Lost Voices, Lost Lives: Tales from the Great War
Having commemorated the centenary of Armistice Day in 2018, we should perhaps take time to reflect upon the efforts made by historians to recover the voices of African, Caribbean and Black British soldiers who served in the Great War. Nearly sixteen thousand men from the Caribbean served voluntarily in West Indian Regiments; thousands of volunteers came from Africa to serve with British troops. Black British men served on the front, including Walter Tull, who died in France in 1918.
The 2018 controversy over Tull's treatment has drawn public attention to the experiences of black British men. A talented footballer who played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton, Tull enlisted for service in 1914. In the course of the next four years he suffered shell-shock, trench fever, became the first black officer to lead white troops into battle in 1917, and was recommended for and refused a Military Cross. Tull was later killed during a hurricane bombardment west of the Arras-Bapaume road as he tried to rally his troops.
Given the insight Tull's experiences of the Great War provide into race relations, into nationality and patriotism, into British demographics and military manoeuvres, it may seem surprising that such an extraordinary life has been overlooked by historians. Yet it is unfortunately symptomatic of how black soldiers have been marginalised in the history of the two world wars, whether from Britain, the Caribbean or Africa. Efforts at historical revaluations are made in, for example, Stephen Bourne’s accessible Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War; and in Eccles and McCollins's The Caribbean and World War Two. However, given the overwhelming trove of scholarship on the two world wars, such academic research remains the exception rather than the rule, and as a consequence it is an uphill struggle for even the most conscientious teachers to find useful resources.
This is not about token gestures to inclusion in the practice of writing and teaching history. It is about reflecting clearer historical realities regarding British society, the Empire, and participation in the Great War. Black British soldiers like Tull served in officer-class combat roles, yet Caribbean volunteers undertook service roles like trench digging and stretcher bearing – tasks as hazardous as warfare if you happened to be serving on the Western Front - although ones that were considered auxillery and secondary by the British Army.
Historians have shown how calls for independence and negative attitudes surrounding racial identities affected the roles that West Indian and African regiments undertook in World War One, with an irrational fear of all-black troops and violence underpinning this systematic discrimination. It seems a sad irony then that Tull in fact developed close friendships with other white officers, suggesting how life and death situations had the potential to strengthen bonds between men on the battlefield, regardless of their racial background, as well as how the war reinforced stereotypes about black servicemen and women.
History matters because human experience matters. With far greater emphasis placed in mainstream education on reading the poignant diaries, letters, memoirs and poetry of white British soldiers to gain historical insight into men's experience of warfare, the marginalisation of Black British, African and Caribbean soldiers from mainstream discourse on World War One seems all the more disappointing.
It is as if the social marginalisation of black servicemen and women by the army has been perpetuated in the practice of writing and teaching World War One history. Dedicated scholarship is therefore needed if we are ever to shine a light on the experiences of Black British, Caribbean and African soldiers who served – and died - in the Great War.