On Friday 11th November (Remembrance Day) I was invited to give the last of a series of talks held at Church of God of Prophecy at Aberdeen Street, in Birmingham. My topic for this talk was how erasing the presence of African and Caribbean soldiers from the peace parades in 1919 contributed to the forgetting of their contributions to the war. Ensuring that the soldiers who marched on that day represented Britain and its dominions (Canada, South Africa, Newfoundland, New Zealand and Australia) and the United States, helped to propagate the belief that the war was a ‘white man’s war’, and that there was no Black presence. Furthermore, the omission of African and Caribbean troops on memorials in this country has further compounded this assumption. I thought it was fitting that on Remembrance Day, we should be exploring this key question. As project manager for the They Also Served project, I spend a lot of time reading and researching African and Caribbean involvement in the Great War – while I had been aware that there had been Black involvement, I had little idea of the scale of it. 2 million Africans served in British units, as soldiers, officers auxiliary staff and carriers; 15,600 men from the West Indian colonies volunteered their service, as an expression of their loyalty to the ‘mother country’.
To make sense of this ‘forgetting’, one must make sense of the period’s obsession with race and racial hierarchies, which determined who should serve, and in what capacity. Until very recently, books on WW1 have tended to maintain this focus on European troops, with the African and Caribbean contribution being marginalised at best, forgotten or ignored at worst. The centenary has presented the opportunity to give a more inclusive assessment.
I was very lucky to speak before a full house, and the audience was fully engaged with the topic. The Q&A session, although brief (I had a train to catch back to London!) was very interesting – the questions were thoughtful, and demonstrated a genuine interest in the topic, with a desire to know more. I look forward to delivering more talks in the weeks and months to come.