The image of the British Tommy is an iconic one, but doesn’t tell the full story

Black, Indian, Chinese, gay, mixed race – all fought for a country at a time when it treated them as second-class citizens.

Black, Indian, Chinese, gay, mixed race – all fought for a country at a time when it treated them as second-class citizens

Across both World Wars soldiers and civilians of all colours, creeds and sexualities served Britain. As we commemorate the centenary of the Great War, it’s time to highlight the shared sacrifice of those from across the Empire. We must rethink our image of those that served and died.

The image of the British Tommy in the trench is an iconic one, but it only tells a part of the story. The troops that fought for Britain 100 years ago in many ways reflect the country we have today – many of their descendants live amongst us.

Remembering the diversity of those who fought and died is not just good history; it acknowledges untold sacrifice and gives the place in our island’s history that these groups have been denied by omission.

By 1918, 573,000 Indians were volunteering to fight for Britain. 13,000 medals, including 12 Victoria crosses, were awarded for a force that lost 47,000 men.

The scale of their service was only eclipsed by the Indian contribution to the Second World War: 2.5 million men (amongst them Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) made up the largest volunteer army in the history of the world, fighting for the UK in its hour of need.

16,000 ‘Black Britishers’ from the West Indies volunteered to fight for Britain despite facing discrimination in Europe. Men like Lieutenant Commander Walter Tull, British born of Afro-Caribbean origin, fought and died for their country.

Indeed, many non-white soldiers were from the UK itself. England’s black community long predates the First World War and the high rates of intermarriage means that many descendants of the first Black Britons may never know of their mixed origins.

The huge military sacrifice aside, Britain could not have endured either World War without donations like the £2 milion raised in the West Indies, or the work of everyday people across the Empire who paid their taxes, and contributed directly and indirectly to the war effort. From food to munitions, Britain could not have survived alone.

Second World War heroes like Flight Lieutenant Ian Gleed fought for a country that criminalised his sexuality while Alan Turing cracked the codes that helped us win against Hitler. Wilfred Owen was not the only gay man in the trenches and we need to acknowledge the gay contribution to Britain’s survival in both wars.

Black, Indian, Chinese, gay, mixed race – all of these groups fought for a country at a time when it treated them as second-class citizens, yet they served nonetheless. When the first wave of Commonwealth immigrants arrived almost all were from families that in some way had helped ensure Britain’s survival – making organisations like the National Front trying to hijack Remembrance Sunday all the more perverse.

From the Indians recovering at the Royal Pavilion to the West Indian troops stationed in Seaford who took part in civic events – relationships were built that have subsequently been forgotten.

Racism and homophobia flourish if history is only seen through one particular prism. The iconic image of the white British Tommy was a reality and we shouldn’t try and replace him – but alongside him stood men of different races and men who loved men – all of them serving and sacrificing. Their stories deserve to be told too.

This is black history, it is gay history but it is also British history. The stories of the men from across the Empire, the mixed race man from Kent, the gay men in the trenches don’t belong to just one group – they are part of our shared history and should be told.

James Hallwood is chair of the Young Fabians. Follow him on Twitter

10 Responses to “The image of the British Tommy is an iconic one, but doesn’t tell the full story”

  1. Mike B

    This article is a welcome reminder of the complex diversity of the contributions made to the armed forces over the generations. On a different point I always remember an old gentleman who lived near my grandparents when I was young. He had a permanent crick in his neck which meant he had his head at an angle. This was the result of a bullet wound in WW1. In his case he had been in the Austo-Hungarian army. Despite his sacrifice some years later he had to flee for his life when Hitler took over. There has been a great exploitation of ordinary soldiers across Europe and the world. As is said ‘Less we forget’.

  2. Dave Roberts

    The only person who could write this crap is someone who has never been in the British Army. Mr Hallwood, it seems our claim to fame is that you are a member of the Young Fabians. You are talking crap. You have never been in anything, never mind an army, and have no idea of what you are talking about.

    The history of the Indians in the British army is well known and was known when I joined in 1961. I was under NCOs who had fought with colonial troops in the Western Desert, Italy and Cassino. You use the phrase “iconic”. I would use that to describe thousands of Italians surrendering to a few Sikh soldiers in Libya after other Italians had done the same to them in Ethiopia, there are photos and film. The British Army had and as the highest regard for those soldiers, sailors and airmen, something you, obviously, don’t know.

    As for gay men, they were called queers in those days and called themselves the same thing. As long as they soldiered well nobody cared.

    Former Lance Corporal Roberts. 23877661. What’s your number Mr Hallwood?

  3. James Hallwood

    Thanks for your measured and courteous response. My point was that that history should be more widely appreciated. My friends in the military certainly do understand and respect that, the general public, I suggest do not.

    You know nothing about me and have no idea what I have joined or not. Your angry and unmeasured response was a little over the top and all too common online these days.

  4. Jack

    I served in the military and I thought this was a very well written article. I’m not entirely sure what Mr Roberts is angry about…

  5. Guest

    What were you discharged for?

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