Our War is very much a “did-you-know” type of book.
Did you know the British Army included black women in its ranks during World War Two? Not?
“I get fed up, says Connie Mark, one such servicewoman, “with people telling me they didn`t know there were black women in the British armed forces. It`s just ignorance,” she says. Mark joined the British Army`s ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) in Kingston, Jamaica in 1943 and served at a military hospital there for the duration of the conflict.
The ignorance Mark resents is widespread, partly because the contributions of many Commonwealth countries to World War Two was in over-all terms, small; partly because in many of these countries, including India, soldiering in the service of Britain became a post-war taboo and was not much spoken or written about; and partly because the Imperial power had other concerns after 1950 than remembering the role of Commonwealth soldiers.
Author Christopher Somerville, son of the British Admiral-of-the-Fleet James Somerville (of Bismarck fame) makes the point in his conclusion that Britain only remembered their contribution after 1994 and then, the reviewer may add, largely because of pressure by immigrants, many of whom had served.
Our War is an impressive and rather comprehensive oral history of the world conflict, starting off with that other oft-overlooked point-of-view, namely how citizens of Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad, Australia, New Zealand, India, Ghana and even South Africa saw the looming world conflict – and how they reacted on its outbreak.
The war is then dealt with per year and per theatre, including the experiences of prisoners taken and held by the Germans, Italians and Japanese. The book ends with a chapter on the war`s aftermath, generally and specifically in the lives of the interviewees.
Somerville spent two years travelling and researching Our War. Interviewees range across all races, classes and Services and included men and women from Australia, Basutoland (Lesotho), Canada, Gold Coast (Ghana), India, Jamaica, Kenya, Mauritius, New Zealand, the Seychelles, South Africa and Trinidad & Tobago.
In the case of South Africa, he interviewed SA Cape Corps supply truck driver Charles Adams, Cape Town Highlander George Fry, Royal Navy motor torpedo boat officer Robert Gaunt and Native Military Corps clerk Frank Sexwale – father of Human Settlements minister Tokyo. Much is said, and rightly so, of the shabby treatment Cape Corps and NMC men received during the war and after. It is no mitigating factor that they were by no means the only Commonwealth troops to suffer the sting of prejudice during the conflict and racism`s bite afterwards.
For African readers it will be the experiences of the West, East and South Africans that most appeal. As the journal`s readers know, the South Africans fought in Somaliland, Ethiopia and North Africa before moving to Italy. The East- and West Africans, also served in the Horn of Africa before shipping to the Far East and the vile jungles of Burma and the Arakan. It was, incidentally, the poor post-war treatment of these men that set in motion the train of events that led to the independence of Ghana 50 years ago and the decolonialisation of Africa, as Our War notes.
The book is in many cases also a near-final chance for many of the interviewees to tell their stories and record it for posterity. They all suffered, to one degree or another for the post-world war we now life in, or, more poignantly, as the Kohima memorial recalls, gave their tomorrow for our today. For this every man and woman remembered in this book deserve nothing less than our sincere and enduring gratitude.
How the British Commonwealth Fought the Second World War
(Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1998)