There is no doubt that the two world wars hold special significance in the list of defining moments of the twentieth century. Combined, the repercussions of these events have shaped the sociopolitical landscape of international relations in a way that no other event, with the exception perhaps of the Cold War, has managed since. As such, the wars and their legacy are still vividly imprinted in the collective memories of the countries that were involved. But somehow the way we remember the world wars isn't quite correct. In remembering the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands of soldiers we have allowed ourselves to present and accept a partial truth about those who fought for the Allied forces and not enough is being done to correct our misconceptions.
From the many films about the world wars to general public consciousness about the identity of those who fought, it is clear that somewhere along the way the contribution of the many soldiers from Asia, Africa, the West Indies and other parts of the world was unacknowledged and then simply omitted from the national narrative. I first became aware of that fact several years ago when watching a BBC mini series adaptation of Andrea Levy’s bestselling novel Small Island.
The mini series told the story of recent Jamaican immigrants to England and their struggles in adapting to English society in the 1940s. However, what caught my attention was the fact that some of the characters had arrived in England as soldiers. As naive as it seems, I had never before that moment considered that there had been any significant number of non-white Allied soldiers aside from black American servicemen.
An avid history buff, I spent many hours studying the wars and felt disappointed that I had been given an incomplete history about the Commonwealth contribution to the war effort. After coming across a few statistics, my first reaction was that the sheer numbers of Commonwealth troops involved in both world wars is staggering. Over 4 million men and women from the colonies volunteered to fight for Britain during World War 1 and World War 2. The Indian army boasted the largest volunteer army in both world wars and in which over 161,000 Indian army soldiers were killed according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. But this wasn't just the case for the Indian army. The story of Isaac Fadoyebo presents a personal, and rare, account of one of the 100,000 African men who fought for the British against the Japanese army in Burma in the early 1940s. Similarly, many other African troops fought on the side of the Allied Forces such as the Force Publique of the Congolese army who provided 40,000 men for the East Africa Campaign.