R. Costello. Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016. xiv + 216 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78138-018-5; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78138-019-2.
Reviewed by Paul Brenard Chiudza Banda (University of West Virginia)
Published on H-War (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Ray Costello’s aim is to acknowledge the roles that people of African descent played in the First World War. He complements earlier studies in the field, including those by Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa (2004) and Edward Paice, World War 1: The African Front (2010). As in these and other earlier works on this subject, the author begins his narrative by reminding the reader that as the two warring sides (the Allies and the Central Powers) began their hostilities in August 1914, the ramifications were felt far and wide, and that a significant number of those affected were peoples of African origin, in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.
Africans were drawn into the war as they were still living under the yoke of European rule. Costello highlights some key battles fought between Britain and Germany in West Africa (Togo and Cameroon) and in East Africa, especially in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and German West Africa (now Namibia). In West Africa, the troops were drawn from the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), while in East Africa they were from the Kings African Rifles (KAR). However, Costello claims in the introduction that this work will not be a revisionist one; rather, he intends to narrate the neglected story of black soldiers who were born and domiciled in the United Kingdom. It is that group of troops that he describes as “Black Tommies” (Tommy” was a nickname for British infantrymen, but is used in this book to refer to black soldiers of all ranks). Many of them had served in the British army, beginning with the recruitment of William Fletcher in September 1827. The major themes include the identification of the Black Tommies, the locations where they served, and what happened to them in the aftermath of the war. The evidence for this is drawn from a combination of family histories, private letters, newspaper cuttings, other archival documents, and some photographs.
Many of them allegedly voluntarily enlisted to fight in the war, either in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. They believed that their participation would help to end racial inequalities throughout the empire. However, their participation was not enough to conceal the racial discrimination in British society prevalent in the early twentieth century. As the ideology of scientific racism or social Darwinism and its insistence on racial hierarchy predominated the mind-sets of white Europeans, it was replicated in the British army, right from the recruitment phase and throughout the war. As “lesser subjects,” many of them had to undergo obligatory medical tests, were subjected to verbal abuse, and could not attain higher military ranks. They were treated in the same breath as “aliens” and “negroes.”
Although the author claims that this book is not aimed at narrating the involvement of black soldiers in the periphery, he finds himself extensively covering them (pp. 22 to 25, on black soldiers in British West Indies). The same applies to chapters 3 and 5, where we are told more about such regiments as the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), the West Indian Regiment (WIR), and the KAR from Nyasaland. Of the Black Tommies documented, 2nd Lt. Walter Tull stands out as the first black officer in the British army—he enlisted to fight in the war despite having a promising soccer career, having played for such teams as Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town.
At the end of the hostilities in 1918-19, some of the Black Tommies, as were other troops from Africa and the West Indies, were honored with medals, including the Victorian Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal. However, the Britain they returned to was still characterized by racial discrimination. The society associated Britishness with whiteness. Many black ex-servicemen were still regarded as aliens and had to compete for jobs with poor whites, while in the race riots of 1919, they also had their homes attacked and lodgings burned. Wounded black ex-servicemen were also poorly treated in hospitals. The black ex-servicemen and the other twenty thousand black people in Britain easily became the scapegoats for the country’s postwar socioeconomic hardships. While some were denied access to meaningful employment, some churches even restricted intermarriage. The agitation by poor whites and labor unions culminated in the enactment of the Aliens Order of 1920 and the Special Restriction (Colored Seamen) Order of 1925, both of which compelled British-born black men to carry identity cards.
The book has many strengths, notably the extensive utilization of archival sources and private family letters and images. It also helps to elucidate the operation of social Darwinism in British society and in the military. On the other hand, there are also some glaring shortfalls, notably that the narrative is male-dominated. The input of black women, either in the metropole or the periphery, has been neglected. While the empire and indeed the war were male-dominated domains or masculine enterprises, it is naïve to ignore the roles played by women. Another shortfall is Costello’s neglect of the issue of resistance by black men to military recruitment, both in the metropole and the periphery, which contributed to anticolonial rebellions, such as the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland, which he refers to on page 82. Despite these shortcomings, I would recommend this book to those interested in such fields as the British Empire, military history, and world history. They will find this book captivating.
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Paul Brenard Chiudza Banda. Review of Costello, R., Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War.
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