside their white counterparts, but were also subjected to racist abuse in life and neglect in death.
During World War I, white supremacist ideas about racial difference were used to justify the use of non-white servicemen as cannon fodder. Black troops were the first to be deployed in battle, thought to be ‘savage’, “primitive”, and less able to feel pain. It’s reported that WWI resulted in the deaths of more than one million people in East Africa. Those who attempted to escape were whipped, others killed.
The immediate post-war period saw a resurgence of racist violence across Europe and the US. This was stoked by fears that Black and Brown servicemen, emboldened by the experience of fighting white men and sleeping with white women, would seek to challenge the established racial heriarchy. In 1919, anti-Black race riots erupted in British port towns and cities where Black veterans had settled. Black Britons were targeted, and some were murdered, including Charles Wotten, who had recently served in the war. Meanwhile, white servicemen led mob violence against Black veterans, lynching Black servicemen in cities across the US to restore the ‘Jim Crow’ racial order which had been threatened by African American contributions to the war effort. The collective amnesia of these post-war atrocities is unacceptable.
Decolonising our history
The defacement of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests shone a light on the whitewashing of British history. As secretary of state for war and chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission during the first world war, Churchill was responsible for the policy of burying hundreds of thousands of African troops and auxiliaries who died serving Britain in unmarked mass graves. In contrast, German prisoners of war were buried in individual graves with engraved headstones alongside their British enemies. This speaks to the unifying power of white supremacy.
The remembrance of those whose lives were taken during both world wars forms an integral part of our national heritage. The unjust omission of the contributions and experiences troops of Colour feeds into the ahistorical narrative that Black and Brown people haven’t contributed to British history, and therefore don’t belong in its present. If we want to build a positive future, we must acknowledge and atone for the atrocities that have taken place in the past. It is time for us to make a concerted effort to undo the whitewashing of British history.
Featured image via Stephen Bourne/Black History Month
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?