November 13: The black soldier’s lament

A hundred years on from the end of World War I, we wanted to look at an aspect of the conflict we don’t often talk about: the role of millions of troops of colour who fought for European powers. The excellent Christian Koller, professor of modern history at Zurich University, is here to help us explore what life was like for African and Asian soldiers who were often dismissed as ‘savages’ while risking their lives for European governments.

Also: France faces its past, European conservatives face their future, and Dominic faces a lifetime of incessant church bells.

Our episode name comes from the poem by George A. Borden:

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end.

From Scotia port to Seaford Square
Across to France the conflict there,
At Ville La Joux and Place Peronne
For God and King to right the wrong –
The number two six hundred strong.

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Mid-day’s reprieve much needed rest.
We dug and hauled and lifted high
From trenches deep toward the sky –
Non-fighting troops and yet we die

The peace restored the battle won
Black sweat and toil had beat the Hun.
Black blood was spilled black bodies maimed
For medals brave no black was named,
Yet proud were we our pride unshamed.

But time will bring forth other wars,
Then give to us more daring chores
That we might prove our courage strong
Preserve the right repel the wrong,
And proud we’ll sing the battle song.

You can read Christian’s fascinating research here.

Thanks for listening. 🇪🇺 ❤

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