Images rescued from dump reveal black British 'Tommy' at the Somme

John Lichfield sifts through remarkable archive photographs capturing the brotherhood of men at arms

At first glance, there may seem to be nothing unusual about this photograph, rescued from a rubbish skip in northern France.

Look, though, at the British soldier on the left. He is black: a very rare example of an image of a black "Tommy" from the First World War.

The photograph is one of almost 400 snaps of British soldiers on the eve of, and during, the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The trove has been rescued from oblivion by two French men. Many of the images are published in today's Independent magazine for the first time. The photographs, all of which are preserved on glass plates, lay undisturbed in the attic of a ramshackle barn 10 miles behind the Somme battlefields for more than 90 years.

When the barn changed hands in 2007, they were thrown on to the street. Passers-by collected a few and eventually the historical value of the plates, some in perfect condition, some badly damaged, was realised.

In recent months they have been assembled and their images printed, scanned and digitally restored by two local men, Bernard Gardin and Dominique Zanardi. M. Gardin, 60, is a photography enthusiast, while M. Zanardi, 49, owns the "Tommy" cafe, which sits in the heart of the Somme battlefield in the village of Pozières.

An amateur photographer, possibly a local farmer, is believed to have taken the photographs in the winter of 1915-16 and the spring and summer of 1916. The unknown photographer presumably made a crust by charging British soldiers a few francs to take a snap which they could send home to their loved ones.

The lovingly-assembled collection forms a poignant record of the British army on the eve of, or during the Battle of the Somme: the most murderous single battle of the 1914-18 war in which 400,000 British and empire soldiers died. The identity of the soldiers is, and may always remain, a mystery. They are, in a sense, a photographic parallel to the 400 unknown British and Australian soldiers whose bodies are being excavated from eight mass graves near Fromelles, 50 miles to the north.

There are several gems among the photographs, including one shot of a soldier who is almost seven feet (2.13m) tall, sitting next to his more conventionally-sized comrades.

The most startling, and historically most significant, may be this image of a black Tommy in a pose of relaxed friendship with two white comrades. There was a small black community in Britain in the period of 1914 to 1918, estimated at 20,000 people, mostly living at sea ports, from London to Liverpool, Cardiff and Salford.

Black Britons are known to have volunteered and fought on the Western Front but photographs of them are extremely rare. The British First World War historian, Michael Stedman, the author The Salford Pals and The Manchester Pals, has identified the three soldiers in the photograph as members of the Royal Regiment of Artillery or Royal Garrison Artillery.

"Look at the chalk dust on their boots and general cleanliness of their kit," he explains. "Chalk dust only arose in the summer campaigning on the 1916 Somme battlefield as the terrain dried out. My bet is that this photo was taken in the summer of 1916 (probably August/September).

"The men look worn, gaunt, frayed and very fit and lean, from relatively little food and an open air existence. I suspect they have been in action for some time ... They are clearly friends – hands on shoulders and all that."

There were West Indian and Gold Coast (Ghanaian) units in the fighting on the Western Front but the story of black British soldiers scattered in otherwise white frontline units has been sparsely recorded.

Relations between white and black soldiers were reported to have been good although there was a riot – fomented by white South Africans – between white and black soldiers recovering from their wounds at a hospital in Liverpool in 1918.

In this image, though, there is none of that potential for animosity visible: only the natural brotherhood of three men thrown together by a brutal war, and relying on each other to survive.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little