On Black British Soldiers

Black British Soldiers in the British Army

Black Presence often comes across details of black soldiers either through searches in libraries or by searching online. I’m also a member of several black history email groups.  The article below is extracted from an email by Professor Jeff Green. Who writes books on the Black Presence in Britain. The Black soldiers in the picture below are from the British West Indies Regiment, they served in France in WW1.

British West India Regiment
British West Indies Regiment

We know that soldiers in what be could termed “ethnic” formations served in Europe in the 1914-1918 war: including the West India Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment, labour battalions, regiments from British India, and that individuals served in mainstream British regiments.

The “ethnic” formations reveal, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s on-line listings of war cemeteries, that Mehr Khan died in Belgium in October 1914, Tek Singh in Belgium in April 1915 and Hardit Singh also in Belgium in November 1917. South African Labour Corps member George Balapile is commemorated in France where he died in April 1917, and Koos Cloete aged 18 is also commemorated in a French military cemetery, for he died in December 1917.

When a veteran or his family achieved fame, there are mentions of war service, such as Lionel Fitzherbert Turpin of British Guiana (Guyana) who served in a British regiment and settled in postwar Leamington – his son Randolph Turpin (1928-1966) was to be the world middleweight boxing champion.

Black Soldiers fought at the Somme

Black soldier British Army
Black Soldier, British Army


Photographs of groups of soldiers sometimes include black individuals, such as in the group of invalids shown on the paperback cover of Philip Hoare’s Spike Island. The Memory of a Military Hospital (Fourth Estate, 2002).

Peter Hart in his 1918, A Very British Victory (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008) page 356 quotes from the Imperial War Museum’s interview with Second Lieutenant William Tobey, of the 16th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers recalling early August 1918: a corporal had been injured and he called for three volunteers to go forward towards the Germans and collect the corporal under covering fire. “Three men stepped forward, one of which was the only black man in the battalion”.

As with those photographs, the identity of this man is unknown.

And if you look at film of British soldiers in Dublin in Easter, 1916, quelling the uprising that eventually led to Irish independence, a column of infantrymen marches towards the viewer and the post office – surely the man nearest the camera is black – it seems this was a Staffordshire regiment.

Unlike “ethnic” formations, the presence of these individuals raises quite a number of questions.

Jeff Green


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