Every November, the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal raises funds to support families of the Armed Forces, and the associated wearing of the traditional red poppy has been a powerful symbol of remembrance and recognition since the appeal first began at the end of the First World War. This year, however, a new flower appeared on some lapels, either in place of or alongside the traditional red poppy. The Black Poppy Rose campaign, launched this year by Londoner Selena Carty, aims to recognise the Great War contribution of black soldiers and their families, a contribution which for decades remained largely unrecorded. All funds raised go towards the West Indian Association of Service Personnel.
Prompted by this, we thought we'd look in the archive to see to what extent the contemporary magazines of the time acknowledged the role of black soldiers. No fewer than eight of the numerous magazines from that period are now digitised, which makes searching far easier, but the findings were sketchy to say the least. Three small photographs in The Graphic, 23 October 1915, part of a large page of pictures documenting the efforts of Britain's colonies in the war, show ships sailing with troops from the Bahamas and Barbados, and soldiers from the British West Indian Regiment already in England and in uniform. The men were probably based at Seaford, Sussex, where the first battalion of the BWIR was raised in the autumn of 1915.
Although the West Indies regiment of regular soliders had been in existence since 1795 and based in the Caribbean, the BWIR, formed as a separate unit of black soldiers within the British Army, channelled the enthusiastic response among volunteers in the West Indies to join up and serve the mother country. By 1918, 15,204 black men would have volunteered to serve in the regiment.
Soldiers from Jamaica pictured in Navy & Army Illustrated, August 1914, part of the original West Indies Regiment. Royal Engineers on the left and Infantry on the right (picture number 10981126).
George Blackman, who joined the BWIR was interviewed about his experiences by The Guardian in 2002 and recalled, "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." Many Caribbean recruits believed that joining up and fighting would affirm both their loyalty and equality. But one newspaper report from the Stratford Express, 19 May 1915 (found via https://africanandcaribbeanmemorial.com/index.php/centenary-of-the-british-west-indian-regiment/) gives some idea of the prejudice encountered by men from the West Indies who travelled to Europe in order to join up. It makes uncomfortable reading.
“THE DOCKS – Black Men for the Front At West Ham Police Court To-day”
“Nine Black men, natives of Barbadoes, West Indies, were charged with being stowaways on the S.S. Danube. Mr J.W. Richards, who prosecuted for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, said that the S.S. Danube made a voyage from Trinidad to England, and the day after leaving Trinidad the ship called at Barbadoes. It was presumed that the men came aboard there for the day. Afterwards they were found on the vessel. Mr Gillespie in court said “In a dark corner, I suppose”? and the people in court laughed. Mr Richards continued that the men were put to work, and they did not cause any trouble. He was told that the men were desirous of enlisting in the Army. Mr Gillespie in court said: “What, do they want to enlist in the Black Guards”? and there was laughter in court. Detective Sergeant Holby said he had made enquiries at the local recruiting office and they told him they could not enlist because of their colour, but if application was made to the War Office no doubt they could enlist in some regiment of Black men. The accused were remanded for a week
Many of those who paid for their own passage to England, hoping to join up and see action were bitterly disappointed. Though such prejudices were eroded as the war grinded on and shrinking manpower necessitated some loosening of rules, many black recruits were instead given dirty, dangerous tasks in a support, rather than combative role - jobs such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches, generally in appalling conditions. Near to the firing line, and suffering the same irritations such as lice and trench foot, black soldiers experienced all of the discomforts but frequently missed out on the glory. Magazines of the day may have been willing to celebrate the contribution of the Empire's sons but in publications awash with tales of derring-do, heroic battle scenes and VC actions, black soldiers barely get a look in. Testimonials and first-hand accounts prove that black soldiers fought - and fought well - but the British magazines we hold here, gloss over details of segregation while acknowledgement of individual heroism is hard to find.
It is surprising that Walter Tull, a professional footballer for Northampton Town F.C. who rose to the rank of Second-Lieutenant in the 17th (1st Footballers) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment should be given no mention at all. He was killed in France in March 1918 during the Spring Offensive and yet there is no inkling of him, even in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News which each week ran a 'Sportsman's Roll of Honour'.
These were magazines that catered to an upper class audience. Rolls of Honour published each week in magazines such as The Tatler, The Sphere and the aforementioned ISDN tended to focus primarily on figures well-known in 'society'. Tull, despite his sporting prowess and admirable military career, was brought up in an orphanage would have been of only fleeting interest to readers of these magazines which gave more prominence to rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics and rowing than football. Nevertheless, it is still unsettling that no trace of him appears in what were popular and widely-read magazines (it is worth noting that another black sportsman, Eldridge Eastman, a Canadian sprint champion, was given brief press coverage when he travelled to Britain in 1915 to join the Northumberland Fusiliers).
Tull's story, which is due to be made into a major feature film for release in 2016, is remarkable but he was not unique, a fact that the Black Poppy Rose campaign seeks to highlight. As well as the men from the West Indies who joined up to serve, many Africans were also part of the Allied effort, many in the King's African Rifles where companies formed from indigenous African ranks were pivotal in fighting against the Germans in East Africa. One page from The Sphere in August 1918 carried photographs of the drilling of recruits in Uganda for the King's African Rifles, with accompanying text commenting that they made splendid soldiers - keen, courageous and resourceful as well as being excellent shots and good at football. The report demonstrates that, like all black regiments, they were led by white officers.
One discovery in our magazine archive gives a direct comparison of African and Indian soldiers (the latter were given far more prominence in the press). An article entitled 'The Nursing of our Dark Soldiers,' from The Graphic, June 1918, was written by an anonymous nurse who had spent a year at the base hospital for Indian and African troops in Dar-es-salaam (capital of modern-day Tanzania). In it, she describes the Indian sepoy as, 'essentially a soldier and a gentleman, but centuries of caste rule and prejudice have narrowed his views of humanity to a vanishing perspective, so it took him some time to widen it sufficiently to admit that the "Kala wallah" (black fellow) was just as much a soldier as his lordly self.' The stereotypes apparent in the article feel unacceptably prejudiced from a 21st century perspective, but the writer's admiration of her patients is clearly apparent. Her Indian patients bore their wounds, with 'courage and patience that left their native dignity untouched' while the Swahili had an irrepressible sense of humour, and an insatiable 'thirst for knowledge' exemplified by a tendency to fiddle or remove splints and drainage tubes, simply to satisfy a curiosity about how they worked. They were 'dear boys,' she writes, 'and if they were rogues sometimes, snatching extra "helps" and cigarettes, if tin spoons occasionally found resting-places under pillows, the culprit was always such a sport, and so genuinely tickled at being found out, that one could only feel that they were good-natured boys, full of life and energy that even wounds and privations could not knock out of them. Marvellously plucky as they were over physical injury, they were most incapable of a long fight against dysentery or pneumonia.'
Elsewhere in the archives, there are some excellent examples of black participation in the war. Via our American contributors we have sets of photographs documenting African American soldiers including the famed 369th Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as the Harlem Hellfighters, so named by the Germans due to their reputation for never losing a man, a trench or foot of ground to the enemy. Such was their renown, the welcome home parade around the streets of New York in 1919 saw hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, line the streets to cheer their heroes. We have photographs too of the regiment's band, led by the first prominent African-American bandleader, James Reese Europe.
James Reese Europe, African-American band leader pictured with the regimental band of the 369th Infantry (10978482)
The Tirailleurs Senegalais, West African Colonial Army troops who fought for the French were composed of soldiers recruited and conscripted from throughout French West Africa and not just from Senegal. Often fighting alongside African American troops, 170,000 Senegalese troops fought during the war, 30,000 of whom lost their lives.
The French humorous magazine, La Baionnette, acknowledged the immense contribution of African troops, albeit by employing comic stereotypes of the time, in a special issue devoted to 'Nos Africains' - a copy of which we have in the library. The cover is illustrated by the great French cartoonist, Francisque Poulbot. Other colonial soldiers are documented in a superb portfolio of portraits we hold entitled, 'Die Feinde Deutschlands' (The Enemies of Germany). Examples showing Sudanese and Liberian soldiers are pictured here.
Liberian soldiers by Theodor Baumgartner in 'Die Feinde Deutschlands' (10114303)
But perhaps the most extraordinary picture is a portrait of a soldier in the Hampshire regiment, a photograph taken in Gosport and signed simply 'Paul'. We know nothing more about him. He is an ordinary private, one of hundreds of thousands of men who joined up and were prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice for his country. We do not know what happened to him - whether he survived the war or was killed. But it is a picture that reminds us that this was a global war in which every creed and colour were involved. A century or so after Paul's photograph was taken, it is right and proper that every soldier is remembered; the Black Poppy Rose campaign aims to honour and commemorate the thousands of black men from Britain and beyond who played their part.