Finally, the story of non-white combatants

by Martin Hafer

Documentaries about WWII and WWI are a dime a dozen and I don’t usually write about this subject here.  Heck, probably half the shows on the History Channel fall into this category and there is definitely a certain sameness to them.  After a while, it all sounds familiar and only a few of these shows stand out because they have something unique to say.  Well, standing out and having something important to say is exactly what excite me about The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of the Empire.  This wonderful two-part series came out last year on BBC-2.  Fortunately, it just debuted on Netflix and all of us non-Brits can get a chance to see a truly special television program.

So what’s so unusual about this show?  It’s all about the non-white soldiers who fought during WWI.  When nearly all of us think of this awful war, if we think about the white German, French, British and American soldiers slugging it out in the trenches.  However, 4 million non-whites fought in the conflict — mostly for the British and French.  Yet, common knowledge simply ignores their contributions and sacrifices. And sacrifice they did.  Some units lost far more men than the white units, as the military brass seemed to see these Indians, Africans and occasionally, Asians, as expendable and less human than their white counterparts. 

In addition to their contributions, the film also discusses Black American soldiers.  While they could serve in the US military, they were not allowed in combat due to prevailing racist thought of the day.  Blacks seeking combat instead of menial jobs were relegated to serving in the French Army–the only Allied power willing to take them to the front lines!!  There is much more to their stories–and it’s something you really need to see for yourself.

The bottom line is that the mini-series finally gives a huge number of brave people their due.  And, it does it magnificently — using not just the expected stock film footage and letters but other very surprising evidence of their service.  Full color photos as well as audio recordings of their experiences accompany the film and provide an eerie look into a century ago!  Exquisitely assembled and well worth seeing.