The Great War and Empire

‘When all these circumstances are taken into consideration it will be found that the Negro...played a part in the war quite proportionate to their opportunities and means, and actually would have done much more to help the Allies against the Central Powers had they not been restrained for one reason and another by their white guardians, advisers or administrators.’  (The Black Man's Part in the War, Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, 1917)

The Great War totally transformed the black community in Liverpool and beyond. Prior to the war black workers were overwhelmingly poverty-stricken, employed in casual and transient labour, and subject to discrimination and low pay. Outside the dockside area where the black community resided, there existed a great deal of racial hostility. The outbreak of war brought changes in their employment prospects. Black workers were welcomed in order to support the war effort and many were given better paid work in munitions factories. Black seafarers replaced those white seamen who had gone to serve in the Navy. Well over 2,000 black men were killed at sea and hundreds injured in attacks by German U-boats.

Black servicemen who enlisted in the army were initially employed in menial non-combative, but highly dangerous roles. But as the war progressed and the massive death toll increased, black servicemen were increasingly employed in trench warfare. They were also needed as cannon-fodder, and specialist regiments of West Indians fought in Africa and on the Western Front in France and often suffered heavy casualties. Major problems of discrimination were to be found in the practical application of army regulations in an environment where stereotypes of race and class were prevalent.

The war effort required Britain to draw upon support from its colonies, and several members of black regiments were decorated for heroism and bravery. Many wounded and maimed black soldiers were brought back to Britain for medical treatment. At the end of the war many black soldiers were de-mobilised in Britain.

While relations between black soldiers and white British soldiers were generally good, tensions arose between white soldiers from the US and South African soldiers and Black soldiers. In Liverpool this tension between blacks and South Africans spilled over into pitched battles between wounded servicemen in Belmont Road military hospital. In a pre-cursor to later instances of ‘stop and search’, black servicemen were regularly harassed by Police on the pretext of demanding to see their papers.

The trade union movement, which had already campaigned against the use of Asian labour in the shipping industry, raised fresh concerns about the introduction of black labour into Britain. Will Thorne, leader of the Municipal Workers' Union and a Labour MP, asked the Secretary of State for War to postpone the use of black labourers on the Western Front. In December 1916, the Miners' Federation, the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers' Federation passed a joint resolution opposing ‘the sinister movement to import coloured labour into this country'.

Before the war Liverpool’s black population was estimated at around 3,000. By the end of the war Britain’s black population was not only significantly bigger than ever before but included seasoned fighting men who were trained to defend themselves and had a new confidence borne out of their contribution to the war effort and their expectation that they would assert their rights. Towards the end of the war black soldiers had protested and mutinied over issues of discrimination and unfavourable treatment, including the denial of a pay rise that had been afforded to white troops. Therefore, though facing poverty, destitution and unemployment when the war ended, these men were not going to accept their fate quietly.