Lest We Forget: The Overlooked Stories of the First World War
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
The First World War was one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in human history. It involved 32 countries and over 70 million military personnel. The conflict was the result of a range of complex political alliances and the power vacuum caused by declining empires. With such a vast number of soldiers and so many political structures and empires at play, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are many forgotten groups of people who served their country in The Great War. As a truly “world war” participants came from all walks of life from across the globe and not all of them reflected the depictions of the typical Tommy, but their contribution and sacrifices were no less.
As the centenary commemorations of the war continue, the importance of remembrance has been to the fore of cultural awareness. Below is a list of books that give us the opportunity to reflect on just a few of these forgotten troops, and to commemorate a more complete history of
the First World War.
For King and Another Country by Shrabani Basu
It’s easy to remember World War 1 as a battle between European powers, later including American involvement. What shouldn’t be forgotten however, is that at this time, those European powers were the heads of empires, often with colonies across the continents. These colonies played a large role in the war, providing a great number of troops as well as resources.
In For King and Another Country, Shrabani Basu looks to uncover the experience of the Indian soldiers who fought for England. Over 1.2 million soldiers travelled from India to fight in The Great War, the largest number from any of the colonies. Despite their courage in battle, (those that fought in France and Flanders earned six Victoria Crosses), these men had to overcome the racism they experienced from their British comrades and leaders. The measure of their contribution was downplayed in order to meet the perceived need to subjugate India, and so their story in the narrative of World War I was largely lost. Basu has gone to great lengths to reinstate the story of these Indian soldiers. She has focussed on those who went to the Western Front, although there were many more who fought in North Africa and the Middle East. In telling their story, Basu was limited in her sources, as many of the Indian troops were illiterate, she had no memoirs and few letters. Despite this, Basu manages to create a striking account of the men who left their home behind, to fight in a cold, hostile and entirely foreign landscape, for an Empire that was content to forget their contribution.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks
Over 200,000 African Americans served in the First World War, mainly in labor units, although there were some that saw battle. The men of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known the Harlem Hellfighters, were among those at the front lines. Segregation policies of the time dictated that they trained separately, and fought alongside the French rather than the U.S. soldiers. Despite this, and continued German propaganda designed to isolate them, the Hellfighters showed incredible bravery on the battlefield and maintained great pride in their home country. They were said to have never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy, and many of their soldiers won the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. Along with this, one of their members, Jim Europe, introduced the French to jazz, and began a nationwide obsession after the war. Max Brooks’ graphic novel is a fictionalised account using the historical facts, and illustrated with striking black and white images by Canaan White. It’s a truly captivating rendition of the history, but for a more traditional historical approach, Peter N. Nelson’s A More Unbending Battle is a great place to start.
The Hello Girls by Elizabeth Cobbs
Women had an important role to play in the war effort, many were drafted into the civilian workforce and many others served in military support roles. The Great War also saw the first female American Soldiers.
In a move to improve communications on the Western front, General John Pershing recruited bilingual women to operate the switchboards. Pershing believed that women had the patience and determination for the arduous and detail-orientated nature of the work, and so 223 women were sworn in to the U.S. Army Signal Corps and sent to France. Officially called Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit they were more affectionately known as the Hello Girls. Their work was crucial to the war effort, with the orders for troop movement coming through them. They served through bombardment and shelling, and their leader, 25-year-old Grace Banker, was award the Distinguished Service Medal. Despite this, when the women returned to the U.S. and applied for their honorable discharges they were denied because Army Regulations specified that only males are sworn in. The following fight for official recognition lasted 66 years, and even now their story is largely forgotten. Elizabeth Cobb’s new book hopes to reinstate their story and to honour their service.
Tommy's Ark by Richard Van Emden
While modern warfare is so dominated by machinery and technology, it’s easy to forget the great number of animals that were used extensively in warfare during the First World War. Perhaps the most iconic of these were the horses, as testified by the popularity of Michael Morpugo’s novel Warhorse. Whether as a beast of burden or as a hero of some of the last horseback battles of military history, horses were an integral part of military life. Besides this, dogs were used as guards, scouts, and trackers for finding wounded soldiers on the battlefield, as well as being used as messengers along with pigeons. Even slugs were used in the trenches as they were useful for detecting gas. This “slug brigade” was responsible for saving many lives. Richard Van Emden’s book recreates the soldier’s daily interactions with these animals and the wildlife around them, using the troops diary notes and letters. These first-hand snapshots interspersed with historical information and commentary give a keen insight into the noble and important role animals played, along with the grim realities that came with this involvement.
The Language of Victory by Gary Robinson
In recent years, the Navajo code talkers of the Second World War have been a topic of popular attention, however the use of Native American languages as military code was pioneered in World War I. When the U.S. Army found German troops fluent in English and capable of breaking their codes they looked to other means of communication. Colonel A. W. Bloor noticed the Native American members of his regiment talking amongst themselves, and saw the advantages of their language. These soldiers, who were part of the Choctaw tribe, helped Bloor develop a military code using their own Choctaw language. Then, by placing a Choctaw soldier in each unit to act as a messenger, the troops were able to communicate in secret regardless of German wiretapping. The system was a great success, but despite this, they did not receive official recognition for their efforts until 2008, when George Bush signed The Code Talkers Recognition Act. The Language of of Victory not only looks into the military history and personal experiences of the code talkers in World War I, he also looks at the place of Native American languages in the history of the country and explores their relegation as cultural relics before becoming crucial to the military.
The Cheshire Bantams by Stephen McGreal
In the 20th century, the British Army requirements restricted its recruits to a height of 5ft 3in. This precluded many healthy men from volunteering, and so during the First World War the British Army raised battalions which reduced the minimum height to 5ft. The first of these battalions was raised in Birkenhead, Cheshire, and men flocked to it from across the country in order to serve. They were typically from working-class backgrounds, such as coal-mining towns, where shortness was not an indicator of weakness or infirmity. The enthusiasm for Birkenhead battalion led to the idea spreading across Britain and Canada. The men proved themselves to be ferocious fighters, and participated in some of the most hard-fought battles of the war, indeed one of the Scottish battalions had the reputation of ‘Devil Dwarfs’ before they even reached the front. After the war, these men would continue to face opposition when applying for jobs such as the postal service which maintained a height requirement. Stephen McGreal takes a detailed look at the history and experiences of the Cheshire Bantams, shedding light on these men and the fight the fought to stand at the front lines.
These books represent a very small part of the enormous number of stories of the people who served, fought, and lost their lives in the First World War. The hope of this article is not to provide a comprehensive list, but rather to highlight some forgotten stories and to serve as a springboard to further exploration and learning. For instance, only one book about the contributions of colonial countries is mentioned above, but there are many more, particularly from both the British and the French empires. There were also many more minority groups within the European countries, who battled prejudice in order to serve their country. Along with this, books about the experience of specific groups within the Central Powers troops were noticeably difficult to find. Any further recommendations of books on these topics
would be very welcome.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on February 4th, 2017.