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Remembered: the soldiers who fought for a foreign empire

I am now based in the US and it’s Memorial Day tomorrow, which commemorates those who served with the US armed forces. This reminded me of this piece I wrote for the Guardian some years ago about those who came from thousands of miles away to fight for a different country – for Britain in the first and second world wars from its then-empire in the Caribbean and India. They faced discrimination and prejudice but saw it as their duty to sacrifice everything. You can still find it on the Guardian but without photographer Elin Hoyland’s amazing pictures – which she has allowed me to reproduce here. I’m still really proud of this piece – and I hope their stories are never forgotten. Below are some extracts from the original piece

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George Blackman (died in March 2003)
4th Battalion, British West Indies Regiment, 1914-1919

George Blackman, aged 105, from Barbados. Photo by Elin Høyland

George Blackman, aged 105, from Barbados. Photo by Elin Høyland

George Blackman leaps up, brandishing his walking stick. “Like this,” he breathes, imitating the thrust of a bayonet. “Like that,” he says, mimicking the butt of the rifle. “I still got the action. I’m old now, but I still got the action.”

George is 105. When he was born in Barbados in 1897, Queen Victoria was on the throne and two-thirds of the world was coloured pink.

He points to a scar above his left eyebrow. “That is a bayonet cut on the eye.” He touches his hands. “This is from the blow of the rifle butt.”

George is almost certainly the last man alive of the force of 15,000 who rushed from the beauty of the Caribbean to the mud and gore of Flanders and the Somme to defend king and country during the first world war. His old comrades are all gone now – the last, Jamaican soldier Eugent Clarke, died earlier this year at 108. When Blackman goes, that will be it.

This bitterness has been growing deeper over the years. There was a time when he would have done anything for the mother country. In 1914, in a flush of youth and patriotism, he told the recruiting officer he was 18 – he was actually 17 – and joined the British West Indies Regiment. “Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world. We sang songs, ‘Run Kaiser William, run for your life, boy’.” He closes his eyes as he sings, and then keeps them closed for the rest of our interview.

“We wanted to go. Because the island government told us that the king said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us.”

Enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said that young men from the islands should fight with the British in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals. The islands donated £60m in today’s money to the war effort – cash they could ill afford.

While Kitchener’s private attitude was that black soldiers should never be allowed at the front alongside white soldiers, the enormous losses – and the interference of King George V – made it inevitable. Although Indian soldiers had been briefly in the trenches in 1914 and 1915, Caribbean troops did not arrive until 1915.

The journey to Europe was perilous – hundreds of soldiers from Jamaica succumbed to severe frostbite when their troopship was diverted via Halifax in Canada. Their winter uniforms were left locked up while they froze in thin summer clothes.

When they arrived, they often found that fighting was to be done by white soldiers only – black soldiers were assigned the dirty and dangerous jobs of loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Conditions were appalling. Blackman rolls up his sleeve to show me his armpit. “It was cold. And everywhere there were white lice. We had to shave the hair there because the lice grow there. All our socks were full of white lice.”

“They called us darkies,” he says, recalling the casual racism of the time. “But when the battle starts, it didn’t make a difference. We were all the same. When you’re there, you don’t care about anything. Every man there is under the rifle.”

He remembers one attack with particular clarity. “The Tommies said, ‘Darkie, let them have it.’ I made the order: ‘Bayonets, fix,’ and then ‘B company, fire.’ You know what it is to go and fight somebody hand to hand? You need plenty nerves. They come at you with the bayonet. He pushes at me, I push at he. You push that bayonet in there and hit with the butt of the gun – if he is dead he is dead, if he live he live.”

The West Indies Regiment experienced racism from the Germans as well as the British. “The Tommies, they brought up some German prisoners and these prisoners were spitting on their hands and wiping on their faces, to say we were painted black,” says Blackman.

He didn’t make friends. “Don’t have no friend. A soldier don’t got friends. Know why? You believe that you are dead now. Your friend is this: the gun. That is your friend.”

 “When the war finish, there was nothing,” says Blackman. “I had to come and look for work. The only thing that we had is the clothes and the uniform that we got on. The pants, the jacket and the shirt and the boots. You can’t come home naked.

“When we got home, if you got a mother or father you have something, but if you’re alone, you got to look for work. When I come I had nobody. I had to look for work. I had to eat and buy clothes. Who going to give me clothes? I didn’t have a father or nobody. Now I said, ‘The English are no good.’ I went to Jamaica and I meet up some soldiers and I asked them, ‘Here boy, what the government give you?’ They said, ‘The government give us nothing.’ I said, ‘We just the same.'”

“England don’t have anything to do with me now. England turned me over.” He opens his eyes – they are almost blue. “Barbadians rule Barbados now.”

Mahinder Singh Pujji, age 84 (died in 2010 – see this video here)
Squadron leader, Royal Air Force

Major Mahinder Singh Pujji, aged 84. Squadron leader, Royal Air force. Soldiers of the empire. Photo by Elin Høyland

Major Mahinder Singh Pujji, aged 84. Squadron leader, Royal Air force. Soldiers of the empire. Photo by Elin Høyland

Mahinder Singh Pujji is one of the 2.5 million Indians who left their homes during the second world war to fight for a country they regarded as the motherland. Many ended up giving their lives for Britain, but the sacrifice they made barely registered in either Britain or India.

Pujji is 84 and lives in a neat flat in sheltered accommodation in Gravesend, Kent. Ramrod-straight, he greets us in RAF tie. He is a product of empire – his father was a senior officer in the colonial administration. Born in Simla at the end of the first war, he remembers growing up in the Raj as a “wonderful time”.

“It’s very difficult for you to understand,” he says. “Today, we say India or England, but then it was just one.”

He was among 24 Indians accepted immediately for training and to develop “the manners that are required of a commissioned officer”. It was August 1940 – the height of the Battle of Britain. “We were all experienced pilots. Among us were very famous Indian pilots. They were the pioneers who had flown solo flights from India to London and created records.

“I was very happy. My salary doubled and in one month’s time I was on the boat to London. As officers, we were entitled to first class. I had a cabin of my own and I thought, ‘This is worth taking any risk.'” He was just 22.

Even in training, Pujji insisted that he be allowed to fly with his turban, unlike many other Sikh flyers – and he is probably the only fighter pilot to have done so. “I thought I was a very religious man, I shouldn’t take off my turban. The British people were so nice and accommodating. They respected that. I had a special strap made to hold my earphones. I used to carry a spare turban with me so I would have one if I got shot down.”

“Everybody was lovely and wonderful. In the evenings we would have VIP treatment. They wouldn’t let us pay for tickets in the cinema and in restaurants we got sugar [which was rationed]. People saluted me and called me sir.”

During the Blitz, bombers attacked London every night. “I was impressed with the courage of the English people – there was no panic. I used to watch movies – the screen would go blank for the air-raid warning. People were told, ‘If you would like to go to the shelters, please make your way out now,’ and nobody would get up. I was really amazed at how brave these people were.”

Pujji trained to fly Hurricanes, less glamorous than a Spitfire but loved by their pilots for their manoeuverability and heavy-calibre weapons. “Inside a fighter plane it’s very cramped – there’s not much room for movement. There’s a big panel in front of you. There’s an oxygen mask – you are not used to it. It irritated me and I would often fly with it off.”

Of the 24 pilots who came over from India, eight were considered suitable for fighters, including Pujji. The odds against survival were high. “Among these fighters, six were killed in the first year I was here.”

“The squadron split up. Very soon I was alone. I looked in the mirror and saw German fighters. The Messerschmitts were very fast, but the Hurricane could turn a tight circle. Either they hit us straight away or just missed us. It was thrilling – maybe I am an exception, but I was not scared.”

The increasing casualty rates hit his squadron hard – two or three pilots would disappear every day. And every day, the group captain would come in and ask for volunteers for the day’s operation. “I could see how brave these young pilots were. Everybody would raise their hand. They knew they would not all come back. Every evening, there would be two or three less people at dinner. But by breakfast, they would be replaced, and so it went on.”

Pujji almost became a casualty himself several times. On one occasion his badly shot-up Hurricane nearly crashed into the English Channel, and Pujji was advised to ditch in the sea by the “nice English girls” in the control room. “But I couldn’t swim, you see. I carried on until I saw the white cliffs of Dover and I thought, ‘I’ll make it.’ The aircraft was a total wreck – I was dragged out and I heard voices saying, ‘He’s still alive, he’s still alive.’ Because my eyes were closed I couldn’t see. The padding of my turban saved me – it was full of blood. I was taken to the hospital but after seven days I was back to flying again.”

After hundreds of missions, he was posted to the north African desert, and then to India, fighting rebels on the Afghan border. Posted to Burma, he ended up in one of the fiercest conflicts of the war. Flying in a reconnaissance squadron, Pujji’s task was to search for and attack Japanese troops. “I saw a small column. I would be flying very low and they would hide. I would go up so they would come out again and dive back and open all my guns,” he says. “It happened very often. I felt elated. Now I feel very bad when I think about it. I was very cruel. I am responsible for killing many Japanese.”

“Now, the man in the street thinks every Indian is illiterate. Once I was driving in town and I had to pick my wife up – it was a double yellow line. And this young policeman started shouting at me, as if I was stupid. Then I saw him across the road with a white driver being very polite. I didn’t want to tell him I was an officer – he would have saluted me during the war.

“This is not the England I knew – but maybe if my story is told, then people will remember us and what we have done.”

 

Allan Wilmot, age 77 
Royal Navy, Royal Air Force

Allan Wilmot, aged 77, from Jamaica. Royal Navy, Royal Air Force.  Photo by Elin Høyland

Allan Wilmot, aged 77, from Jamaica. Royal Navy, Royal Air Force. Photo by Elin Høyland

It was 1941 when Allan Wilmot enlisted in the Royal Navy – he was forced to lie about his age to get in. “I was 16 and they wanted men – so when men are wanted, they turn a blind eye. We Jamaicans were pro-British. We felt British. When war broke out, it was a case of the mother country’s in trouble and needs your help. And help was given, without a second thought.”

The Caribbean was a hazardous place for the vital shipping which plied its way to England with supplies and motor oil via the Panama canal. Wilmot found himself on a mine-sweeper on convoy escort duty, picking up survivors as cargo vessels were torpedoed in front of them. One of a dozen Jamaicans on board, he says racial distinctions quickly blurred. “On a small ship you become a family. You depend on each other – you’re all brothers. There’s no room for discrimination – in three minutes you could be at the bottom of the sea. Being the youngest one, I was more or less a mascot.”

In 1943, he enlisted with the RAF for motor boat duty, which involved picking up ditched airmen and laying flight paths for flying boats. He soon found himself in England. At first, the welcome was complete. “When we landed at Liverpool, an air vice-marshal came to meet us. He said, ‘Thank you very much chaps, for coming to help us.’ That didn’t last. After the war it was, ‘Thank you very much. Goodbye.’ The English were very, very curious about us. In Jamaica, we knew everything about the British empire. But over here, they knew absolutely nothing. Once your face is black, you must come from Africa. We said, ‘We are from Jamaica,’ and they would say, ‘What part of Africa is that?’At first we thought they were taking the mickey when they asked us, ‘Where did you learn to speak English?’ or ‘Did you live in trees?’ They didn’t have a clue.”

After the war, Wilmot was turned down for the merchant navy and headed back to Jamaica. “There were no victory parades, no preparations made. The British government thought it was up to the Jamaicans, the Jamaicans thought it was up to the British.”

After a brief period as a customs officer, he returned to England in an old troopship with other ex-servicemen. He became one of the first six black postmen in Britain. “When we were out on collections, the crowd used to gather, just to see us.”

Chanan Dhillon, age 79
Colonel, Indian Engineers

Colonel Chanan Dhillon. Photo by Elin Høyland

Colonel Chanan Dhillon. Photo by Elin Høyland

Chanan Dhillon grew up in a small village in the Ludhiana region of India in the 1930s. “I came up to this rank [thanks to] British officers who liked me because of my talent as a hockey player. I will always remember one Captain Radcliffe-Smith. In one of our hockey tournaments, we had a hailstorm and we got drenched. I was not carrying a coat or anything – we were village boys – he came and put his coat over me. Within six months he recommended me for an officer commission.”

At the outbreak of war, Indian regiments were immediately mobilised. Dhillon’s sappers were sent on a grand tour of the British empire – they first marched through what is now Iraq, before going through Iran to North Africa.

“We heard that there was a big battle at Tobruk. We reached Al Dhaba airfield and then Marsamatru, the last line of defence.”

Tobruk was a disaster for the British, with Rommel’s army advancing rapidly through the desert. “By the time we reached there, our column had already started retreating. We had to defend the line – we had a ring around us. Our armoured force couldn’t hold there.

“We started retreating at midnight – we could see the German convoys. We went into the desert so that we could cut through the ring surrounding us. We were under attack all night and trying to fight our way through. They had motorcyclists armed and were driving at us. By daybreak, one of our vehicles was hit – all the soldiers died.”

His soldiers were forced to surrender and were taken on a troopship towards Italy. But then, a torpedo struck the boat 40 miles from the Sicilian coast. “Our ship went down within 20 minutes,” he says. “There was panic – people didn’t know what to do. The Italian guards had lifejackets, we had none. When the captain ordered them to get off the ship, we fought hand-to-hand for those life jackets.”

Surrounded by the drowning and the wreckage of the boat, Dhillon was pulled from the sea by German sailors. “When a ship drowns, the sea becomes very furious. I always thought I would die, but I was still striving to live.”

He was taken to an Italian prisoner of war camp. The relaxed atmosphere of British, Australian and Indian prisoners was conducive to one thought: escape. “We could socialise in the evening – and we would plan what to do. We wanted to escape and we were engineers. The British were very enterprising. They started a tunnel.” Digging the tunnel gradually, night by night, they broke through.

“One day, 40 prisoners escaped and I was one of them. It was bad luck – with our turbans, we couldn’t be mistaken for Italians. I was arrested again and put in a cell for 14 days. It was a very harsh punishment.”

That could have been the end of Dhillon’s war. But it was 1942, and the Italians were about to capitulate. Dhillon and his fellow Indian prisoners were taken to a camp in Germany, Limburg, near Frankfurt. Dhillon was put in charge of the now-segregated camp’s Indian soldiers, organising activities and welfare for the prisoners. He says the German authorities respected the Geneva convention, even if the soldiers didn’t. “One of my NCOs was told to unload munitions. He refused to do it because I had told him only to do work not related to war effort. A German threw a grenade at them, killing them all.

“I demanded to see the site straight away. Five prisoners had died. They were all Indian. The guards were arrested – and court martialled.”

“A country or a nation should be grateful to a soldier – a soldier should be treated as a special human being.”

Weerawarnasuriya Patadendige Jinadasa Silva, age 91 
Major, Ceylon Light Infantry

Major Weerawarnasuriya Patadendige Jinadasa Silva. Photo by Elin Høyland

Major Weerawarnasuriya Patadendige Jinadasa Silva. Photo by Elin Høyland

‘I had a boarding school education, read the Boy’s Own paper, and I read Shakespeare,” declares “WPJ” Silva. “Of course we felt English. Particularly going to boarding school. We knew more about English history than our country’s history. It’s not the best thing, but that’s how we were.”

Born into a well-off family in what was then Ceylon, Silva fell into the army by accident. “It was through another member of the club I went to,” he says. Prewar Ceylon had only a part-time army; Silva joined as a territorial in 1936, although he remained determined to pursue a civilised career in the civil service. “We had to be ready. We had training after office hours in barracks. Once a year we had a camp in the hill station where all the others from the whole country came. It was very hard working but very jolly.” Witty, urbane and intelligent, it’s easy now to imagine the 91-year-old veteran in the role of British officer – the “W” in his initials was assumed by the English officers to stand for William, so he became universally known as “Willie”.

It wasn’t until the fall of Singapore in 1942 that Ceylon was truly under threat. Silva still recalls the sight of wounded British soldiers straggling into Colombo. “They got there whatever way they could. They lost their arms and uniforms. They lost their clothing – everything. It was sad to see them in that shape. For some weeks, they were walking about dazed, poor chaps. How they escaped I don’t know.”

Suddenly in the front line, and a harbour for British battleships, attack by the Japanese was inevitable. Willie Silva was put in charge of the defence of Trincomalee harbour, one of the largest natural harbours in the world. “It was the Clapham Junction of the east,” says Silva. “Ships had come through the Suez canal or South Africa. Most of them had to go to Colombo for refuelling, for loading and unloading. Ceylon was a centrepoint, and the defence of it was very important. I remember seeing the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary both berthed side by side there – a very rare sight. The harbour was so enormous, they didn’t look big at all.”

When the air assault finally came, it was nearly catastrophic. British ships were sunk and Silva’s troops, protecting the camouflaged guns on the hillside, had to hide in slit trenches under orders not to reveal their positions. “I lived purely by accident, purely by that chance,” he says. “There were tons of planes over the harbour and we could even see the Jap faces with their goggles. Two of my men were injured during that raid – they were too fat to get to the slit trenches. They caught a splinter and shrapnel, but instead of feeling sorry for them, you couldn’t help laughing.”

But clever intelligence had done its trick – the Japanese believed the harbour was much better protected than it was and never again attempted a full-frontal assault.

Progressing through the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant, he eventually became a military intelligence officer, preparing briefings for the army’s senior commanders in the area. It was a reluctant Willie that took up this role, because he didn’t want to work directly under the British. “My feeling as a proud Sri Lankan was very British but we also have our own tradition. We have a written history of 2,500 years, unbroken. When you were a Roman colony, we were an important country,” he says. “But then I went, and I loved it – I never looked back from then. I was the only Sri Lankan out of 70 officers. Was I treated as an equal? Absolutely – I liked them, they liked me and we got on very well.”

 “My street is very quiet, very nice,” he says. “I like it here. I even married an Englishwoman. It’s quite natural for me to live here, feeling English, and not feel a foreigner at all.”

· To contact the British Commonwealth ex-services league, write to: 48 Pall Mall London SW1Y 5JG. The West Indian ex-servicemen and servicewomen association is based at 165 Clapham Manor Street London SW4 6DB. For information on the Memorial Gates Trust, email:srenton@mgt.demon.co.uk. Squadron leader Pujji talks about his experiences at: guardian.co.uk/audio.

About Simon Rogers

Data journalist, writer, speaker. Author of 'Facts are Sacred', from Faber & Faber and a new range of infographics for children books from Candlewick. Edited and launched the Guardian Datablog. Now works for Google in California as Data Editor

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