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Black Poppies

Imperial Britain appealed to the men of its colonies to come to the aid of the Mother Country during the First World War. Many did so but their contribution has not always been honoured, says Stephen Bourne.

When Britain entered the First World War on August 4th, 1914 no one could have been more loyal to his king and country than the Guyanese merchant seaman Lionel Turpin. His son, Jackie, recalled in Battling Jack: You Gotta Fight Back (2005):

He felt British. He was descended from slaves taken from West Africa but English was his first language. His schoolbooks were written by British people; he lived under British law; he was brought up to admire British poets and British musicians and British scientists and British politicians and British nobility. His allegiance was to King George V, to his Mother Country and to British people all over the world. When Britain declared war on Germany he felt included.

According to his army service records, Lionel was  just 19 years and five months when he enlisted in August 1915. He gave his address as Collingwood, North Shields and by then he was working as a labourer. Says Jackie:

Nobody thought the war was gonna last very long, did they? We thought we’d knock out the Germans easy. ‘Over by Christmas’ was what everybody said. Me dad was sent out in February 1916 with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front in Europe. He participated in the BEF campaigns of 1916, 1917 and 1918. My dad was in the battles of the Somme, then. People have said that from time to time. Trench warfare. Hell on earth. It was a miracle anyone come through that. The Great War lasted for four years and two months and was a bloody free-for-all. They was only lads in soldier coats.


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