The International Picture
The First World War is a period in history that for many years has been whitewashed when one thinks about how the war effort has been reported or recorded in Western history. It is a perspective of the major world powers which in real terms did not reflect the African Diaspora as a war fought and supported by Black people.
For Britain with the First World War underway, the British War Office sought to recruit soldiers from across the Commonwealth, including the Caribbean and the British Protectorates in Africa. The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed in 1915 and in 1916 the South African Native Labour Corps was founded. These soldiers were largely stationed in Europe, the Middle East and Africa undertaking non-combat tasks and ‘labour’ duties, in roles such as digging trenches, building roads and working with munitions.
World War One arose out of the colonial past of nations which brought soldiers from Africa and the Caribbean into the fray, who in relation to Great Britain were fighting for King and the ‘Mother Country’. The war meant crossing boundaries, bounders and integration changing the face of Britain and the rest of Europe.
The picture of the 1910s is very different from a Black perspective, of how the world was both an opportunity and a threat in terms of a better life, a career and a hope for the future, whilst in another’s battle.
The National Picture
Although often forgotten or ignored, there has been a presence of people from the African and African Caribbean Diaspora in Britain since before records began. In the early twentieth century, there were established Black communities in Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Hull, Newcastle, Glasgow and London.
Members of the Black community took on active roles as artists, doctors, scholars and politicians. In the 1910s, London welcomed its first Black mayor, when John Richard Archer was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913. He later founded the African Progress Union (1918) working for “advanced African ideas in liberal education”, bringing together people from across Africa, the West Indies, British Guiana, Honduras and USA.
Members of the Commonwealth and British Protectorates also sought support from colonial powers when campaigning for equality and civil rights. Five delegates of the South African Native National Congress arrived in Britain to provide a Black opinion of white South African rule, meeting with the Colonial Secretary in June 1914. Sol Plaatje in particular made an impact on the Sunday Afternoon/Brotherhood Movement publishing a collection of Tswana proverbs in 1916 and addressing 305 meetings of the movement at the point of leaving England in 1917.
In 1916 Jamaican-born pilot William ‘Robbie’ Robinson Clarke underwent pilot training in England and undertook reconnaissance operations over the Western Front in 1917, becoming the first Black British pilot. Discharged from the RAF in 1919, he received a payment of £60, a considerable amount, in addition to campaign medals and the Silver War Badge issued to those honourably released from military service due to wounds or illness.
By 1918 the estimated population of Black people living in Britain was 20,000, largely thought to be members of the armed forces from across the Commonwealth. After the war ended, many stayed in Britain, by choice or not (many could not afford the passage home), but the impact of their contribution provided a lasting legacy.
The Regional Picture
In the East Midlands, a small but flourishing community of Black pioneers was shaping local history in sports and the arts.
The Countee family from Leicester toured the music hall scene in the early 1900s and 1910s. Charles William Countee, the son of an African American preacher who had settled in Leicester following his escape from slavery, was a musician and comedian. Charles’ sisters Lucy, Mary Ann Amelia and Florence toured as singers. Charle’s wife Eliza and daughter Mabel were also both singers touring throughout the 1910s as ‘The Two Countees.’
In local sporting history, Walter Tull was one of the first Black players in English football. His father, from Barbados, and English mother both died when he was a child and he was raised in an orphanage with his brother Edward (who was later adopted and became the first Black dentist to practice in Britain). Initially playing for amateur team Clapton FC, he was spotted by Tottenham Hotspur. Considered to be the best forward on the field, he was kept largely in reserves due to facing racial abuse. In 1911 Herbert Chapman signed Walter Tull to Northampton Town where he went on to play 111 games for the club.
On 21 December 1914 Walter Tull enlisted with the seventeenth Middlesex Regiment, part of the ‘Footballers Battalion’ with professional players from across the UK. He rose to the rank of lance sergeant and fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Walter Tull was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May 1917, becoming the first Black infantry officer in the British Army, at a time when military law excluded soldiers that were not of European descent from becoming commissioned officers. He served on the Italian front from November 1917 to March 1918 where he was commended for his gallantry. On 8 March 1918 Walter Tull was killed in action near the village of Favreuil.
Every attempt was made to erase the contribution of African and Caribbean soldiers by omitting troops from memorials and peace marches. It is only in recent years that the contribution of an estimated two million African and 15,600 Caribbean people has been acknowledged. Against the backdrop of war, the 1910s ushered in a century of change socially, politically and culturally.
The Story of the British West Indies Regiment in the First World War. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-story-of-the-british-west-indies-regiment-in-the-first-world-war (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
Sol Plaatje in Britain, 1914 – 1923. Available at: https://www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/205-sol-plaatje-in-britain-1914-1923 (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
Robbie Clarke: Britain’s First Black Pilot. Available at: https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/blog/william.robinson.clarke/ (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
Walter Tull: The incredible story of a football pioneer and war hero. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448 (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
The Tull Brothers. Available at: https://www.firstworldwarglasgow.co.uk/index.aspx?articleid=11636 (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)
A short history of black people in Britain. Available at: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2017-07-26/short-history-black-people-britain (Accessed on: 29 September 2019)