By Anne Bostanci

01 October 2014 - 17:00

John McDowell, an African American soldier in First World War uniform (Photo courtesy of National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri USA)
John McDowell, an African American soldier in First World War uniform ©

Photo courtesy of National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri USA)

On the occasion of Black History Month in the UK, the British Council recalls black soldiers in the First World War. Anne Bostanci, co-author of the report Remember the World as well as the War, highlights how black people from around the world were involved in and affected by the First World War – and some of its far-reaching consequences.

Weren’t there any black people in the First World War?

Images and footage related to the First World War don’t often include black people, but the impression that only white people were involved and affected by this conflict is mistaken.

Compared to the well-documented writings of a small number of European soldiers, the First World War looks very different when we examine the memories of an Africanaskari (a local soldier serving in European imperial armies in Africa), a Chinese worker or an Indian sepoy (a soldier serving under British orders).

The First World War and Black History Month

Black History Month this year is an opportunity to look closely at some aspects of these experiences. And it is an opportunity to highlight again that all members of today’s UK society will have had relatives affected by the First World War — as our report published earlier this year argues.

One hundred years after the outbreak of this global war, it is important to remember that black soldiers and auxiliary personnel from different parts of the world were involved: for instance, South African and Caribbean soldiers in the British army; African Americans in the American Expeditionary Force; North and West Africans in the French army; and East Africans in the German army. Overall, at least 80,000 black Africans fought for one side or the other. Of these, more than 10,000 died.

We hear the admonition ‘Lest we forget…’ but many have forgotten the loss and suffering in Africa

Many people forget that a significant amount of fighting took place in Africa and that former European colonies were heavily affected by the suffering and loss that the conflict brought. Just one in five of the UK respondents in the British Council’s recent survey indicated that they knew about African involvement.

In a continent which in 1914 had little in the way of railways or paved roads, more than one million men were employed — sometimes forcibly — to carry the weapons and supplies without which the soldiers they served could not fight. Perhaps 100,000 of these ‘bearers’ did not survive the war.

These were casualty rates comparable to the Western Front — although, rather than shells and bullets, disease, acute food shortages and famine caused these deaths. Wartime disruption also resulted in the dislocation of communities and families and in serious ecological consequences.

What was the First World War like for black soldiers?

Within all armies where black men served, experiences of racial prejudice were common. For example, although there were opportunities for black soldiers to ascend through the ranks in the French army, there were significant restraints on how quickly and how far they could rise.

In the American Expeditionary Force, 350,000-400,000 African Americans — or 13 per cent of all men inducted — accounted for the largest group among the racial minorities (in which about 10,000 Native Americans also served). Despite being expected to lay down their lives for the nation, these men were subjected to persistent, pervasive segregation and discrimination.

The impact of the First World War on race relations in the USA

These experiences were to have a dramatic effect on race relations in the United States.

Earlier in the century, a migration from the Southern states had begun, especially as the flow of migrants from Europe virtually ceased during the war and the war effort was creating a great demand for industrial workers in the North. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington DC and New York.

Increased contact between African Americans and white Americans in the workplace and on city streets forced a new awareness of the disparity between the constitutional principle of equality and the reality of segregation and inequality. As such, the war breathed new life into the ambitions of reformers, who were able to frame the domestic struggle in the light of overseas events. This attracted tens of thousands of newly committed activists for the civil rights movement.

100 years since the outbreak of the First World War and 50 years since the Civil Rights Act

The ultimate achievements of the civil rights movement, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination and of which this year marks the semi-centenary, were still decades of serious struggle away. Yet the First World War, which we remember in this year’s centenary commemorations, had a significant impact on the earlier movement.

This connection between the civil rights movement in the USA and the First World War is a little-known fact: only ten per cent of all respondents who took part in the British Council’s survey identified it. At four per cent, knowledge of this fact is even lower among UK respondents.

Developing a sophisticated understanding of the First World War

As such, it could be argued that the UK should take the centenary commemorations as an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the First World War. In order to do so, it is important to acknowledge the global reach; the diversity of experiences; the magnitude of the loss and sacrifices beyond Europe, including black people in many parts of the world; and the important consequences of the First World War.

The UK is a very diverse country, which makes the need for such a deep understanding and the acknowledgement of the involvement, experiences and contributions of many different parts of the world particularly important in the UK context.

For this, the British Council’s report, Remember the World as well as the War, offers a starting point.

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