Discrimination, Racism and War

Deep Rooted Racism

Phil Vasili puts this well in his blog entitled The British Army, the First World War, enlistment, conscription and ‘race’

‘Not of Pure European Descent’

The policy of restricting entry of men of colour into the British Army in the First World War, as outlined in the 1914 Manual of Military Law, was a legacy of debates within the Establishment during the latter half of the 19th century over the desired ethnic composition of the armed forces.

General Wolseley, who was to receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge for overseeing ‘the most horrible war I ever took part in’ (Britain’s imperial conquest of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, 1873-4), argued that Africans were intended to be White men’s slaves.

The Negroes are like so many monkeys; they are a lazy good-for-nothing race.

At the War Office, he pleaded in 1886:

let us keep our British Regiments strictly British…If ever we begin to fill our ranks with alien races our downfall will most surely follow.

These deeply racist views were held by people like Wolseley, Winston Churchill (as reported by the BBC in 2015) and the British establishment. At the time when war broke out in 1914, Britain had colonised nearly a quarter of the world’s land mass and held sway over 23% of the world’s population.

As Ibram X Kendi in his article How Racism Relies on Arbitrary Hierarchies, connects the the invention of ‘race’ to justify enslaving humans to accumulate wealth:

Until his death in 1460, Prince Henry sponsored Atlantic voyages to West Africa by the Portuguese, to circumvent Islamic slave traders, and in doing so created a different sort of slavery than had existed before…..

Prince Henry’s (1394 -1460 – Portugal) racist policy of slave trading came first—a cunning invention for the practical purpose of bypassing Muslim traders. After nearly two decades of slave trading, King Afonso (of Portugal) asked Gomes de Zurara (royal chronicler who wrote about Henry the Navigator, whom he admired) to defend the lucrative commerce in human lives, which he did through the construction of a Black race, an invented group upon which he hung racist ideas. This cause and effect—a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them—lingers over the life of racism. 

In 1660 King Charles II returned from exile in Europe in after the English Civil War. In the same year he set up with the City of London the Royal Africa Company to exploit the gold fields up the Gambia River. To finance wars, the King needed money. The Company went on to trade in human beings and to formalise the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Britain was responsible for about a quarter of the trade in the 12.8 enslaved Africans. Up to 2.4 million of them died during the voyage to the Americas.

White slave traders, white people who benefitted from slavery needed to justify trafficing in human beings, murder, cruelty, enslavement and forced labour. Racism, a process of dehumanisation, helped them salve their consciences, relieve them of the feelings brought on by the horrors they committed, justify their crimes. As the wealth built industies and cities across Europe, racism evolved into the wider predominantly white European societies, through the generations with a complex web of lies and misinformation backed up by racist Government policies.

Walter Tull

Walter Tull faced racism both on the football field and off. In 1917 he created history by becoming a lieutenant, despite military regulations forbidding ‘any Negro or person of colour’ from doing so.

As Vasili points out in The British Army, the First World War, enlistment, conscription and ‘race’:

In a letter to his brother Edward written from France, 10th August 1917, Tull ends with: ps am applying for a transfer to the B.W.I. (British West Indian Regiment) when the Batt. Come out tomorrow. 

Its place as a footnoted afterthought belies its significance: why would the recently commissioned 2nd Lieutenant want to switch regiments after serving two and half years with soldier comrades where each had relied on the other for their lives? It suggests that he was acutely conscious of his ‘otherness’ as a Black officer in a White Battalion; that he did indeed face a residue of hostility even among his brother footballers; and that he would have felt more at ease in a force that had as its uniting element the common experience of racism. It speaks to Tull’s political awakening that he felt his presence would be of more use and better received among those with whom he shared an ethnic and political affinity rather than a cultural and professional commonality. Marx would have termed being determining consciousness: the war effort needing men and these, through their actions, proving up to the task.

Phil Vasili continues:

The achievements of Walter Tull and his fellow men of colour in arms profoundly contradicted the prevailing view of the military and political elites, embodied by the Army Council and the War Office that people of colour were genetically and biologically inferior; that White soldiers would not willingly serve alongside or accept orders from soldiers and officers of colour; and that having soldiers of colour in regular British regiments would be bad for morale and discipline.

Tull and his band of brothers undermined all these notions. He was promoted four times; led missions into enemy territory; was commended by his divisional commander for his bravery and leadership; was recommended for a Military Cross; inspired those around him to break military law and subject themselves to court martial; and, most incredibly of all, motivated – while dead! – his men to put their lives at risk in order to try and retrieve his body for burial. Many other men of colour were given medals and mentioned in dispatches for their bravery.

The Giving and Receiving of Blood

As a direct result of Dr. Drew’s work in the preserving and storing of blood, many thousands, if not millions of lives were saved in the Second World War, in the early phase, the American authorities did not want white people receiving black Blood.

When the military issued a directive to the Red Cross that blood be typed according to the race of the donor, and that African American donors be refused, Drew was incensed. He denounced the policy as unscientific, stating that there was no evidence to support the claim that blood type differed according to race. His statements were later confirmed by other scientists, and the government eventually allowed African American volunteers to donate blood, although it was still segregated.

Acts of Prejudice

Although lots of women from the Caribbean put themselves forward for military service, at first neither the Americans, nor the British wanted to accept them.  In Britain the subject came before Parliament many times, before the authorities finally conceded.  

America brought over African American Red Cross nurses to tend to their black service men as many white American nurses did not want to do this.

Wherever they went US troops would try to impose a system of segregation similar to the one in operation in the US.

Reporting on the injustices encountered by people of colour, who had come to England to assist in the war effort, John Bull the political magazine of its day, summed up the situation when it stated, life wasn’t easy if you weren’t white.

Explaining that Colonial troops came to this country to help win the war, it went on to say, many are bitter because of the colour bar that still exists….They are shunned at service camps, banned from hotels and called intruders…

The editorial told the story of how, at one RAF station, just before a detachment of West Indian airmen was due to arrive, all the W.A.A.F’s on base were called together and told that, though they were to be polite to the coloured Colonials, they should on no account ‘fraternise’.

There was to be no sharing of tables with them in the N.A.A.F.I, or sitting beside them in the camp cinema. The West Indians were, in fact to be treated as pariahs in the community of the camp.

Disregard – Rudeness to Colonial service girls in this country is surprisingly common…A West Indian A.T.S. was refused a new issue of shoes by her officer, who added: ‘At home you don’t wear shoes anyway,’

In the summery it states, “Colour prejudice … still persists in the hearts and minds of many people in Britain”… Ending on the down cast note, the final sentence concludes; “and it may increase again as war memories fade”.

*Pariah – member of a low caste in S. India: social outcast

W.A.A.F – Women’s Auxiliary Air Force

A.T.S – Auxiliary Territorial Service 

The following books are recommended for those who want more information on Racism and the war.

‘West Indian women at war’, British Racism in WWII – by Ben Bousquet & Colin Douglas

When Jim Crow meet John Bull – By Graham Smith (Racism and how it affected Black American GI’s stationed in Britain)