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Tributes to 'hidden heroes' of World War One

LEADING FROM THE FRONT: Edmund Grandison, Leading Hand, HMS Forward

THE OFTEN hidden stories of the thousands of African and Caribbean soldiers who gave their lives to support Britain in the First World War were highlighted at a special event organised by community stalwart Erma Lewis.

‘A Hundred Years on . . . Gone but not Forgotten’ paid tribute to those who volunteered and even paid their own passage from the Caribbean to help the British war effort, with rarely the recognition they deserved.

But their sacrifices were remembered at the day-long event, hosted by Major Glenville Lindsay with a key contribution from the WAWI project, which stands for Why Are West Indians in this country.


It’s a unique Birmingham-based scheme which highlights the contribution made by black soldiers in both world wars, much of which has been whitewashed out of the history books.

Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Shafique Shah, who spoke at the Awards for All Lottery funded-event, said: “It’s essential that we remember all those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom we all enjoy today.”

But the racism some of them endured was also remembered: Wade Lyn, Jamaica’s Honorary Consul in Birmingham, spoke on behalf of High Commissioner Aloun Ndombet Assamba when he told of Jamaica’s future national hero and statesman Norman Washington Manley and his own experience of racism.

Being an Oxford University graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, Manley naturally expected to be enrolled as an officer in the British Army in 1914.

However, he and his brother were relegated to foot soldiers as there was a policy that did not allow non-white officers.

“This was the unfortunate lot of most of the West Indians who fought for the Mother Country in the Great War,” said Lyn. “This experience of British racism sparked Manley’s desire to secure independence for Jamaica.”

Mashuq Ally, equalities boss at Birmingham City Council said it was important not to forget that those who contributed to the war effort often did so as volunteers.

STANDARD BEARERS: Event organiser Erma Lewis, with from left, standard bearer ex RAF Warrant Officer Kenneth Straun, Lietenant Commander Robert Jaffier, and Lord Mayor of Birmingham Councillor Shafique Shah

While WAWI project organiser Sharon Vaughan told the story of the flag of the West India Regiment, which was disbanded in 1962, remains a ‘hidden history’ as its standard is stored within Buckingham Palace away from view.

WAWI, which was launched in 2009, has since had a replica made to bring this history to life.

“We go to schools, to education centres and events like these to carry this sacred symbol of sacrifice,” said Vaughan.

WAWI now has its own impressive army of ex-military personnel who volunteer to spread the word about African and Caribbean people’s involvement in both world wars.

Horace ‘H’ Barnes, WAWI founder, said: “The reason that West Indian people are in the country is that Britain called and we answered. We are not recognised and that is the problem. Many used their own money to come here.”

The Rev Canon Eve Pitts, told the event, held at The Venue in Edgbaston: “If we do not know who we are we will never be free – as a people we are doomed.”

And she stressed the need for everyone to know their history and to realise that there were Africans in Britain before the English, as soldiers in the Roman imperial army.

Former nurse Erma Lewis chairs the Jamaica Hospital Appeal Fund, which she founded in 1998 and since then has helped to raise more than £3 million in material aid for hospitals and orphanages in Jamaica and further afield.

In 2005 she staged a 60th anniversary celebration at Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens to mark the end of the Second World War.

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