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Celebration honours First World War soldiers

PRIDE: One of the standard bearers from the Why Are West Indians Project

“THEY ALSO served. We will remember them.”

The many thousands of African and Caribbean soldiers from the First World War whose stories have been largely ignored in the history books were indeed remembered during a special service in Birmingham to honour their lives and their sacrifice.

Those at the packed commemorative event danced and clapped, listened and sang during a two-hour tribute, which is the culmination of a lengthy research project into African and Caribbean contributions on the battlefield.

The Heritage Lottery funded project – managed by Churches Together in England and led by researcher Dr Angelina Osborne – throws a spotlight on the hidden histories of black soldiers.

Welcoming everyone to his church, Bishop Deverton Douglas, said: “Their stories have been told and the undocumented is being written down; the documented is now being published. Today we stand on the plinth that they built.”

But the overarching question during the service at the New Testament Church of God in Lozells, was why had they never been recognised until now?

It comes just days after the unveiling in London’s Windrush Square on June 22 of Britain’s first war memorial dedicated to black men and women who paid the ultimate price during both World Wars.

Operatic soprano Abigail Kelly

Keynote speaker at the Birmingham service Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Queen, who had attended the London memorial unveiling, said: “At the end of the ceremony doves were released and I had a sense of the spirits of those who died had been finally released and set free, being valued for the contribution they made.”

She said that those from the Caribbean and Africa had a responsibility “to write our own history, to educate ourselves and our children to rediscover who we are, where we have come from and where we want to go.”

She added that there was a real ignorance, which snubbed the contributions made by Africans and Caribbeans.

To applause, she said: “The blood that mingled on the battlefield can now not be collected and separated out. The earth has received it and bears witness to the gallant soldiers who gave their lives. We need to write our own story and not wait for others to do so, as it will never be done.”

While project leader Dr Osborne said: “It seems to me that in many ways our dead black soldiers who served in British and Colonial regiments have been restless. Their voices, long silent, clamouring to remind us of their service to Empire.

“Many people assumed that there were no African or Caribbean soldiers that served in World War One. I think the knowledge that they did serve causes a shift in their perceptions of what they thought about themselves and their ancestors.

She told of the 15,600 men who signed up from up to 14 Caribbean islands – the majority who volunteered – along with 55,000 combatants from Africa who fought alongside British troops.

“Another two million men, women and children acted as porters and auxiliary helpers. Without those people the war could not have been fought in Africa – they have also been forgotten,” she said.

Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, left, dances with Rev Canon Eve Pitts

“So why are there no monuments recognising this service in Britain? When I was younger, I assumed that no African or Caribbean men had served, as I never saw any of them on TV taking part in the regimental memorial service at the Cenotaph in London, like they do today.”

Dr Osborne explained how an obsession with “racial hierarchical structures” meant that black soldiers were not wanted, but in reality the Allied Forces were relying heavily on their colonial counterparts for manpower.

The Gold Coast Regiment, the King’s African Rifles, the Sierra Leone Regiment, the Nigeria Regiment and many more regiments were all made up of men were serving in east and west Africa.

“In fact, the first shot fired in World War One was on 7th August 1914 by an African Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment,” said Dr Osborne.

“There was a deliberate decision made by Government officials to exclude colonial troops, particularly in the victory parades of 1919.”

Songs were performed by operatic soprano Abigail Kelly, Brothers United in Christ, King Solomon International Business School Choir, and Aberdeen Street Gospel Choir. During the event dancer Sandra Golding had everyone on their feet clapping and dancing “to commemorate those who are the reason why we are standing here today.”

Poet Roy McFarlane read out verses from his work “Tell Them” which described how gas shells, bombs and bullets did not distinguish who they killed and maimed.
Rev Canon Eve Pitts, who along with Dr Joe Aldred, is part of the team supporting the project, led prayers for peace. Then service began and ended with standard bearers from the Why Are West Indians (WAWI) Project.

Everyone who attended was given a DVD, a “They Also Served” booklet and a black poppy rose badge which said: “We Will Remember.”

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