The opinions and experiences of rank-and-file soldiers and sailors are a tiny proportion of British wartime documentation. The officers and their friends and relatives wrote letters, kept diaries, published memoirs, and left a solid paper trail. The often semi-literate rankers, who outnumbered the officers, left little – a portrait photograph, a name on a memorial, a postcard, and some medals, perhaps.
It was through Frances Coakley that I learned of the file “Treatment of coloured men in the Army” from March 1916, in the National Archives in Kew, where half-a-dozen pages are in file CO 323/734/9.
The file opens with a neatly typed but undated letter to the Colonial Office in London, which was signed by six soldiers. It was a petition that “we may be transferred to munition work or some other work, useful to the Country at the present time, or discharged the service”. The men had left their “native land” in July 1915 and “offered ourselves and were accepted into the XXI Middlesex. This Regiment some months ago was sent to Aldershot and we with about ten other dark men were left behind and eventually sent to Northampton to the Reserve Battallion [sic] XXVIII Middlesex. Our life here is intolerable”.
Colleagues refused to associate with them – they would not share accommodation, and “householders do not want us” which led to a couple spending the night in the streets. “We are not wanted by our comrades”.
The soldiers of the Middlesex Regiment and the people of Northampton were unsympathetic to these black volunteers – the six who signed the petition were two from British Guiana [Guyana], one from Jamaica, two from West Africa, and one from Ceylon [Sri Lanka].
Middlesex has now been absorbed by Greater London, but it was the area from Brentford on the Thames north to Harrow and east across northern London. The regimental museum used to be in Tottenham. The 21st battalion was formed in May 1915 in Islington, also in north London. The 28th battalion also had been formed in 1915.
With the typed petition in front of them, officials at the Colonial Office wrote their comments in the file. They confused (as still happens) the venerable West India Regiment formed in 1795 and the British West Indies Regiment formed in late 1915. One official wrote “We tried to introduce Ceylonese into the W. I. Regt., at W. O. [War Office] suggestion, but the attempted failed: the Ceylonese wouldn’t stand it & the O. C. [Officer Commanding]., W. I. Regt., feared trouble from his men. I think it must be recognised that these men give more trouble than they are worth, & W. O. would really assist us by laying down a hard & fast rule that coloured men are not acceptable for British regiments … It is, I think clear that this petition is the working of some (possibly well-meaning) busy-body: its literary style is not that to be expected from the signatories”.
A more senior official noted “I have no doubt that the allegations are true. I see no reason why all the negroes should not go to the West Indians [serving] in Egypt”. And another commented “I am very sorry for these men”.
Private Donald Bruce, 15636, from Demerara, British Guiana was one signatory. His fellow Guianese was G. R. Ross. James Obie, G/15637 wrote that he was from Accra, Gold Coast [Ghana] and the other West African was Private W. Lynslanger. The Jamaican is not identified. The medal card for Obie at the National Archives suggests that he continued to serve and survived the war.
There may well be battalion photographs of the Middlesex Regiment showing some of these “dark men”. The absence of barrack accommodation (hence billets in private homes), the failure of the officers to stem the negative views of white soldiers, and the fact that Walter Tull, who clearly showed his African descent (his father was from Barbados) played football for Northampton Town from 1911, enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment in 1914, was a lance sergeant in the 17th battalion in 1916 and a second lieutenant in 1917, suggests that the boot-making town of Northampton deserves investigation.
Many thanks to Frances Coakley