Friday, July 01, 2016

Remembering the Somme

African American soldiers in WWI
Today marks the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Growing up in the States, I didn’t know much about the First World War. I had never heard the names of the great battles such as Verdun, Gallipoli, Passchendaele and, of course, The Somme. I learned a lot of detailed information when I moved to the UK.

This information was not taught when I was in school in the States, probably because we did not enter the war until 1917. So we missed out on The Somme, although our men experienced the final two years of the conflict.

Black nurses at Camp Grant WWI
World War I is remembered for the senseless slaughter of the combatants. The battle of The Somme went on for 141 days and saw the deaths of a million soldiers on all sides of the conflict. Young men were sent to their deaths by generals who either were incompetent or just did not care about the lives being squandered – or possibly both.

World War I was a new kind of war, relying on trench warfare and heavy artillery. The doctors and nurses who treated the wounded saw types of wounds they had never witnessed before. And the killing was on a scale that had never occurred before.

It is important that we remember The Somme and the men and women who gave their lives during the war. Many of them came from Africa, the Caribbean and India.

I was not aware of the horrendous conditions in which Black soldiers who served in the British Army lived. For example, in France, the African Caribbean soldiers in the British Army slept in unheated tents, while captured German enemy soldiers were given heated accommodation in barracks. For more about this, see Black People in the First World War. Many men joined up in the naive belief that serving in the army, and "proving themselves" would lead to them experiencing less racism and racial discrimination at home.  

World War One was meant to be the war to end wars, but if we look at the conflicts in places such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria today, it is clear that war is still alive and well.

Much of the fighting took place on the African continent, and some of the conflicts taking place in Africa over the past two decades have their origins in the First World War. So is much of the poverty and deprivation still being suffered by people in Africa today. For more about this, see Black People in the First World War.

I was aware that the First World War ushered in a period of great change for many African Americans. Many of the men who had served in the war and experienced being treated as equals – for example, being allowed to sit and drink in cafés in France, something we all take for granted today – returned home to the States expecting and demanding equal treatment. This was one factor that contributed to the epidemic of lynchings in the South that began in 1919 and, of course, led to many African Americans migrating North. So the First World War had a huge impact on the lives of Black people all over the world.

I have a lifelong commitment to nonviolence. We must end violence and put an end to these conflicts that are still destroying the lives of millions today. 

The images above were taken from World War I and the African American experience.   

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