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Africans in World War I and the Battle of the Somme

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by Onyeka Louis Walcott

‘In war truth is the first casualty,’
Attributed to Aeschylus (5th century BCE), later quoted by Hiram Johnson 1918.

We use primary records such as letters, articles, newspapers, books, speeches, plays, films and photographs created at the time to inform us of the past. But our information is limited by what people at the time wrote, spoke and filmed. Sometimes the things that we now wish to find out about were not important to people in the past, so it is hard to collect information on it. For example, we will probably never know how many British-born people of African descent fought in World War I, or were present at the Somme (explained below). Our ability to understand the past is therefore curtailed and prescribed by the preoccupations and prejudices of the times in which the evidence was created. In particular, this shapes our understanding of the history of war, where so much of what we now know was made as propaganda by Governments to convince their citizens to support the war effort. The media replicated simple messages and images to make the people’s losses seem palatable. These messages and images were created to honour the nation’s sacrifice.

However, Africans are rarely depicted as heroes in books and films about World War I. This may be because what we receive about the past is prescribed. For example, the Battle of the Somme is actually a name given to not one, but a collection of battles that took place around the Somme River in France between 1916 and 1918. During the first Battle of the Somme, casualties exceeded over 57,000 on the first day, and a total of 1.2 million people lost their lives. Our understanding of these bloody conflicts is tainted by fiction and fantasy. Films such as The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a silent epic made in 1921 starring Rudolph Valentino, showed the glory and heroism of war, as did the 1925 American film The Big Parade. Both films were blockbusters at the time, and showed the soldiers on all sides as heroic representations of a Euro-American ideal. Another film such as Paths of Glory (1957) was made by the American director Stanley Kubrick and starred American actor Kirk Douglas, but it was in fact about French units in World War I. Paths of Glory totally ignored the history that many of the participants of the ‘big push’ (the name given to forward movements in the war) involved African troops from the French Republic, including its colonies.

These films, and others, create such a distorted impression of the war that most people watching them would find it difficult to believe that Africans fought at the Battles of the Somme, or in any other battles of that war. The few representations of Africans in films about World War I do little to dispel this impression and include the toxic, hotchpotch-mishmash of Shout at the Devil. This film, made in 1976 and based on the book by Wilbur Smith, had ‘tongue in cheek’ antics that, in the midst of the carnage of the East-African campaign that it depicted, made the whole film seem incongruous and inappropriate. And in true Tarzan-style, the Africans are ignorant savages, cowardly and/or animalistic, unthinking brutes.

All of the depictions listed above only bear a passing resemblance to the real war that was fought. The war was international on all its fronts, and of course the personnel varied according to which front the fighting was taking place. To highlight how much has been forgotten, the first shot by a soldier in the British Army was fired by Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi. He was an African from the West African Frontier Force and part of the Gold Coast Regiment. And he fired that first shot in Africa. Other people of African descent, such as those in the West India Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment and continental African regiments included the West-African Frontier Force, West-African Rifles, Kings [Own] African Rifles, Gold Coast Regiment, Nigerian Regiment, and the Sierra Leone Battalion, etc. These continental African regiments fought some of the bloodiest conflicts of the war in Africa against troops of the central powers. The Africans that fought for allied units were joined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Tongans, Maoris, Pacific islanders and Inuit people. Asian people from all over Asia also fought, including those from India and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. And they fought on all fronts. It is worthy of note that despite the racism experienced by these people of colour as they were being led by white officers, many received decorations and honours for gallantry. In the case of the Africans, 166 decorations were awarded, including 39 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 24 Military Medals. Those honoured included the Sudanese soldier Sergeant George Williams of the Kings African Rifles regiment.

Image 2The armed forces of other countries had similar diversity. It is not surprising then that with all these countries recruiting Africans, over 2 million fought in the war on all sides. It is estimated that over 100,000 lost their lives in East Africa and a further 65,000 in French North and West Africa.

Of course the focus of some wartime propaganda may be to ignore or sensationalise the African presence within the fighting ranks. The media’s role was to suggest that the nationals of a given nation were heroes. Part of that meant creating or feeding a notion of mono-ethnic identity to stir national or sometimes racial pride. The real archetype was the fictional Tommy, who Rudyard Kipling immortalised:

‘Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy ‘ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll.’

The ‘Tommy’ Kipling was talking about was actually an archetypal soldier from an earlier war. And he was quickly adopted in World War I as a representation of the ordinary English soldier. But what we should remember is that sometimes this Tommy was Black, and came from the settled communities of people of African descent in Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, London or elsewhere. This Tommy not only had to fight the ingratitude mentioned in Kipling’s poem but another worse problem — he had been forgotten altogether.

Some of these Black Tommies, people of African descent who enlisted in England, fought in racially integrated units and they included Walter Tull (born in Folkestone, Kent). He fought in the First Battle of the Somme and died in the last in 1918. His younger brother William Tull also enlisted. William joined a Sapper unit inside the Royal Engineers. Sappers were in charge of discovering mines and explosives and destroying them. Walter Tull’s regiment was initially the Footballers’ Battalion (Professional Footballers regiment) before he got his commission. Tull’s ‘gallantry and coolness under fire’ were recognised several times in dispatches (the way military deeds were recorded). At Tull’s death, his elder brother Edward was notified of his brother’s courage by Lieutenant Pickard:

‘… allow me to say how popular he [Walter Tull] was throughout the Battalion. He was brave and conscientious; he had been recommended for the Military Cross, and had certainly earned it … Now he has paid the supreme sacrifice; the Battalion and Company have lost a faithful officer; personally I have lost a friend…’

There were other people like Tull, including David Clemetson who was born in Jamaica and also became a commissioned officer in the British army.

Historians of the past create a narrative and those who come after follow it. The truths of war are unpalatable, even to those who have done the fighting. It often contains horrors that they may seek to forget in the ‘fog of war’. The ‘truth’ may only emerge many years later, when painstaking research from historians, researchers and archaeologists enables us to create a new narrative. We call this process historical revision, and it enables us to revise historical events and moments. It is the written accounts of and about people of African descent who, like Walter Tull, fought at the Battles of the Somme, or other people such as Lance Corporal (later Sergeant) William James Gordon (British First Battalion), Winston Churchill Millington (British West Indies Regiment), and Henry Johnson (Harlem Hellfighters [African-American]), who will help us see more clearly through the fog of war.

For information and to find out more about Narrative Eye take a look at the website here:  
www.narrative-eye.org.uk