Although many Remembrance events will have taken place over the weekend, the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month will be marked by many with two minutes’ silence during which we will remember the Fallen from the two World Wars and innumerable conflicts since, and those still on-going.
But some are better remembered than others. Most of us are too young to personally remember the Second World War, and the last combatants of the First World War passed away this summer. Many of our fathers and grandfathers weren’t called up because they were needed in the pits, steelworks or on the railways, and those who did go to war back then often didn’t talk about it. So often the picture in our mind’s eye comes from films or television.
We all know this can give a distorted view. With so many films made in the US, no-one can doubt the role the Americans had, and there have been notorious cases of them stealing other people’s thunder, as in U571 where American forces get hold of the German Enigma machine several years before, in reality, they were involved in the war at all!
Hollywood doesn’t give all American heroes their fair share of the limelight, though. When Flags of our Fathers was released, there was serious criticism that while the film’s battle scenes showed scores of young soldiers in combat, none of them were African-American. Yet almost 900 African-American troops took part in the battle of Iwo Jima.
Mind you, how many non-white troops from Britain and the Commonwealth made it onto film? I’m fairly sure there was a Sikh mosquito pilot in 633 Squadron but I honestly can’t recall any allied soldier, sailor or airman who wasn’t white in any of the British “war movies” I’ve seen (film buffs, feel free to take this up as a challenge and correct me if I’m wrong!).
This is a pretty serious oversight, as about 5 million African, Asian and Caribbean troops served in the British and Commonwealth forces in the two World Wars. There is now a memorial to them ““ the Memorial Gates – at the top of Constitution Hill in London, near Hyde Park Corner.
As well as the gates themselves, shown here, there is an elegant pavilion with the names of those who won a VC or George Cross inscribed inside the dome:
It was opened by the Queen in 2002, some might say a little belatedly.
During the First World War Soldiers from the Indian sub-continent fought in all the major wartime theatres. Two infantry and two cavalry divisions had arrived on the Western Front in 1914 and eventually 140,000 men saw service there. Indian troops fought in Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) and alongside British and ANZAC troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. They also formed a large proportion of the Allied forces occupying former enemy territory in East Africa, the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Caucasus. In total 1.27 million Indians served as combatants and labourers ““ “India” at that time included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.
During the war around 15,000 West Indians also enlisted, including 10,000 from Jamaica. Although a few served in regular British Army units, most men from the Caribbean served in the West India Regiment and the British West Indies Regiment (raised in October 1915), serving in France, Italy, Africa and the Middle East. Towards the end of the war, two battalions saw combat in Palestine and Jordan against the Turks.
By November 1918 the “ËœBritish Army’ in East Africa was mainly composed of African soldiers. The units involved were the West African Frontier Force drawn from Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Sierra Leone, and the King’s African Rifles, recruited from Kenya, Uganda and Nyasaland (Malawi). At least 180,000 Africans served in the Carrier Corps in East Africa and provided logistic support to troops at the front. Over 60,000 of them came from South Africa. Black South Africans were restricted to a logistical role because the South African government feared arming them. Around 25,000 South Africans were also recruited to the South African Native Labour Contingent that served on the Western Front in 1916-17.
There’s an interesting local connection to this, as one of the many African troops was John Roberts, reputed to be the first black man to settle in Stoke-on-Trent, whose sons Kenneth and Leslie both fought in the Second World War. Leslie survived D-Day and lived locally until his death in 2001, but Kenneth was killed at Arnhem.
During the Second World War (1939-45), over three million Empire troops served with distinction throughout the North and East African campaigns, in the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Far East, including the two-million strong Indian Army, the largest volunteer army in history. In South East Asia Command, 58% of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s personnel were Indian (and 25% were African) by 1945. Twenty-eight VC’s were won by soldiers of the British Indian Army, from all the States in India, including the Nepalese Ghurkha battalions.
The Africans proved to be notable jungle fighters. Particularly compared with Europeans, they were more resistant to tropical diseases and heat, and their sickness rates were among the lowest in Burma. Over 350,000 African troops fought in East Africa, defeating the Italians in Somaliland and Abyssinia.
The West Indies provided more recruits for the RAF than any other part of the Colonial Empire when recruitment was opened later in the war.
Over 15,000 colonial subjects served at sea with the Merchant Navy, and about 5,000 of the 30,000 merchant seamen who lost their lives during the war came from Imperial territories ““ Hong Kong, Malaya, India (Goa and Bengal), West Africa, and the West Indies. Less than four years ago, this memorial beside the Mersey in Liverpool was dedicated to one group of them.
There are other faces we never see. About five years ago I visited several of the WWI Commonwealth War Graves sites near Ypres, and was surprised to note row after row of the neat white marble stones inscribed with Chinese characters. Until I saw these graves, I didn’t know the Chinese Labour Corps even existed.
Each also had a few words in English; one read “A good reputation endures forever”.
Let’s ensure it does. We will remember them…