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Forgotten diary reveals no place for racism in trenches

The harrowing Great War diaries of one of Britain's first black soldiers have been unearthed in a dusty Scottish attic nearly 100 years after they were written.

Private Arthur William David Roberts, who served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), described coming face-to-face with death in the trenches.

He survived the Battle of Passchendaele and described one incident where he escaped unscathed when a German shell killed a dozen men around him.

But despite being among just a handful of British-born black soldiers at a time when racism was rife, Private Roberts was popular with his comrades and made no mention of prejudice on their part.

In his diaries, which were discovered in the loft of a house in Glasgow, he jokes that white mortar dust made him look like a white man.

Now historians are trying to track down surviving family of Private Roberts as they put his memoirs on show to the public for the first time.

Ian Martin, from the KOSB Museum in Berwick-upon-Tweed, said: "We want him to be remembered as Arthur Roberts, not as a black soldier, but it was unusual to have a black soldier in the regiment then.

"There were black regiments fighting in the First World War and they were subject to quite a lot of racial abuse and prejudice.

"But he is the only one I've come across in the KOSB. He is shown to be popular among other troops and well liked."

Private Roberts was born in Southville, Bristol, in 1897 but moved to Glasgow with his father David, a ship's steward, when he was a child.

His diary details life in the trenches from when his was drafted onto the frontline on 19 May 1917 until 6 March 1918.

The tales take him from France to Belgium where he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, near Ypres, where thousands of Allied troops were killed.

The diary touches upon race - comparing himself to his fellow comrades when showered in white mortar dust.

He tells of being falsely accused of destroying a pair of boots - narrowly avoiding a court martial - after being picked on by a corporal.

A passage also humorously compares himself to an Uncle Tom - slang for a black person who is overly deferential to white people.

After one long bus trip, he wrote: "At the journey's end we were like bakers with dust. My hair being white I was like Uncle Tom."

His funny and touching diary also recalls moments of shock and bravery in the face of vicious German raids.

Recounting one surprise enemy attack, on 2 September 1917, he writes: "We were shelled to blazes. I had a very narrow shave.

"One fellow in front of me had his head blew off. The chap beside him was severely wounded.

"The chap next to me was wounded and one of the chaps behind me was killed and the fellow beside him was wounded.

"I completely escaped. That was everyone round me were either killed or wounded. We lost about a dozen all told."

Elsewhere he nonchalantly describes the shelling as "Jerry is still noticing us and paying us compliments."

Going over the top of the trenches at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge near Ypres on 31 July 1917, he claims was "a terrible, yet wonderful" experience.

He said: "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. I will not attempt to describe the sights, sounds and feelings that I saw, heard, and felt because it would be impossible.

"I got through without a scratch."

The diary ends on his return to Britain, after being granted leave in February 1918.

After the Great War finished he returned to Glasgow to work at a diesel factory, before marrying Jessie Motherwell in Blackpool in 1956.

It is believed Private Roberts died in a Scottish care home in 1982, aged 85.His diary lay unopened in the attic of a house in Mount Vernon, Glasgow, until it was discovered last October.

Morag Miller, a retired NHS worker whose son discovered the diary, handed it to the KOSB Museum.

Staff are now trying to fill in the missing parts of his life and have appealed for anyone who knew to get in touch.

EXTRACT

September 2, 1917

We were shelled to blazes. I had a very narrow shave.

One fellow in front of me had his head blew off. The chap beside him was severely wounded.

The chap next to me was wounded and one of the chaps behind me was killed and the fellow beside him was wounded.

I completely escaped. That was everyone round me were either killed or wounded. We lost about a dozen all told.

 
 
 

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