At the beginning of this book, in the author’s note, he says that Black Poppies should not be read in isolation, so I started reading thinking I would have to refer to other books to understand it. As it happens I found the book quite able to stand alone and enjoyed it as such. Bourne has picked out individual stories in the First Part about soldiers in WW1. I found them quite fascinating, the more I read the more I wanted to read.
Did you know for instance that the first shot fired in WW1 was not in Europe or the Pacific but in Africa? The soldier was an African, Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment. It was on 12th August 1914 in the German Colony of Togoland. The first shot on the Western Front was fired by a white soldier Edward Thomas of 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards on 22nd August 1914. This was of particular interest to my husband as his father was on the Western Front at this time. Grunshi survived the war and was awarded the Military Cross for his part.

Cleo Laine also tells the story of her father’s part in the war. His name was Selvin Campbell.

I read with interest Norman Manley’s story, he came from a well educated family and joined the Royal Field Artillery, Deptford. The men came from this working class area of London, 70% from the East End, of whom he said “ he never met  the like”. He became so well respected among the men, that they called upon him to settle arguments.

Herbert Morris story was the most terrible. He joined the army at the age of 16 years of age. On 20th September 1917 just after his 17th birthday he was shot at dawn for desertion. The poor boy was clearly suffering from battle fatigue. On the 8th November 2006 he was pardoned along with 300 other soldiers.

Did you know there are war graves at West Derby here in Liverpool for the British West Indian Regiment?

Part Two, the Home Front, tells stories of several Black families who had settled in Britain. One story that caught my imagination was of a boy who came off a ship in Liverpool but found it too busy so went on another ship and got off at Truro. Although a seaman all his working life he married Elizabeth Vincent and had five sons. Some of his family still live there today. He was born in Ghana on 23rd December 1868 the son of James Sheshaboo Equaggo but was given the name John Cockle by his captain, when he learned to read and write he added his African family name.

I would love to have heard Mabel Mercer sing. She was born in England in 1900. She was educated in a convent and then joined her aunt’s family travelling singing troupe.  When her cousins were called to fight in the war she had to go out on her own and sing, later she emigrated to America. When she came to England again in 1977 she sang in Cabernet at Mayfair’s Playboy Club at the age of 77. Keith Howes, who saw her in 1977 wrote “ sitting straight backed in a chair, resembling a dignitary upon a throne, she held the room spellbound, no glitter , no glamour, just words and the music. How would I rate her? On just this one occasion with, and possibly above, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Cleo Laine and certainly above Diana Ross and Tina Turner all of whom I have seen live. Her articulation, her timing, her gravitas mixed with a teasing sense of fun. She was ageless, magnetic. No wonder Frank Sinatra saw her as a mentor. “

The Third Part covers the Race Riots in London, Cardiff and Liverpool. Ernest Marke tells his story of the war and the race riots in Liverpool. On one occasion he was walking along Lime Street towards the Adelphi Hotel with another boy when they were set upon by a crowd that were like a pack of wolves. A woman saved them, she opened her window telling them to go round the corner through the back alley and she opened the back gate and they waited for the crowd to pass, he was sure he would have been killed that time.

In Cardiff, Grange Town, the rioters were going into peoples’ homes and beating them, then smashing up the house and looting. Beatrice Headingly recalls it was her 9th birthday party a neighbour ran in and said “ you better hide him” pointing at her father. They got the father out and hid him in the lavatory, her mother was beaten. When the police came they said it was her mother’s fault for marrying a black man.

These are just snippets I have picked out. This book is a must as a starter into Black History. The stories are simply told and along with the pictures they have a real impact on the reader. Think of the face in the picture and the story of the face springs to mind, and because they are told more often than not by the men and women who lived through this time or their families the whole book comes to life.

It would be good if every school had a few copies on the library shelf. It could be an inspiration to young people and encourage them to read more widely about our British Black History.

Written by Margaret Millne –Great War to Race Riots Archive Group

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