Last updated on January 2, 2020
I saw this book while browsing online and the cover immediately caught my attention. After reading the cover, I was further intrigued and wanted to know which great war the author was referring to. Needless to say, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take the plunge. Author Stephen Bourne has researched the lives of Black soldiers who fought in the British military during the World War I and their communities in Britain during and after the war. Sadly, as the author points out, for too long there was never a major focus on the experiences by Black Britons, who were nearly erased completely from history. But due to efforts by Bourne and others, some of their stories have survived and in this book, they are given their just due for their service in defense of Great Britain.
Admittedly, I knew very little pertaining to Black soldiers during World War I. They are rarely mentioned and I cannot recall reading about any during my years in school. If not for this book, I may have never known any of the things I learned through Bourne’s work. He introduces us to each person, explaining the story of how and why they ended up in the military. Many of the men originate from the British West Indies, at the time under the Crown’s rule and influence. To the people of the West Indies, Britain is seen as the “Mother Country” and many soldiers made the pilgrimage from the Caribbean to England with hopes of a better life and defending the nation. Jamaica and Trinidad emerge as the main countries from which countless young men embark on their journey across the Atlantic.
As I started reading, I began to wonder about the discrimination they faced as black men in the early 1900s. Bourne does not waist any time and confronts the issue right away. Interestingly, he points out several facts about black soldiers in Britain that were in stark contrast to their American counterparts. Jim Crow and segregation are some of the darkest moments in American history, yet across the Atlantic, no such system existed and for black men in the military, experiences varied considerably. By no means does that mean that racism did not exist. It certainly did and some of the men recall episodes in which it rears its ugly head. Regardless, I did observe that the life of a Black soldier in England was quite different from America. But as the saying goes, “not all that glitters is gold”. Readers familiar with Jamaica history will appreciate the section Bourne included on the Manley family, particular Douglas R. Manley (1896-1917) and Norman Manley (1893-1969). In later years after he returned to Jamaica, Norman served as Jamaica’s Chief Minister from 1955–1959 and as Prime Minister from 1959–1962. His son Michael (1924-1997) also served as Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972-1980 and 1989-1992.
On the front lines, many of the men were respected soldiers and even officers. However, when they returned home racism was still an ugly part of daily life. Following the war, unemployment and race became tense issues, eventually leading to the infamous and tragic race riots of 1919. The riots covered here are by far the darkest part of the book. The author does hold anything back and through his words, the horrors of the riots come roaring to life. The story of Charles Wotten is a difficult part of the book but necessary for readers to understand the severity of the situation. Further, the actions of the police are also cause for consternation as black, white and mixed Britons escaped the deadly violence that festered like an open sore. Today, a riot of such type is beyond comprehension, but in the early 1900s, civil rights, tolerance and acceptance were not widespread ideas championed by a majority of society. This is a time period in which life is hard and short but for the heroes in the book, serving in the British military gave them the time of their lives. There are lows in the book but there are also many highs and moments in which pride is on full display. The shining moments include film, theater and even music, showing the talents of many black men and women who found a home in Britain where they could exercise their rights without being legally segregated.
I truly did enjoy the book but I believe that readers will find the list of recommended reading at the end to be of high value. In fact, I have marked that section myself to learn even more about the legendary soldiers that defended Britain in World War I. Their names were forgotten over time but Stephen Bourne has resurrected them here, allowing these brave souls to live infintely. This welcoming and heartfelt book is a mix of courage, heartache and understanding of the complex and long relationship between Britain and its black citizens. Great read.