This was nothing new. The British Empire had always relied heavily on non-white and non-British troops to secure its new territories. The largest of these was the Indian Army, whose troops served throughout Asia and Africa.
The British Navy recruited widely throughout the Empire. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 there were 187 sailors from the Caribbean, 28 from Africa and 23 from India aboard ships in Nelson’s Fleet. The Death of Nelson, painted between 1859 and 1864 by Daniel Maclise, clearly depicts two black sailors, whom he included after meticulous research to ensure the historical accuracy of his composition. Figures such as James Africanus Horton (1835-1883), Oludah Equiano (c.1745-1797) and Mary Seacole (1805-1881), to name but three, all served in the British armed forces before 1914.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Britain recruited heavily from her Imperial possessions. Over one million men from the non-white colonies served during the First World War. The greatest military contribution came from India. Over 138,000 Indian troops fought in Belgium and France during the conflict. More than one quarter of them became casualties. In the first battle of Ypres in Flanders in 1914, a platoon of Dogra Sikhs died fighting to the last man, who shot himself with his last cartridge rather than surrender. After the bloody battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the Sikh regiments had lost 80% of their men. Three regiments stood at only 16% of their original complement.
Khudadad Khan, from what is today Pakistan, served as a machine gunner with the 129th (Duke of Connaught’s Own) Baluchis, becoming the first native-born Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for bravery.
Fifteen thousand men from the West Indies (white and black) saw active service during the First World War. The British West Indies Regiment was formally established in November 1915 and 11 battalions served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, suffering 1,325 casualties including 185 killed in action. The racial prejudice to which it was subjected contributed to a mutiny among its troops in 1918. Troops from Africa played an important part in the defeat of the Germans in East and West Africa. Others, from countries including Egypt, Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa and China, swelled the ranks of labour units, providing logistical support for frontline troops.
Walter Tull served in the trenches and became the first black British army officer before being killed in action in 1918 during the last battle of the Somme. Before the war he had been one of Britain’s first black professional footballers, playing for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town.
Four Indians and one West Indian served as pilots in the fledgling Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which was to become theRoyal Air Force. Lieutenant Indra Lal Roy, who was born in Calcutta, served with the RFC and recorded nine victories against enemy aircraft before being shot down and killed in 1918. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The Royal Navy also received invaluable support from the Hong Kong Naval Special Volunteer Reserve, the Colombo Minesweeping Force, the Nigerian Marine and the Royal Indian Marine.
Shown left is a vintage historical World War 2 poster of servicemen from the British Commonwealth. Allied War Effort: Together
It was a similar story during the Second World War.
Over 2.5 million Indians – Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims – served with the British armed forces during the Second World War. The Indian Army (which included recruits from the areas that later became Pakistan and Bangladesh) was the largest volunteer army in the world. Over 36,000 Indian members of the armed forces were killed or posted missing in action during the Second World War and another 64,000 were wounded. Indian personnel received 4,000 awards for gallantry, and 31 VCs. The only VC winner from elsewhere in the in the Empire was Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu, of the Fiji Military Forces, who earned this highest of all commendations in June 1944 at Bougainville.
One of the 31 recipients of the VC was Havildar Gaje Ghale, who in May 1943 was in command of D platoon, 2nd battalion, 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles. Although badly wounded, he continued to lead a charge against the Japanese forces on the Tiddim Road in Burma.
The citation for his VC stated that he had “dominated the fight” with “his outstanding example, doubtless courage and superb leadership … Covered in blood from his own wounds, he led assault after assault”. In total there were 2,500,000 Indian people in uniform during the conflict.
Approximately 6,000 men and women from the Caribbean served with the RAF during the Second World War. Some 300 or so West Indians served as RAF aircrew, and around 90 men received decorations. This included seven Distinguished Service Orders (DSO), and 64 DFCs.
Probably the most decorated was Squadron Leader Ulric Cross (pictured left), who was awarded both the DSO and the DFC.
The citation for the latter notes his “exceptional navigational ability” and the “very large number of sorties” he had flown “against heavily defended targets” in Germany.
Sam King served with the RAF. He returned to Britain on the Empire Windrush and became the first black mayor of Southwark. He was later awarded an MBE.
Some 520 men came from the Caribbean colonies to work, mainly in munitions factories in the northwest. About 80 West Indian women, initially only white women, were recruited for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
By December 1944 around 5,000 black Africans were enlisted in the West African Air Corps as RAF ground crew. A very small number served as aircrew with the RAF. Tens of thousands served in supporting roles such as in the medical corps or as anti-aircraft crew, as well as in construction and other vital war work.
Some 372,500 African troops fought in East Africa and Burma, helping to defeat the Japanese.
Non-white, non-British people also made a significant non-military contribution to keeping Britain going in the fight against Nazi tyranny. Approximately 15,000 colonial merchant seamen brought vital food and raw materials to Britain and transported war material to various battlefronts. Five thousand of them perished. Some are buried in Commonwealth War Graves as far away as Murmansk.
One of the most famous agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which fought behind enemy lines, was Noor Inyat Khan (pictured right), an Indian Muslim princess who worked as a radio operator with the French Resistance. Betrayed by an informer and arrested by the Gestapo, Khan refused to talk. After being tortured and beaten, she was executed by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp in 1944.
The sacrifice made by many of these troops who helped to restore democracy in Europe was all the greater when one considers that many had no desire to return to the status quo ante, in which their countries were colonies denied self-determination.
Even when independence was granted to these countries after 1945 many of their citizens continued to serve loyally in the British armed forces, producing heroes such as SAS Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba from Fiji, who was killed fighting in Oman in 1972 at the Battle of Mirbat, and Private Johnson Beharry, who received the VC (the first awarded since 1982 and the first non-posthumous award of the medal since 1965) for his bravery in helping fellow soldiers in Iraq.
During the 1960s an unofficial quota limited the number of ethnic minority personnel serving in the Army to a maximum of 3%. Today, however, ethnic minorities comprise 5.6% of the armed forces and 2.9% of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Civil Service.
Ethnic minorities and people from the British Empire, later the Commonwealth, have a long and illustrious history of service in the British armed forces, to which they have made a vital and often unsung contribution. The British National Party aspires quite literally to whitewash this history, dismissing the notion that such troops, even if they were born here, are “British”. Indeed such is the BNP’s contempt for the contribution of these troops that Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, even dismissed the Gurkhas, the feared Nepalese fighters who have fought for Britain for generations, as nothing more than “mercenaries”.
The BNP even had the temerity to claim that Johnson Beharry (pictured left) only received his VC because he was black, and further defamed him and his bravery by stating that he was an “immigrant” who had merely driven away from the scene of a battle, implying that he was a coward.
You may also like to read We Were There
The “We Were There” exhibition is on people rather than events. It celebrates personal commitment and professionalism regardless of religion, race, gender or social background.