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Black soldiers’ contribution still not recognised

REMEMBRANCE: Patrick Vernon OBE (left) with Scottish Rifle Regiment veteran Dick Gilmour at the commemoration service

WHILE IN Glasgow for the recent Commonwealth Games, I visited the Pilots of the Caribbean exhibition which was curated by Black Cultural Archives and the RAF Museum and also attended the special Commonwealth memorial WW1 service which was the official government commemoration event.

Prince Charles, Commonwealth heads of states along with leaders of the main political parties were present. It made sense for the event to take place in Glasgow as the city has been a great host for the Commonwealth Games. There must have been under a 1,000 people at Glasgow Cathedral for the commemoration service.

Sir Trevor McDonald played a key role almost like the anchorman working closely with the Reverend Dr Laurence Whitley who conducted the service. Various representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India made speeches or poems. However, no one from an African or Caribbean nation state spoke which again reflected the invisibility of our history and contribution unless the organisers thought that Trevor was our proxy for black representation.

The programme had details of all the speeches with interesting facts. Over six million served across the Commonwealth during WW1 with over 750,000 losing their lives and 1.6 million wounded. Out of this figure, over 1 million came from India served (Undivided India the term that is used) with 54,000 deaths but over 13,000 won medals including 11 Victoria Crosses. From the Caribbean, 15,000 soldiers from the West Indies Regiment (no information on British West Indies Regiment unless those figures are included) who saw action in France, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. Over 2500 were killed or wounded and 81 won medals for bravery whilst 49 were mentioned in dispatches.

From Africa over 60,000 served along hundreds of thousands who treated as labourers. Over 7,000 lost their lives and 166 received decorations for bravery. It was also great young people played a part in this event with one young girl reading a poem based on her experiences of going to the battle fields of Flanders.

However, I believe that the real pain and suffering endured by African, Caribbean and South Asian men and women still is not full recognised even taking in to account the hours of news stories and events throughout the country. The narratives of African Rifles Regiment, The West Indies Regiment and The British West Indies Regiment where the men were treated badly either during or after the war like my great uncle James Samuel (Palmer) Ruby who immigrated to US soon after the war and never came back to Jamaica after serving in North Africa.

After the service there was a reception for military personnel and guests to meet and network. I was hoping to see some of the heads of states from the Commonwealth especially from the Caribbean to find out the next steps around CARICOM’s legal action for reparations, but unfortunately they, along with the Prime Minster David Cameron, Prince Charles and others, were whisked away to another venue for their personal reception.

However, I did see Suzanne Bardgett from the Imperial War Museum and Gary Stewart from Recongize where we talked about Stephen Bourne’s new book Black Poppies. However it was meeting the veterans from the Cameronians Scottish Rifle Regiment who took me under their wing at the Cathedral. The Regiment was disbanded in 1986 but they still meet regularly and have a strong comradery. I am now adopted by them as a honorary member with a badge label too. I had a good chat with one of the veterans Dick Gilmour covering issues such as Scottish independence, cost of living, comparing the merits of rum and whisky, and his late wife.

The people of Glasgow were great and I hope Scotland stay in the union as Dick said we have our disagreements but ‘were stronger together.’

This message is also important on many levels in all our work on equality and social justice.

The work thus continues in mainstreaming of our history and contribution in the national narratives of war and conflict and to understand the legacy of this impact for current and future generations.

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