They came--they saw--and together they conquered. Twice within the last hundred years in the two world wars, whose centenary and 75th anniversary respectively are about to be celebrated in 2014, the people of Britain and their former colonies came together to protect the values they shared against a greater tyranny. And twice afterwards, they came together to forge the peace. Yet, as Clayton Goodwin reports here, many commentators continue to classify them by the one characteristic that divides them, their race.
ALTHOUGH THE CONFLICTS THAT broke out in 1914 and again in 1939 were truly world wars, in that hardly any part of the globe and any community was left untouched, the story of all the communities that participated in them has been only rarely told. Each country concentrates naturally on the part played by its own people.
In Britain, from where this piece is written, the public are only now becoming aware of the role played in that struggle by those who were not from the majority indigenous population. For example, the contribution of Walter Tull, the first nonwhite commissioned officer in the British Army ever to lead troops into battle, winner of the Military Cross, and a professional footballer, who was killed in the First World War, has been granted its due recognition at last.
Poignantly, Ulric Cross, one of the most distinguished of the Caribbean servicemen in the Second World War, will not be here to share in the celebrations as he died full of years (96) and honours in October 2013 as this article was being prepared.
Cross voiced the conviction of his generation by recalling that he felt called from his work with the Trinidad Railways to join in the fray because "the world was drowning in fascism and America was not yet in the war. So I decided to do something about it and volunteered to fight in the RAF". That "something" brought him to the air battles over Berlin, the capital of Germany, and the Ruhr, in which he was a navigator with the pathfinder force, and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his "fine example of keenness and devotion to duty" with exceptional navigation ability". The recently-released film, Divided by Race, United in War and Peace, relates how all communities in the UK came together in the common purpose of resisting and overcoming a common enemy, and shows it through personal experience and recollection.
Because there are now no survivors from the First World War--and even those from the Second are veteran--the story focusses on the latter conflict. The statistics are impressive--for which Stephen Bourne's book, The Motherland Calls--Britain's Black Servicemen and Women 193p-45, should be credited.
Some 16,000 volunteers are estimated to have rallied to that call, several thousands in the merchant navy keeping open the dangerous supply routes: five thousand Caribbean sailors were killed by enemy submarines (including the father of the greatest cricketer, Garry Sobers).
Another 6,000 served with the RAF, the majority as ground staff, but in excess of three hundred were in aircrew. OF them, Cy Grant, who came from the then British Guiana (now Guyana), the future singer actor and writer, was a commissioned officer and navigator. After being shot down over The Netherlands in 1943, Grant was held for the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp not far from Berlin. In light of the Nazis racial policy, his position was particularly parlous. His confused captors described him as being "of indeterminate race".
There were also substantial recruits to "back-up" occupations such as administration and nursing, and collections were made for funds for the provision of...