Tuesday's Book: Our War

Our War: How the British Commonwealth fought the Second World War by Christopher Somerville (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)

"As soon as the Japanese could see it was Africans coming at them, they would keep waiting and let them pass - waiting for the European right at the back. The European was to be killed first - this was the way - because he gave the orders. So the Europeans would get a big can of boot polish and cover their faces with it..."

Mutili Musoma is a Kenyan whose memory of fighting the Japanese in Burma is one of many recorded by Christopher Somerville during the two years he travelled the Commonwealth to interview men and women who served in the Second World War. The fighting threw together diverse subjects of the Crown more suddenly and on a vaster scale than peace could ever have done. The Colonies, like India, had no choice but to follow Britain into war. Dominions could choose. South Africa fought, the Irish Free State (not yet a republic) sat and watched.

About five million Commonwealth men and women served, about six million from Great Britain itself. The numbers of killed and missing were some 170,000 and 260,000 respectively. But the enemy was beaten, and independence movements gathered strength, the latter not always to the veterans' liking.

While Our War does contain harrowing tales of the actual fighting, what makes this book so valuable is what these veterans - men and women of many different races - remember about the battle to get along with their own side. But for Somerville, many of the stories in this fascinating book would have been lost with the deaths of their tellers. This is the first time some of these men and women have spoken about their experiences.

"When we left Kenya we were young men," says John Mumo. "Our custom says that at that age, if you are not married, you are not supposed to touch a dead body. But when we went to war we were compelled to do those things." The war made Mr Mumo into a medical orderly.

The picture that emerges from the book is that common experience bred widespread tolerance between servicemen and women of different colour. Top brass, however, could still be grudging and were always in two minds about equal pay and treatment for whites and non-whites - who ran equal risks under hardship to topple the racist regimes in Berlin and Tokyo. Frank Sexwale, a South African who served against Rommel in the Western Desert, remembers being trained with an assegai (spear) and a club.

And when the war was over? As Jamaican servicewoman Connie Macdonald found when she emigrated to England, whites wouldn't even rent blacks a room. "The only people who would rent us rooms were our own black people," she says. "They are the worst people to rent rooms from... whereas a white person would get a whole flat for pounds 1.5s (pounds 1.25p), we had to pay pounds 3 or pounds 4 for one room. We were our own worst enemies."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee