The officer who refused to lie about being black
Today it's taken for granted that people of all ethnic groups should be treated equally in the armed forces and elsewhere. However, during World War One black officers in the British armed forces faced a system with prejudice at its core.
When war was declared in 1914, a Jamaican, David Louis Clemetson, was among the first to volunteer.
A 20-year-old law student at Cambridge University when war broke out, Clemetson was eager to show that he and others from British colonies like Jamaica - where the conflict in Europe had been dismissed by some as a "white man's war" - were willing to fight and die for King and Country.
He did die. Just 52 days before the war ended, he was killed in action on the Western Front.
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50 years on, nothing much has changed. Black ex-servicemen still feel neglected by the military establishment and believe they are not afforded the same privileges and facilities as veterans from the white Commonwealth countries. Last year they felt snobbed at not being included in the D-Day Commemorations, and it has only been through a last-minute interventions from leading black figures, such as Bernie Grant, that has ensured invitations for the V.E.Day have been extended to the Gov. Gen. of Jamaica and the president of Trinidad.
The old black British soldiers have not been so lucky. Earlier this year and the West Indian ex-service men and women’s association was sent some forms inviting its members to apply for seating at the VE day commemorative events, but none has been successful. Unsurprisingly, the Association has decided to hold its own commemorative program. Since the vast majority of black and Asian veterans were fighting in the “Forgotten” war in Burma, Malaya and Africa, and most accounts of the war have been written from a Eurocentric perspective by white historians, there has been an inbuilt tendency to discount the contribution in their literature.
Yet, even in those books which focus on the campaigns in which black and Asian troops were involved, there has been a predisposition to be little better role. Colonel Ismail Khan who served with the Indian Army in Malaya has particularly strong feelings about this.
“There is always the sense that the Indian troops weren’t quite as good as the British, and the writers have tended to easy to ignore their efforts or to contend them by attacking their fighting spirit or exaggerating the desertions.”
For those children whose grandparents ER either dead or living overseas, the opportunities for learning even an oral history are extremely limited. Many black and Asian ex-servicemen now recognise that they have a responsibility to write their own history.
One institution firmly behind such moves is the Imperial War Museum. Anita Ballin: the museums education officer, says:
“There is material on the black war effort here at the moment, but you have to look pretty hard to find it, and many people have asked for more information.” In response to such requests the museum has assembled in multimedia resource pack entitled to gather for use in schools and which will also be available through public libraries. Ballin hopes that it is just the first step. “In time I would like the Museum to stage either a special exhibition or for more material to be included in the permanent displays.”
Such efforts are more than welcome, but the black and Asian ex-servicemen realise that it will take a great deal more to shift the underlying attitudes.
During the war, and black people were still a comparatively rare sight in this country, the racism they encountered was minimal, but that soon changed in the post war years. While the rest of Britain set about building a country fit for heroes, black people found that the country for which they had fought was denying them access to equal jobs and accommodation. “It seem as if no sooner had one to many and then another began,” says Laurent Phillpotts. “But just like the last war it’s a battle we are slowly winning.”