Very rarely are people of colour depicted or referred to in reference to the troops that fought in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, especially in the British Armed Forces. They were there, though finding records of their experiences can be difficult.
In 2004, diaries were found in the attic of a home in Mount Vernon, Glasgow, which chronicled the personal experiences of Arthur Roberts from Tradeston.
Arthur was the son of an African-Caribbean ship steward, David Roberts and West Country woman, Laura Dann. He grew up in Glasgow an intelligent and confident lad who played the bugle and lived in a tenement at Anderson on the banks of the Clyde. He went to Finneston Primary and then on to Kent Road Public School.
Arthur’s experiences were similar to hundreds of thousands of men. But his diaries and memoirs bring articulate insight to the many mundane aspects of life as a soldier.
The diaries explain how Arthur was only 20 when he volunteered for service and served with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1917 and 1918. He was stationed in France and had a good grasp of the French language and this assisted him whilst he was serving there.
Private Arthur Roberts fought in, and survived, the Battle of Passchendaele where he witnessed the horrors of the brutal conflict which claimed the lives of 275,000 Allied soldiers.
His vivid memoirs describe the terrors of the trenches and how he cheated death while serving with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
"To run was as bad as to stand. This is war; grim, death-stalking havoc… worse than all, the moans and shrieks of the unfortunate men. Some lay in that limp, unnatural, distorted attitude that denotes death. "Some struggled madly, thoroughly unnerved but with their wounds unable to do much more than crawl; the others worked their limbs feebly, like sleepy children, while their blood dyed their khaki with big black stains.”
He wrote: “We were shelled to blazes. I had a very narrow shave. One fellow in front of me had his head blown off. I completely escaped. Everyone round me were either killed or wounded. We lost about a dozen all told.”
One entry described the horror of going over the top during the first attack of the conflict — which was known as the Third Battle of Ypres. He wrote: “We were over this morning and I saw sights that I never saw before or wish to see again. It was terrible yet it was wonderful.”
He also drew sketches of the war scenes in front of him.
Arthur’s diaries spoke of the experience of being one of the few black soldiers serving in Scottish regiments and indicate he was well-liked by his colleagues and mentioned little in terms of experience with racism.
After the war, Arthur, a gifted writer, painter and photographer; returned to Tradeston where he worked as a marine engineer. Twice married, he played banjo in a British Legion dance band. He described Tradeston as being a tolerant and cosmopolitan area.
He died in a Glasgow care home in 1982, aged 84, and his documents passed to his lawyer but they laid undiscovered in his home until the Millers bought it in 2010.
Author Morag Miller, whose son Murray discovered the diaries in the attic, wrote a book about Private Roberts’ life titled, ‘As Good As Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy’, using information pieced together from his diaries and the sketches he made of the front line.
The family then traced Arthur’s relatives and ensured that some of his wartime mementos were placed in a regimental museum.
Reference: Daily Record 16 October, 2014 and other sources