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Remembered Today:

Black soldiers in WW1 British Army

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  • 3 months later...

Hello all,

well what can i say,ive just read one of the most fascinating and heartwarming threads.

I would really like to thank all those who have contributed to this thread

This subject has often been overlooked,and not even given any thought in some history books.

We can only imagine the hardship and open racism faced by these men every day,as they tried to fit in and do their bit.

My partner is of West-indian decent and my Grandfather was Polish and captured by the Russians in sept 1939 and suffered terribly.

( i have his diary)

Thus i have allways been interested in the stories of a minority that are often overlooked.

I never harp on about rascism,just because my partner is black,but i really must say what i'm going to say.

I havent read any malice,slagging off,or unacceptable terms being used and i feel there has been a real concerted and respectfull effort put into this thread.

To be really honest i wouldnt have thought a thread of this content would be found here,but thats probly due to my own stereotypes of other people and i apologise for that.

Without threads of this kind,alot of us would never have known about these important details and accounts.

I'm sure most folk didnt realise they were black men serving during ww1.

What you have done here with this thread is total respect to the men and their families,and given a voice to an otherwise ignored part of OUR history we all share together.

I bow down in genuine respect,



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That is a great thread indeed Doug. Well worth reading.

It brings to mind that recent Programme by Ian Hislop which looked at 4 men from different parts of the empire who joined up.

One of the 4, a volunteer from the West Indies, has relatives living in the UK now. How many more families could there be out

there who don't know about or know only a little of their 'grandfathers' past. There's so much they could contribute to this part

of our history via the forum. And the Indian Army too. How many UK families must have links with those men too?

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Having noticed this thread once again, I searched the Net for Captain Isaac

(see my post #71) and found the following in "Harrow Memorials of the Great War":



Rifle Brigade

The Knoll 93'-98- Aged 35 May 9th, 1915

Third son of the late John Swinton Isaac (O.H.), D.L., Banker, of

Broughton Park, Worcester, and of Amy Alice, daughter of Major-General

R. H. Crofton, R.A. He was a member of the I. Zingari, Free Foresters,

and M.C.C., and played cricket for his Regiment and occasionally for his

County: he rode in various races, winning the Cairo Grand National in

1911, on a horse trained, and partly owned, by himself.

Captain Isaac was gazetted to the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1900,

and in June of that year joined his Regiment on active service in South

Africa. He was dangerously wounded at Nooitgedacht and received the

King's Medal and three clasps. On the disbanding of the 3rd Northumber-

land Fusiliers he was gazetted to the Rifle Brigade in 1908, and served

with them in Malta and Egypt. He left the Regiment in 1911, and went

to Vancouver, engaging in real estate. He hunted and shot on the Yukon

and played much polo in California. On the rumour of war Captain Isaac at

once started for England and rejoined his Regiment. In October, 1914, he

went to the Front as A.D.C. and Camp Commandant to Major-General

Sir T. Capper, commanding 7th Division. He was wounded at the

1st Battle of Ypres and received the D.S.O. for "conspicuous gallantry"

on that occasion, besides being twice mentioned in Despatches. He

returned to the Front in December, I914, but in the spring, after his

General was wounded, he resigned his appointment on the Staff and joined

the 2nd Battalion of his Regiment, reaching them three days before the

action on the Aubers-Fromelles Ridge, in which he fell, on May 9th, 1915.

He was notified as "missing, believed killed," but from information

received it is believed that he was wounded while leading his men, but

went on and finally reached the objective, being killed just afterwards.

General Sir T. Capper, K.C.M.G., commanding 7th Division, writes : —

"Johnnie is more to me than an A.D.C, a very dear friend and

companion ... he is a gallant soldier too. Sir H. Rawlinson writes to

me that he was last seen leading his men to the second assault with great

dash — a noble and gallant spirit."

The late Brigadier-General Walter Long wrote : —

" His courage was phenomenal, as his return to his Regiment affords

ample proof. Everyone who came in contact with him felt the better for

his presence — he really had a most wonderful personality. . . . His bravery

was really remarkable, and it was a bye-word in his Division; he performed

some wonderful deeds out here."

I find it remarkable that Captain Isaac seems to have escaped wider notice.

I also found it quite sad, if not entirely suprising, to discover that he'd died

in the Great War. It really does seem that he was one of his country's finest.

I will try and locate my copy of the Transvaal War Album and post a scan of

the photo, tho IIRC the quality wasn't brilliant.



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Hopefully I will be able to locate and scan in the original photo. He doesn't look it in Phil's pictures! Perhaps it is not the same man, or perhaps the original photo was deceptive. I will look out the photo as soon as I can.

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The photo aside, neither of the soldier's parents have any Afro-Caribbean background, unless of course this isn't the right man as you say.

Will certainly be interesting to see the photo.

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I think it`s clearly the same man, Wainfleet, so either you`ve misinterpreted the photo (easily done!) or one of the photos is wrongly captioned.

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Having located the original photo, it turns out my memory was at fault - the man I had in mind is not Captain Isaac, but Captain Robert Isacke, who confusingly served in the first battalion of the same regiment in the Boer War and retired as a Major in August 1902. He went on to serve in the NF once again in the war, and in the "Railway Transport Establishment", whatever that is. So my apologies for leading you up the garden path the first time! The picture is small but pretty definite. I will post it as soon as I have mastered the scanner on my new printer.

Add: Having just accidentally discovered that hitting Tab posts your reply whether you are ready or not, I've been trying to complete this entry as quickly as possible, hence its appearance in various guises in the last few minutes!

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Here - at last - is Captain Isacke, who is I hope self-evidently the one in the middle. Is he dark-complexioned, with hair that looks curly in the picture and an African slant to his features? I will let others make up their own minds.


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I think those features could be more Indian-Asian influenced than Afro-Caribbean but it certainly is an intriguing photo. I shall look into him a little more next time I am in the archives.

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I'll be very interested to learn what you come up with.

BTW can I just add that the mistaken identity does not in any way detract from my admiration for Captain John Isaac. The random discovery of someone who was patently a real loss to his family, friends and country highlights - if there were any danger of forgetting it - the unimaginable overall loss that the war cost us, and reminds why it continues to fascinate, and cast so long and so dark a shadow, after so many years and so many changes.


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In York Minster:-




Col. G. Grant-Dalton 23rd Aug. 1927

Lieut. Col. R. Isacke 1st Feb. 1928

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Apparently not the same R Isacke - there seem to be an awful lot of Isackes and Isaacs about! This Robert Isacke died in 1924, in Kensington, so I am informed by Monsieur Google.


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per ardua per mare per terram

I'm sure most folk didnt realise they were black men serving during ww1.


Welcome to the thread Doug. It is a sad fact that this is true and no more so than in 'Black History' circles, where only limited acknowledgement of the the wide variety of roles reflected in this thread has been documented. Also there is even less acknowledgement in such circles of the documented black presence in the English armed forces going back to the reign of Henry VII, yet this has been available for study.


It is also possible that there was a black presence in the Scottish forces, in the fifteenth century, they were certainly present at court:


Edited by per ardua per mare per terram
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Black or mixed race Drummer, 13th Essex 'Hammers', 1915...


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The Royal Engineers had a coloured labour section which served in Mesopotamia with the Inland Water Transport. These men joined with the sole intention of supporting the mother country, but found themselves so badly treated that they made a formal complaint to the Colonial Office. The following comes from the National Archives and is presented verbatim:

CO 323/786 p 256

Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force

Royal Engineers Coloured Section

13th Division

Mar’quil Depot


29th January 1918.

Dear sir in sincere honour

We have hereby taken the privilidge of writing you, whereby we have asked your apology for not knowing you personally but we have known your authority, office and honour, and on only you can we state our grievances to, Sir, we humbly ask, please to take our troubles in great earnest, which we are going to relate to you, as we afore said its only you we call on, and please you may represent us to your abilities, as all things lie in your power.

Its true we have not born in England, but shall always boast on ourselves as true British subjects and have volunteered ourselves to serve King and Country but please note sir, when we have first enlisted in the Army in Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, and various towns in England we told the the recruiting masters that we are all seafaring men and would do our bit in the Inland Waterways Transports. Who then promised to give us 3 shillings a day as soon as we should get overseas.

Luckily we leave Sandwich Kent our training Depot for Mesopotamia, where Thank God we had arrived in safety on the 31st December 1916. Where the first thing or action grieved us, all our officers that came out with us were sent away in different regiments and units leaving the Coloured sections only with Lance Corporals to represent us, where all advantages are now taken on us, and only giving us for pay 1s 21/4 pence per day, and have changed our ranks from sappers when we were in England to pioneers and Coloured labour section where as all other Indian labourers are contracted men for a fixed salary, and even the Infantry Men are getting more than us. When we asked to see the General They won’t allow us, when we asked an officer to petition for us they refused us also, we are not allowed to go nowhere, whilst the rest of the soldiers are at privilidge to go, in case we write letter its torn up and out of the 1 shilling 2d 1/4 farthing when ever we goes to draw fortnightly 3 or 4 rupees are stopped by the pay Master, and all of us are employed in skillful jobs and when night is nigh, there is no books, Chest Boards, or even a pack of cards to pass the time away, and the food we gets is most miserable, we only get 1 loaf a bread daily ,1 tin of Bully Beef and a drink of tea every days meal, and We no knows that lofts of goods gifts been always sent out but we are not receiving anything.

Dear Sir, our grievances are so great that we have partly(?) driven to dispair. The megarity of us are married men leaving six-pence a day for wifes allowance and have received our letters that they are not receiving it and that money is always being stopped from us out here, and we does not believe that is the way a poor soldier should be treated who has left his home far away came to England in ships to maintain our families who have no other to depend on, and yet we have deprived ourselves from Bread and our families to serve our King and country’s cause and yet for all we are treated worst than the turkish prisoners. Pardon me sir, we know that there are many evil carrying on an oppression to soldiers out here, what you all does not know about, and are innocent and would not allow it only get to your notice, but they have kept us so prison like and tear all our letters in suspicion, and promised even to shoot a man who writes to any representative. We know that there are lots of coloured men serving in the Navy and admiralty ships where in we would promise to fulfil our duty and are much more capable of seafairing than soldiering or manual labouring for one reason to be near our Colonial homes where we can send better aids to our poor families and for better health. Please sir may you grant us the pleasure of interceeding for us whilst we obediently awaits your answer as it lies in your grace and always be faithful comrades, obedient and humble servants.

The Coloured Sections and suffering Pioneers

Marquil Depot


Colonial Office Departmental note 9.4.18

There are no signatures to this petition and it does not state what part of the world the petitioners come from. Being seaman enlisted at Cardiff, Liverpool ect, they are probably West Indians.

We can only refer to WO and ask that we may be informed of any action taken.

Marginal note 10.4.18

We know that the IWT enlisted men at Cardiff ect.

Departmental note 10.4.18

That is all we can do - though we know WO will take no notice of anyone’s communications. But if, as clearly the case, these men are coloured seamen from the West Indies, perhaps the BWIR Comforts Committee might be willing to include them in its benevolent activities so far as comforts go?

Shall we send you this officially?

No further correspondence on this matter was recorded in the file.


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Interestingly enough, many these men may well have been Asians, rather than West Indians, despite the claim by the Colonial Office and there is evidence of this in the letter itself. I have also found one service record that supports this, an asian man living in London, although that is not by any means conclusive evidence of course.


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This particular group of men were unfortunate as they would soon probably have been un-noticed amongst the thousands of other black waterways and dock-labour troops that were sent from the West Indies and Africa to Mesopotamia.
(Lucas' "The Empire at War" gives details.)

There is a good story waiting to be told here about the black troops who served in Mespot.

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  • 4 weeks later...
the trainee lorry driver on the right

He seems to have teamed up with Stan and Ollie

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