Wednesday, 23 April 2008
Some Honour The Flag-Others Bring Dishonour To It
Above left: A traitor
Right:Johnson Beharry, awared the VC in 2005
Taken from this month's British Legion Magazine
Role of honour
The history that black and Asian service people in the British armed forces is a long and rich one, as Joy Persaud reports
Corporal Bharminder Singh Osahan, 27, (pictured, left) grew up in Kenya. A member of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), he has been attached to 4 Regiment in the Army Air Corps for the past eight years. He believes that a British serviceperson is a symbol of the nation’s and its people’s sovereignty.
"I am very proud to be in the REME, and above all the armed forces," he says. "In my unit, each individual has a role regardless of their ethnic origin, but there is a variety of backgrounds from all parts of the world – Indian, Zimbabwean and South African."
The notion that his race or religion could be an issue in the forces is one that Corporal Osahan finds hard to comprehend. "I find it a complete misunderstanding," he says. "People may have encountered personality clashes or arguments with their peers, and this may have been flaunted as a racism case. On the contrary there may be some cases of racism, but I haven’t heard of any while I’ve been serving."
He maintains that there are no conflicts between his religion – Sikhism – and his job, and has found that while some people are curious about his beliefs in a politely inquisitive manner, others don’t seem to notice.
"I personally choose not to wear a kirpan (ceremonial sword), as I have not been baptised yet. However I do wear a turban all the time. I wear a patka, which is a smaller turban when at work, or when I need to wear a helmet, as this doesn’t compromise my safety.
"People may have different approaches and be slightly aware of the difference in me, not knowing how to converse, what to expect, but after the initial barrier is broken, life’s plain sailing."
Such positive talk would likely be music to the ears of those at the Ministry of Defence, which has admitted that it is falling short of its recruitment targets among ethnic minorities.
The percentage of UK forces from ethnic minority backgrounds has risen only slightly recently; as of 1 January 2008, ethnic minorities accounted for 6% of the armed forces compared with 5.8 % at the same point last year.
The MoD stresses that it regards education and awareness of diversity and equality issues as a high priority. It says that annual equality and diversity training, at a level appropriate to rank and responsibility, is mandatory for all members of the armed forces. In addition, the Joint Equality and Diversity Training Centre at Shrivenham delivers a five-day course to unit equality and diversity advisers and a one-day seminar, which is mandatory for senior officers.
The MoD says that is has made ‘great strides’ in improving its record in equal opportunities. It’s hard to argue. After all, it’s within living memory that non-whites couldn’t join the army. They were categorised as ‘aliens’ and fears abounded that they would be ‘too conspicuous on the battlefield’. While such notions were, incredibly, held by 20th century minds, they would shock all but a minority today, which is testament to how attitudes have evolved.
Yet there has never been a shortage of black and Asian people volunteering to fight. During World War I, two out of every 10 service people were volunteers from the Indian Subcontinent, the Caribbean and Africa. In World War II, the figure rose to three out of 10 – this included nearly three million people from the Indian Subcontinent – the largest volunteer army in history.
In fact, more World War I soldiers came from India than from Scotland, Ireland and Wales put together. This commitment has been acknowledged of late. In 2002, the Queen opened the Memorial Gates across Constitution Hill at Hyde Park Corner in London to honour the millions from the Caribbean, Indian subcontinent and Africa who contributed so significantly in World Wars I and II. Without their sacrifices, the world may have been very different today.
As well as the Gates, regional war museums and education services have held exhibitions and published literature that tells the stories of those who eagerly left their sunny homelands and families to fight for Britain, many never to return. And there were, of course, the many service personnel from minority ethnic backgrounds, born within the British Isles.
The Ministry of Defence’s website includes a section entitled ‘We Were There’. It details the personal commitment and professionalism of Britain’s minority ethnic service men and women, aiming to promote understanding by showing how those from all over the world fought alongside British forces. It acknowledges that while it is a positive story, "it should be remembered that over many years some of those who served did experience racial prejudice. Despite this they continued to offer their services to help Britain."
Some accounts of bravery and service have inevitably been lost for good, but others are still celebrated. For example, the story of the first black officer of the British Army – Lieutenant Walter Tull – was unheard until relatively recently.
Tull’s father was the son of slave who arrived in England from Barbados in 1876, marrying a local girl. When his mother died, Walter was just seven, and he and one brother were sent to an orphanage when their father’s new wife couldn’t cope with the large family. Tull went on to be one of Britain’s first black professional footballers. He played for both Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town. When the World War I was declared, Tull, like many players, joined the Football Battalion.
He was promoted quickly to Sergeant, and in 1916, he fought in the major Somme offensive. Although he developed trench fever and had to return to England, Tull had so impressed his senior officers that they sent him to Scotland for further training and, despite rules stating that no "negro or person of colour" could exercise "actual command" as officers, he was commissioned in 1917.
The 29-year-old and his men returned to France but, on 25 March 1918, in no-man’s land near Favreuil, a German bullet hit Tull in the head. His body was never recovered, despite the efforts of several of his men, who risked heavy machine gun fire to retrieve him.
Another life that is celebrated is that of Subadar Khudadad Khan. He was the first Indian to receive the Victoria Cross. Khan was a 26-year-old Sepoy in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, British Indian Army, during World War I. On 31 October 1914 at the front line in France, Khan was in charge of one of two machine guns. The British officer in charge was wounded and the other gun was put out of action by a shell, but Sepoy Khan, although badly hurt, continued to operate his gun after the other five men of the detachment had been killed. Eventually, he was left for dead, but was able to crawl back to his unit. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in helping to prevent the German Army reach crucial ports.
Such accounts can be found, if you look, but they can’t negate the bad press that surrounds the treatment of some servicemen and women. At the time of writing, the struggle of the Gurkhas is in the headlines (See News, page 57). Many have handed back hard-won medals and honours to the Government to highlight the fact that pension allowances are less than those of British-born soldiers, as well as that veterans can’t stay in the country for which they helped to secure freedom.
The plight of the Gurkha veterans, who have been awarded an unparalleled 26 Victoria Crosses, has touched many who were previously unaware of the disparity in the way these soldiers are being treated. But while members of the public at least instantly recognise Britain’s strong connections with the Gurkhas – past and present – the same cannot always be said for Indian, African and Caribbean forces.
Hav Major Rajindar Singh Dhatt, 85, (pictured, right) who holds a Burma Star, is a member of the Undivided Indian Ex-Services Association. He says that until recently television coverage never mentioned the Indian Army – instead they would talk about America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. "They ignored us. So, we decided to fight for our recognition and acknowledgement. In 2002, when the memorial was built, it was the best day of all of our lives. What we were struggling for we achieved. We were happy to get that in our lifetime."
While Major Dhatt acknowledges that British officers have "done a lot to help us get these Memorial Gates", he laughs gently as he recalls the differences between the way the Indians and the white British were treated. He doesn’t complain, he simply recounts the disparities in a factual manner. "We played hockey, football, volleyball and basketball and when we mixed with them, we were just like them. But there were differences between our uniforms, living standards and living quarters. We were living in mud-baked huts, and they were in very nice pukka barracks, they had ceiling fans and we had windows – the wind coming through was meant to be enough for us. "Rations were not bad but it was inferior to what the British were getting. So, sometimes we did feel the differences, but at that time they were ruling us."
He also acknowledges that the British officers were "happy if you did mix with them and they were trained in how to behave and about the religions and languages. They were prepared and were trained to do the right thing when they went to India."
Another ex-serviceman is West Indian AC1 Airman First Class RAF, Arthur Leigh, who joined up from Jamaica. He says that things have changed enormously since his days in the forces. The 85-year-old member of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen’s/Ex-Servicewomen’s Association UK (Wiesa) says he doesn’t see the point of dwelling on the negative experiences that some may have had more than 60 years ago.
"There were good times and bad – but we came through. I’ve listened to men giving their version of what happened to them during the war, in the Army, Navy and RAF, and they tend to highlight the negatives of the past. In those days you were put into a flight squadron and told to get on with the job.
"I have no regrets – that’s why I am here in England. If I had any regrets, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t agree with those who have come back and are living here comfortably and are griping about the experiences they had in 1945."
Unsurprisingly, Leigh says he would encourage young people to go into the services, saying that they would gain "discipline and straightening out", adding that the forces offer opportunities in various fields.
Major Dhatt echoes this. He and members of his association visit schools and Sikh temples to tell young people about the war. He describes them as being "very attentive" and curious about their treatment and daily lives.
"When we are interviewed or asked, we always say to the young boys that this is their country, they have to live here and where they live, they have to defend that country. You should join the Army or police. We say they should not just become doctors, lawyers or engineers – don’t miss out the armed forces.
"Some people say there is too much discipline in the Army or discrimination – but we tell them that all these things you have to face. Keep high-spirited and you can be successful.
"We used to go and see [lots of people] but now some of us are housebound and we can’t afford transport. We would like to carry on this duty so that if someone calls us, we can tell them about this country and encourage young people to join the Army."
Corporal Osahan agrees. "I would encourage strongly anyone who wishes to experience a lifestyle out of the ordinary, which is testing day to day, to join the forces," he says.
"If I did ever encounter racism, then the immediate point of contact is my chain of command. If that fails there is an equal opportunities officer I could report to. I am confident that if any such incidents occurred then they would be dealt with appropriately."
But maybe the fact that there needs to be training programmes and specific recruitment drives to attract black and Asian people indicates that this is still an area of concern. Perhaps in the future all service men and women will be able to echo veteran Arthur Leigh, who says: "Of course there were problems but there is absolutely no point in me repeating them. They were the problems of the day and they were resolved."
And perhaps those who remain ignorant will realise that the major conflicts of the last century were – in every sense – world wars and will happily acknowledge the sacrifices made by the millions who came running from distant lands when the mother country called.