In Britain, Monday is the celebratory day known as Spring (or sometimes Late May) Bank Holiday. This particular bank holiday used to be connected with the religious celebration of Whitsun, as Philip Larkin can attest (somehow, “Spring Bank Holiday Weddings” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but I suppose given the changes in society, naming a day off after capitalism is really much more appropriate. It is a time of year in the northern hemisphere when a long weekend is welcome; the French still celebrate Whitsun and the Canadians take a day off for a dead British queen (any excuse…). In the US, however, Americans celebrate the first of two days (Veteran’s Day being the other) to honor the military. Memorial Day’s origins go back to the US Civil War, when people needed an outlet for nationwide grief over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that conflict. Back then, it was called Decoration Day, and it wasn’t an official holiday. In fact, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, when the Vietnam War divided the country (at least ideologically) once again.
What struck me about all this is that both the US Civil War and Vietnam were divisive in large part because of race. The Civil War’s connection to race is obvious; the Vietnam War perhaps less so, but “during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action” (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/african-americans-in-combat/). And the other thing that struck me—since I was thinking about Canadians and Victoria Day—is that if the British had started a similar holiday in the 1860s, there would probably be a huge debate over whether or not to celebrate it, since many of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” were about putting down the rebellious colonial subjects (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865 are two examples that spring to mind where the British military turned guns on colonial subjects).
And yet, particularly during the twentieth century, Britain relied heavily on her colonies to provide human power to fight the war against Germany. A poster from WWII to encourage recruitment was, I’ve always thought, remarkably upfront about how Britain saw their help—we need you, but if you’re not white, please stay at the back of the parade. Most mainstream children’s books about the world wars (as I’ve written elsewhere; see “A Medal for Walter: Representations of Black Britons and World War I” in Lion and the Unicorn 41.2) show only white British soldiers. But books by smaller and independent presses have done better in showing the contribution of the colonies to Britain’s war efforts—as well as how those efforts were not always repaid with gratitude.
The oldest of the books I’m going to look at today comes from the Institute of Race Relations’ racism series. Book two, Patterns of Racism (1982) shows the many armed struggles between Britain and her colonies, including the Sepoy Rebellion and the Zulu Wars. Book three, How Racism Came to Britain (1985) points out that, following World War II, “Having helped to win Britain’s war . . . [West Indians] were asked to win the peace for Britain too” (24). The book goes on to detail how Black Caribbean people who answered Britain’s call for workers then faced discrimination, racism, and poverty.
Neither of the IRR books focuses directly on the West Indian soldiers from the world wars, but Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (Windrush Foundation 2005) tells the story of four individuals who contributed to Britain’s success, all from the West Indies. The book tries to highlight their successes, but downplays their struggles, and racism is almost entirely absent. One possible hint is found in Norma Best’s story; after the war, she qualifies as a teacher and secures a job in Cambridge, but “was told that she had to return to British Honduras” (11), a rejection that would be echoed decades later in the recent Windrush deportations.
The best biography of a Black World War I British soldier also comes from an independent press. Historian Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull (Northamptonshire Black History Association 2007) highlights Tull’s skills and talents—but also how those skills and talents were constantly being challenged and threatened by racism, from “ordinary” Britons as well as the British Army in which he served. “He knew the rules in the Army as well as anyone. It was written down in black and white. ‘No negro or person of colour to occupy officer rank’” (22). Claire’s book rightly celebrates his achievements, but also notes that it took years to recognize him. Describing a memorial dedication service in Northampton, Claire writes, “It is Sunday, July 11th 1999. Walter died more than 80 years ago, but he has not been forgotten . . . Walter Tull, the first black professional footballer in Britain, the first black officer in the British Army is, at last, being publicly honoured” (28).
The hesitation over people of colour in the British armed forces continued through World War II, despite Britain’s even greater need for help. Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, wanted to help Britain fight fascism. But as Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust 2007), written by school children in Manchester, points out, she had to become acceptable to the British in order to do so. “Noor changed her name to Nora Baker, so the WAAF would accept her” (13). She later became a spy, and, like Walter Tull, was killed in the line of duty.
Perhaps these children’s books from independent publishers have started to have a slight influence on the way that mainstream publishers depict the war for their readers. In 2014, Collins Big Cat put out a book by white author Clive Gifford. This book was not about the war, but it mentioned it; The Empire Windrush indicates that one of the reasons that Caribbean people came to Britain in the Windrush years was to “rejoin the Army or Air Force units that they’d served in during World War II” (12). The book gives the example of Sam King (who also appears in We Served), and celebrates his contribution to the war but also to London after the war as mayor of Southwark and as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival. But the book doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes people like King had to face. Britain may have promoted an image of the entire empire fighting together, but Britain’s Black population had to fight two wars—against the enemy of the Mother Country, and against racism.