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Black Poppies: Britain's Black Community and the Great War by Stephen Bourne, book review

A fascinating history lesson full of pride and prejudice

Bernardine Evaristo
Thursday 11 September 2014 00:10 BST

Black British history is fertile ground for writers, not least because most of it is unknown to the wider public. This year sees the centennial commemorations of the First World War and the contributions of millions of black and Asian soldiers to this war effort is finally being acknowledged after a hundred years of being ignored. One example is the recent David Olusoga BBC documentary, The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire. Another is this slim but important book with its fascinating insights.

Stephen Bourne writes about the black soldiers who fought in the Great War, conscripts who signed up in Africa, the Caribbean or at local British recruitment centres. Sometimes they were allocated separate regiments such as the British West Indies Regiment, or they were integrated. Sometimes they were allowed to fight on the front line, other times they were given ancillary roles.

Bourne is brilliant at framing the bigger picture through individual stories. He zooms in on several soldiers born in the late 1900s from varying backgrounds and classes. These include Frank Dove of Brighton, whose middle class Sierra Leonean father was an Oxford-educated barrister. Joseph Highsmith Jr was a London cinema operator whose black British mother was the music hall artist Josephine Morcashani. And Malawian Frederick Njilima, a resident of Westminster, served in the Machine Gun Corps at Ypres, for which he won the Military Medal for bravery in battle. Then there was Norman Manley, one of Jamaica's first prime ministers, who joined the Royal Field Artillery in Deptford and served as a gun layer on the Western Front.

Bourne tells us that black recruits were allowed in all branches of the armed services although not as officers. Footballer, Walter Tull, commissioned as a second lieutenant, was the only black man to break the colour bar, and then only because of his fame. He was killed in action in France in 1918.

In a necessarily male-centred war narrative, Side stories about Britain's black population at that time, estimated at around 10,000 in 1914, allow women to get a look-in. This includes not only Bourne's adopted Aunt Esther, a mixed race Londoner born in 1912, but other mixed-race women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, usually the daughters of fathers who had migrated from elsewhere.

Until historians and cultural map-makers stop ignoring the historical presence of people of colour, books such as this one provide a powerful, revelatory counterbalance to the whitewashing of British history.

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