The announcement of the release of ‘Black Poppies’ was a welcome post on my Facebook page as I was sick and tired of being inundated with the latest raves and get rich quick schemes. My BFF was with me and argued “Why Black Poppies and not Red Poppies?”
Don’t get me started. This led to an emotional debate on how the Black unlike other communities are not given the recognition or widely represented in Western documentation about their contribution to supporting England (and Europe) during the WWs. This is important because as the country is planning several events to commemorate the 100th anniversary its important that the Black community celebrates the selfless contribution and sacrifice made by our invisible heroes.
Based on this I reached out to the respected author and historian Stephen Bourne to discuss his latest book “Black Poppies”.
I was inspired to write Black Poppies for several reasons. First, the experiences of Britain’s black servicemen and the wider black community has been almost completely excluded by historians in their books about the First World War. I felt very strongly that this needed to be addressed and readdressed. Secondly, in recent years I became increasingly concerned about the attention given to the black British officer, Walter Tull, and the fact that no one was making an attempt to place him in the context of other black soldiers, and Britain’s black community. Finally, I began this journey when I began to talk to my (adopted) Aunt Esther, a black woman born in London just before the First World War.
So the fact that I had a family connection (adopted but still loved and respected), an older relative, to someone who inspired me to ask lots of questions, not just about her life as a working-class seamstress, but of the historians who had excluded black Britons like her from the history books.
Why do you feel that the contribution of black soldiers has been omitted from mainstream history?
Black soldiers have been omitted from mainstream history because those who research and write that history are predominantly white, middle-class and educated at Oxford and Cambridge. So they are almost exclusively the sons – and in some cases the daughters – of white colonials whose families were part of the ruling elite when Britain had an Empire. In my experience, these so-called historians have never shown any interest in the story of black people in Britain, and certainly not the two world wars. I am not from an academic background. I left school at sixteen with no useful qualifications. I am self-taught and I describe myself as a ‘community historian as opposed to an ‘academic’.
What were the conditions faced by soldiers fighting on behalf of the Motherland?
It is true some black soldiers faced discrimination, but it is also true that others enjoyed comradeship with white soldiers. It is not a black and white story, if you get my meaning! Nothing is clear cut. Unlike the Americans, we did not segregate black soldiers who integrated into British regiments. Promotion was difficult. The military did not want black soldiers ruling over whites, but there were exceptions, such as Walter Tull, who did gain promotion and commanded white soldiers.
What light can you shed on Walter Tull?
Walter Tull was a British-born professional footballer who joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1914 and was later commissioned (apparently the first black British Army officer) as a platoon commander.
Even though there are a number of books available about Walter Tull, and much information available about him on the internet, I have included a chapter about him. He is a major figure in this story. He was a true hero who, sadly, did not survive the war. He was killed in action in 1918. I wanted to place Walter in the context of other black soldiers, other black war heroes, so that he no longer stands alone as a black British historical figure. He shouldn’t be alone.
Although there is evidence that women played a greater part in WW2 what impact did they make in WW1?
It was difficult to find examples of black women who took part in the war effort, such as nurses or factory workers. Regarding career options, most black women in Britain at that time were limited. They either worked as seamstresses, domestic servants or went on the stage. It was relatively easy to find examples of black women entertaining the troops and the British public in music halls. The most fascinating is Mabel Mercer, who has an entire chapter to herself. Mabel was born in Britain and I found an interview with her in a 1975 edition of Stereo Review in which she recalled her career on the British stage as a music hall entertainer during the First World War. It was a tough life for young Mabel, and contrasted with her later career as a glamorous star of New York cabaret from the 1940s.
What impact did black soldiers have on the outcome of the war for not only Britain but Europe?
To put it simply, Britain could not have succeeded in ‘winning’ the war (with their allies) and defeating their enemies if they had not asked for help and support from their ‘colonies’.
What was the relationship between white and black soldiers once the war ended?
On their return to Britain, white servicemen did not come back to the promised ‘land fit for heroes’. It was a terrible situation. They were exhausted. They had experienced some terrible situations on the front line. Their comrades had been killed on the front line. The survivors faced unemployment and so they needed a scapegoat, and the scapegoat was Britain’s black community. This included black servicemen who had married and had families and settled in our seaports. In 1919 some of the white ex-servicemen attacked black communities in our seaports, such as Cardiff, Liverpool and London’s East End. In Liverpool a young black sailor, who had served in the war, was murdered by a white mob, but the black communities did fight back. As far as they were concerned, they were here to stay, and after the so-called ‘race riots’ ended, they stayed.
How did the government at the time reward black soldiers for their service to the country?
After the war, the British government were not kind to black ex-servicemen. They feared some of them would return to the colonies and agitate for independence (which some of them did). However, a number of black servicemen did receive medals for their contributions.
Whilst researching the book what was your biggest insight about the contribution of black soldiers in WW1?
My biggest insight was not to take anything for granted. I hope my book cracks open the subject for others. I hope others will take the opportunity to undertake further research. We do not know the whole story. More work needs to be done. I have tried to cover as much ground as possible in Black Poppies, but the book is not intended to be definitive. It is a beginning. I want others to do more research and I want to read their books in the future, but I am proud of what I have achieved, against the odds. I had no funding. However, in spite of the restrictions imposed on me by the absence of funding from cultural and research bodies, further research did enable me to uncover some extraordinary stories that I had not been aware of.
Was there any characters that you felt deserved greater recognition?
I have included chapters about two Jamaicans who, I felt, deserved recognition. I was deeply moved by the tale of Private Herbert Morris, a sixteen-year-old Jamaican lad who joined the British West Indies Regiment but was traumatised by his exposure to the noise of guns on the front, where he stacked shells. Consequently he was executed for desertion, though pardoned in 2006. Also moving is the story of Isaac Hall, another Jamaican, working in Britain, who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector when conscription was introduced in 1916. He suffered bullying and horrific injuries during his internment at Pentonville Prison but was saved from his ordeal by the pacifist, Dr Alfred Salter.
How has the legacy of the Black Soldiers been commemorated?
For years Britain’s West Indian Ex-Services Association has campaigned for greater recognition of the contribution to black servicemen in the First World War. The membership of the Association includes many who served in the Second World War, but they have always been aware of the contribution made to the Great War by the people of the Caribbean. It is to their credit that there is a greater awareness of this, but there needs to be an even greater awareness. We haven’t done enough in Britain to ensure the legacy is properly commemorated.
Do you feel your book should be added to the school curriculum and why?
Absolutely. Black Poppies should definitely be added to the school curriculum. Our schools are encouraged to teach our young about African Americans from history, such as post-war civil rights activists Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but should only African Americans be held up as role models? No.
With much debate about a lack of role models for black children, how would your book help to alleviate this ongoing issue?
In my experience, young black people in Britain are hungry for information about their past. I think most of them are aware that the school curriculum is biased towards African Americans, but that there is another version of their history that is being deliberately excluded from their learning. Books like Black Poppies would address this, and I believe there are a great many liberal thinking school teachers who would take this on board, if they were made aware of the book, but the mainstream media will ignore it.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the book for our readers?
Black Poppies concludes with a ‘snapshot’ of Britain’s black community in 1919, a watershed year which witnessed, amongst other things, the ‘race riots’, the beginnings of jazz music in Britain and the influential work of some of our earliest black-led publications and organisations; including the African Progress Union. Though black settlers have been part of our landscape since at least the 15th century, it is generally accepted that the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 marked the beginning of the modern black community in Britain. It is possible that 1919 will now stand out as another landmark year.
About Stephen Bourne
In spite of an educationally disadvantaged background, Stephen Bourne graduated with a B. A. (Hons) in Film and Television, and gained a Master of Philosophy degree in 2006 from De Montfort University. He worked on a ground-breaking research project into the history of black people in British television which led to the acclaimed BBC TV documentary Black and White in Colour in 1992. He was historical consultant on the Imperial War Museum’s 2008 exhibition From War to Windrush. His many black British history books include the award-winning Aunt Esther’s Story (1991), Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film and Television (Continuum, 2001), Mother Country – Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 (The History Press, 2010) and The Motherland Calls – Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women 1939-45 (The History Press, 2012). His latest book, Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community and the Great War, was published by The History Press on 4th August 2014. For further information go to www.stephenbourne.co.uk
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Publisher: The History Press Ltd (4 Aug 2014)
Available from Amazon, The History Press and all good bookshops.