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Commemorating the contribution made
by BME soldiers during WW1
People from all parts of the British Empire contributed to the needs
of the war, whether by serving in the armed forces or providing material and financial resources. Most of this contribution was of a voluntary nature. Indeed all those serving in the Indian Army were volunteers. People of colour and the regiments and branches of the services in which they played their part could be found in all theatres of
the war. Black Briton Second Lieutenant Walter Tull saw action in
France and Italy; African soldiers were also on the western front; four
Indians and at least one West Indian were pilots in the Royal Flying
Corps; sailors from India, China and Nigeria served in the Royal Navy.
The demands of the war meant the forces personnel increasingly relied upon the economies of the colonies to feed them and provide
many of the raw materials necessary to maintain and protect them,
such as munitions, timber, cotton, meat, fruit and vegetables.
As part of this year’s Black History Month celebrations, and to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, this series of posters examines the experiences of BME soldiers from all
around the world, and their contribution and sacrifice made during
and after the war.
Africans in the German Army.
Little is known about how many of Germany’s Pre-war black population served in the
Armed forces. Some certainly did in WW1.
WW1 was not just fought in Europe. There
were theatres of war in Africa and Asia.
In Africa, The Germans used Askari troops
called”Schutztruppe”. They fought bravely
and were never defeated even after Armistace. Schutztruppe (Protection force) was the
African colonial armed force of Imperial Germany from the late 19th century to 1918, when Germany lost its colonies.
The colonial force for German East Africa was established by an act of the
Reichstag on 22 March 1891; the colonial forces for German West Africa
and German Southwest Africa on 9 June 1895. Schutztruppe formations
were organizationally never a part of the army or navy. In 1896 Schutztruppe headquarters was established and located at Berlin’s Mauerstrasse,
in proximity to the German Colonial Office. German military law and discipline applied to the Schutztruppe.
Black Britons.
Although little is known of Black Britons in the British
army. There is some evidence to show that Black
Britons served in WW1 in the Army and Navy.
One of the better known stories of Black Britons serving during WW1 is that of Walter Tull.
Walter was a keen footballer and played for a local
team in Clapton. In 1908 Walter's talents were discovered by a scout from Tottenham Hotspur and the club
decided to sign this promising young footballer. He
played for Tottenham until 1910, when he was transferred for a large fee to Northampton Town. Walter was the first black outfield
player to play professional football in Britain.
When the First World War broke out, Walter abandoned his football career to join
the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.
During his military training Walter was promoted three times. In November 1914,
as Lance Sergeant he was sent to Les Ciseaux in France. In May, 1915 Walter was
sent home with post traumatic stress disorder.
Returning to France in September 1916 Walter fought in Battle of the Somme, between October and November, 1916. His courage and abilities encouraged his superior officers to recommend him as an officer. On 26 December, 1916, Walter
went back to England on Leave and to train as an officer.
There were military laws forbidding 'any negro or person of colour' being commissioned as an officer, despite this, Walter was promoted to lieutenant in 1917.
Walter was the first ever Black officer in the British Army, and the first black officer
to lead white men into battle.
This Photo shows an African who
travelled back to Germany after
WW1 to serve in the Freikorps in
Walter was recommended for the Military Cross but never received it.
British Caribbean.
People in the British Caribbean had a
great deal of loyalty to the “Mother Country”. When WW1 began, West Indians
donated monetary aid to the war effort
and also volunteered to fight, joining the
British West Indies Regiment.
Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 many West Indians left the colonies to enlist in the army in the UK and were recruited into British regiments. However, the War Office was concerned with the number of black
soldiers in the army and tried to prevent any people from the West Indies
enlisting. Indeed, the War Office threatened to repatriate any who arrived.
Eventually, after much discussion between the Colonial Office and the war
Office, and the intervention of King George V, approval to raise a West Indian contingent was given on 19 may 1915. On October 26 1915, the British
West Indies regiment was established.
A total of 397 officers and 15, 204 men, representing all Caribbean colonies,
served in the BWIR. Of the total, 10,280 (66%) came from Jamaica. By the
end of the war West Indians had joined BWIR and had experienced military
service in England, Italy, Egypt, India, France, Belgium, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and East Africa.
Indigenous Australians.
Indigenous Australian soldiers fought alongside non-indigenous soldiers in
World War I. Initially recruiting officers allowed Indigenous Australians to
enlist only if their skin was considered ‘white enough’ but as the war went
on, with casualty rates rising and recruitment numbers dropping, the officers weren't as selective. It’s not sure how many Indigenous Australians
fought in the war but it is believed to have been around 500-600. They were
involved in the majority of the campaigns.
Many enlisted with the hope that fighting for the country would in turn
change the way they and other Indigenous Australians were treated – to no
longer be discriminated against and to be treated equally. Others enlisted
for the same reasons as non-indigenous Australians such as to see the world
while receiving good pay (the pay was the same for Indigenous and nonindigenous soldiers). In the trenches of the great wars indigenous Australians found respite from the racism and bigotry of mainstream Australia. The
service was one of the few places racism wasn't the norm during the first
half of the twentieth century.
In the trenches Indigenous Australians were considered and treated equal but when they returned home, things went back to the way they
were before the war. The men were no longer
equal to non-indigenous soldiers who they fought
side by side with. They continued to be discriminated against, for example, they couldn’t apply
for land under the soldier settlement schemes or
even have a drink with their fellow soldiers at the
NSW serviceman portraits, 1918-1919 - Leslie
John Locke. Locke was awarded the Military Med-
French Africans.
Like Britain, France was a major colonial
power. France drew troops from all
over “Francophone Africa”. France also
had Colonies in South East Asia.
Some of the most distinguished African
Soldiers were the Tirailleurs Senegalais.
"'Black devils' the German soldiers
called them, when, fighting like demons, they had forced the Kaiser's shock troops to retreat before them."
Despite the name, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were
composed of soldiers recruited and conscripted
from throughout French West Africa and not just
from Senegal. However, recruitment and casualty
burdens for Senegalese soldiers often numbered
among the highest of the Tirailleurs Senegalais.
With the start of World War I, many Tirailleurs Senegalais soldiers were brought to
the front in France and served in several
important battles, like Vimy Ridge and
Somme. They were also for a time amalgamated with black American soldiers in the
trenches. French West African troops serving in World War I comprised
about 170,891 men, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed. In Senegal alone more than 1/3 of all males of military age were mobilized.
The First World War gave rise to a crucial
change in the relationship between Europe and Africa. Over two million people
in Africa made huge sacrifices for the European Allies. 100,000 men died in East
Africa and 65,000 men from French North
Africa and French West Africa lost their lives.
Not since the American War of Independence, when 14,000 slaves and freemen fought as black loyalists alongside the British, had such a huge number
of people of African descent been involved in fighting for Europeans. Very
few were combatant, most of them were used as porters. They were recruited to carry heavy weapons and supplies. They were badly paid and given food which was either of poor quality or entirely foreign to them. While
travelling through new territories for them, they often fell sick and were
affected by different types of malaria.
Britain did not deploy any African troops on
European battlefield. British African troops,
however, fought in the Middle East and in Africa itself.
55,000 men from Africa fought for the British
during World War 1 and hundreds of thousands of others carried out the vital roles of
carriers or auxiliaries. Contributing African
countries included Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leo-
Asian Troops.
India sent over 1 million men to aid the War effort. At
that time India included Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh
& Shri Lanka. Soldiers were from many ethnic backgrounds such as Pathans, Sihks, Muslims & Hindu’s.
The Indian Army during World War I contributed a
large number of divisions and independent brigades
to the European, Mediterranean and the Middle East
theatres of war in World War I. Over one million Indian troops served overseas, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded. In World
War I the Indian Army fought against the German Empire in German East
Africa and on the Western Front. At the First Battle of Ypres, Khudadad
Khan (pictured above) became the first Indian to be awarded a Victoria
Indian divisions were also sent to Egypt, Gallipoli and nearly 700,000 served
in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire. While some divisions were
sent overseas others had to remain in India guarding the North West Frontier and on internal security and training duties. The Indian Corps won
13,000 medals for gallantry including 12 Victoria Crosses.
India’s part in the war is frequently overlooked as a result of the horrors
experienced in trench warfare and by Europe’s tendency to home in on
battles such as those fought at the Somme and Verdun, which many assume
only Europeans fought in.
For its endeavours, India expected to be rewarded with a
major move towards independence or at the least selfgovernment. When it became obvious that this was not
going to happen, the mood in India became more militant.
The photo opposite shows Ghurkas from Nepal.
African Americans.
The United States Government mobilised the
entire nation for war, and African Americans
were expected to do their part. The military
constituted a draft in order to create an army
capable of winning the war. The Government
demanded “100% Americanism” and used the
June 1917 Espionage Act and the May 1918 Sedition Act to crack down on
dissent. Large segments of the black population, however, remained hesitant to support a cause they deemed hypocritical. A small but vocal number
of African Americans explicitly opposed black participation in the war. A.
Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of the radical socialist newspaper, the Messenger, were closely monitored by federal intelligence agents.
Many other African Americans viewed the war apathetically and found
ways to avoid military service. As a black resident from Harlem quipped,
“The Germans in’t done nothing’ to me, and if they have, I forgive ‘em”
Most African Americans nevertheless saw the war as an opportunity to
demonstrate their patriotism and their place as equal citizens in the nation.
Black political leaders believed that if the race sacrificed for the war effort,
the Government would have no choice but to reward them with greater
civil rights. “Coloured folks should be patriotic”, the Richmond Planet insisted. “Do not let us be chargeable with being disloyal to the flag”. Black men
and women for the most part approached war with a sense of civic duty.
Over one million African Americans responded to their draft calls, and roughly 370,000
black men were inducted into the army.
Charles Brodnax, a farmer from Virginia recalled “I felt I belonged to the Government of
out country and should answer to the call and
obey the orders in defence of democracy”.