Black Poppies: Writing About Britain's Black Servicemen
By Andria Williams
“They called us darkies. But when the battle starts, it didn’t make a difference. We were all the same. When you’re there, you don’t care about anything. Every man is under the rifle. The Tommies said, ‘Darkie, let them have it.’ I made the order: ‘Bayonets, fix,’ and then, ‘B company, fire.’ You know what it is to go and fight somebody hand to hand? You need plenty nerves. They come at you with the bayonet. He pushes at me, I push at he. You push that bayonet in there and hit with the butt of the gun – if he is dead he is dead, if he live he live. The Tommies, they brought up some German prisoners and these prisoners were spitting on their hands and wiping their faces, to say we were painted black.”
---George Blackman, private, 4th British West Indies Regiment
“The First World War is usually viewed as a predominantly white European conflict,” writes Stephen Bourne in Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War (The History Press, 2014). I certainly found this true enough as I began research for my novel-in-progress, which features a bi-racial veteran of that war. The information I could use to imagine his service was hard to come by.
My novel (still not officially titled) has five characters I’d consider to be “major,” as each of them narrates sections from their own point of view; quite inconveniently, none of them are much like me, and all involved varying degrees of research. But there is only one male character who narrates his own sections, and I had decided early on that he was a Briton, the son of a Barbadian mother and a white British father in the Merchant Marine, who passes as white to join the 3rdBritish Expeditionary Force (BEF).
I wanted to approach writing the character of John with great care – partly, of course, because I am not a mixed-race person myself, nor am I a man or a veteran, but also because I knew the research involved to learn about black service members in the Great War was going to be a challenge. It was not a story I’d seen too often, and I wanted to get it right. I still don’t know if I did, but I’m not sure that novelists can ever be one hundred percent sure. Writing John’s sections felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff – except maybe with an imaginary person strapped to my back, and I really wanted to save us both. Especially him.
It’s not known exactly how many black soldiers fought for Britain and its empire in the Great War. Hundreds of thousands of British subjects served with regiments from the Caribbean and Africa (with 55,000 in combat roles). Others, like my character, John, were black men from England who served by “passing” as white; non-white Britons were not officially barred from enlisting, but recruiters were widely urged to reject them. In the officer ranks, they were banned outright. This is quite different from the United States, which had regiments of African-American soldiers in WWI and established a training camp at Fort Des Moines, for black officers to lead them.
There were also many occasions where black Britons served openly through a combination of will, moxie, and the luck of having dealt with a relaxed or open-minded recruiter. Their experiences from that point on, of course, varied widely depending upon the similar open-mindedness –or lack thereof– shown by their brothers in arms.
In Black Poppies, historian Stephen Bourne does his best to rectify the dearth of information on black service members during the Great War. With empathy and affection, he recounts the varying stories of many soldiers, some of which I’ll highlight here simply because I think they are so fascinating; I do not think I could have written John’s sections without this book. Other resources which have been a tremendous help to me are 1919: Britain’s Year of Revolution (Pen and Sword, 2017), by Simon Webb, which covers the British race riots of that year, and Ray Costello’s Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War (Liverpool University Press, 2016).
Perhaps one of WWI’s most well-known black British soldiers —and, defying de jure regulation – the first black officer was Walter Tull. Tull lived an extraordinary but all-too-brief life: Born in Kent, he was the grandson of a Barbadian slave; orphaned at age 9 he and his brother Edward, 11, were adopted by a Scottish couple who were apparently loving and supportive caretakers of the boys. Edward became a dentist, and Walter played football for Spurs, Northampton: “his face appeared on cigarette cards [and] in newspapers,” his biographer, Phil Vasili, describes in the 2008 BBC documentary Walter Tull: Forgotten Hero. While black recruits were often turned away on trumped-up failures of the physical exam (particularly the vision exam), there was no way the recruiter could pretend that professional-athlete Walter was unfit for service. Walter joined the army with many teammates in December 1914 as part of what was known as the “Footballer’s Regiment.” He served on the Western Front, writing loyally home to his brother, but tragedy struck the Footballer’s Regiment; half of them were killed in action. Following this, the devastated Tull was temporarily hospitalized with shell shock, but in a show of great emotional and mental courage, returned to battle, served at the Somme, and eventually became a 2nd Lieutenant. He was killed during the 2nd Battle of the Somme on March 25th, 1918. His men tried three times to recover his body from No-Man’s Land but could not, and so Tull’s final resting place is unknown. His brother called the day he learned the news “the worst day of [my] life.” Walter Tull’s name is on the monument at Arras, France.
Many black soldiers were highly decorated in the War, including John Williams whose awards included the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Cross of St. George, and the French Legion of Honour. Norman Manley, who would later become Prime Minister of Jamaica, served as an infantryman at Passchendaele and was awarded the Military Medal. When Britain entered the war in 1914, Manley was a Rhodes scholar at Jesus College, Oxford, a remarkable accomplishment in itself; he left all this behind to join his younger brother Roy in the Deptford Royal Field Artillery. Tragically, Roy, of whom Norman wrote had “a fine mind and a large and generous love of life and people” and who hoped to be a writer, was killed on the Ypres front in July 1917. Norman Manley wrote:
It was just at dusk when [the Germans] opened a terrific artillery fire on the wood. In five minutes half our men were dead or wounded. Those who could ran out, and among those running was my brother Roy, carrying on his back a man thought to be wounded—it turned out he was dead—and then he too fell, killed by a shell….I cannot speak of how I felt. I was to be lonely for the rest of the war – lonely and bitter.
Others, perhaps less celebrated, braved more than just the color of their skin, but the ineligibility of their age, in their determined efforts to join. Thirteen-year-old Edward Barnett talked his way past a recruiter and joined the army in May 1915 but was discharged a week later when his true age was discovered. It’s rather a wonder that anyone could ever have not discovered it, but Barnett was tenacious; he re-enlisted the very next day, this time lasting four months before he was kicked out again. There is also the remarkable tale of Ernest Quarless, a black soldier who somehow managed to join the British West Indies regiment at eleven years, nine months old.
My character, John, is born in England and fights with the BEF, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the British West Indies Regiment, composed of black British subjects from the Caribbean. The BWIR does, to a lesser extent, play a part in my novel as well.
The BWIR was founded in 1915, and by 1918 had over 15,000 members, about 66% of those from Jamaica. BWIR regiments were generally barred from actual combat, except in the Middle East, where they could serve in infantry units, and had white officers. However, there is evidence – as in the account of George Blackman, whose recollections open this blog post and who, happily, lived to 105 years old – that many BWIR soldiers did end up participating, and some dying, in combat. We know, for example, that Eugent Clarke, a Jamaican, served in combat at Ypres, in the Somme; and at Seaford Cemetery in East Sussex, where there are 300 soldiers’ graves, 19 are definitively those of black soldiers from the BWIR. In all, 187 BWIR soldiers died in combat or from wounds, and over a thousand from disease. More than 600 were recorded as injured.
One nearly-unbelievable event in the history of the BWIR, which I was able to work obliquely into my novel, was the story of the ship Verdala, which carried 1,115 black volunteer soldiers from Jamaica (along with 25 white officers) toward England. The ship was unheated, and the men had been issued only tropical-weight uniforms. Detouring to Halifax, Nova Scotia in an effort to avoid German submarines, the Verdala encountered a blizzard. A white officer and advocate for the BWIR, Lt. Col. Charles Wood-Hill, wrote in his memoir that “they were unsuitably clothed—no warm underclothing, no overcoats and sick accommodation totally unsuitable.” Six hundred men were severely frost-bitten and, incredibly, 106 so injured that they had to stay in Halifax to endure amputations – all this, before they were anywhere within reach of the England they’d volunteered to defend. Eugent Clarke recalls being sent to Bermuda for his convalescence: “When we got to Bermuda, I was just creeping. I couldn’t walk. Just creep on my knees.” Upon his recovery at least six weeks later, he went on to Europe, serving, as I have mentioned, at Ypres.
Interestingly, for all its exploitative or dismissive treatment toward many of its volunteers, the BWIR seems to have directly played into growing anti-colonialist momentum among its members. Stephen Bourne writes,
[Upon returning home] the soldiers of the BWIR were left with a new-found feeling of rebellion against their white oppressors…[They] were convinced that the only way forward was to fight for the end of the British Empire, independence for their islands, and for black people to govern themselves after they had returned home to the Caribbean.
In The Guardian, Simon Rogers, who interviewed the 105-year-old George Blackman, wrote,
The BWIR soldiers who emerged were so politicized that island governments encouraged them to emigrate to Cuba, Colombia, and Venezuela. Those who returned to their countries altered everything[…] A secret colonial memo from 1919…showed that the British government realized everything had changed, too: ‘Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.’
It’s impossible for me, in 2018, not to read that with a sense of satisfaction. Nothing they could do, indeed.
Something I have heard from several returned veterans of the recent wars is that, given alarming political movements, they came home to a country that was sometimes hard for them to recognize. I think it must have been the same for many black Britons returning home – having survived the battlefield, racism in the ranks, and a flu pandemic that killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide – as they were greeted by race riots in many British cities, particularly the port town of Liverpool, where many members of the black community could trace their family’s residence for up to ten generations. In May of 1919, racial tensions in Liverpool came to a head, with hostels for West African sailors and other black-frequented establishments being looted and burned. On June 5th, a recently honorably-discharged sailor for the Royal Navy, Charles Wootton, was chased from a boarding house by a mob of two to three hundred rioting white men, who pursued him to a dock, pelting him with anything they could throw. I cannot imagine how terrified he must have been. Though local police tried to protect him, Wootton, just 24 years old, was forced off the dock and into the water, where he drowned.
The looting, hostility, and outright violence on the part of resentful, unemployed white men towards black citizens made me think deeply about what my character, John, would have returned to, and how it would have made him feel, after risking everything for his country, to come home to such an ugly environment. I think it would have been worse than an insult: it would have been a betrayal.
“The dead…are more real than the living because they are complete,” Siegfried Sassoon famously wrote, and I cannot help but agree. There is something strangely satisfying about the study of history, of seeing the arc of whole lives, the way things turned out. Of course, if there is anything the study of the Great War proves, it’s that nothing is ever finished, nothing has ever “turned out.”
People always want to know how the story ends. It’s what gives us momentum, makes us turn those pages faster and faster, stay up reading two hours after we should have been in bed. Here’s the thing I most took away from studying the Great War, as well as from a host of other topics, from Irish independence to logging in early-20th-century Maine, over the past four years while I worked on this novel: the story never ends.
Novelists, we are a funny breed: we write with crazed determination to make something that has an end (please, please let us get to the end!), but which also, somehow, at the very least in our own hearts and minds, will always exist. Historians, I understand, do exactly the same. I think it is simply a human impulse, lighting a candle so that even the most wasteful is not waste, the most lost is not forgotten, and what’s over is never entirely gone.
Andria Williams is the author of the novel The Longest Night (Random House 2016), which was a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great Writers Pick," an Amazon pick of the month for January 2016, and longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novels Prize. It has been called "a scintillating debut novel about a young couple whose marriage is tested when they move to an army base rife with love triangles, life-or-death conflicts, and a dramatic cover-up." She is the founding editor of the Military Spouse Book Review and a fiction and poetry editor for Wrath-Bearing Tree.
For more information about military spouses, see WWrite post by Peter Molin on Aline Kilmer, Joyce Kilmer's wife here.