I’ve just finished watching the first episode of the “Forgotten Soldiers” – the BBC’s new documentary series examining the stories of non-europeans who fought and died in the Great war.
I’m from a family that includes West Indians, my Wife is South African and my soon to be born son will be mixed race. Therefore I am always keen to learn more about the part played by non-white soldiers in the first and second world wars.
This episode opened in west Africa with a beautifully shot sequence of the Presenter, David Olusoga, explaining that the first shots fired by the British during the war were by Alhaji Grunshi an NCO of the Gold Coast Regiment.
I would have liked to have heard more about this incident but quickly the narrative moved on to the Indian Corps arriving in Europe. A hefty chunk of the programme was dedicated to the battle of Neuve Chapel and an explanation of the “Martial races” theory which explained how the Indian army was recruited and why certain ethnic groups were favoured over others. Interestingly it seems that this theory still effects the modern Indian army – http://morningmedia.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/the-shadow-of-the-martial-race-theory-in-the-indian-army-does-it-still-exist/
What I hadn’t realised was that the French had a similar set of theories regarding their West African troops. Olusoga travelled to Verdun and explained how France’s black colonies were heavily leant upon for manpower. In the same way that the British relied on the Punjabis and Pathans the French military focused on recruiting from the Wolof tribe of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. What disturbed me to learn was that many of these soldiers were recruited by local middlemen who had quotas to meet and would often raid villages and force men to join the army, bringing them for training in chains.
In conclusion I was pleasantly surprised by the depth, detail and nuance explored by David and the production team. Olusoga is a remarkably good presenter who clearly knows his stuff (not bad for a guy who is a producer by profession). I would highly recommend the programme to both the first world war specialist and the casual viewer with an eye for a well told tale.