Kate Werran, An American Uprising (Pen & Sword, 2020)
On 26 September 1943, the War came to a small town in Cornwall, England, not in the form of a German attack, but a firefight between two opposing American units; one Black, one white. It led to a unique courtroom drama in nearby Paignton, Devon, where fourteen Black American soldiers stood trial in an American Court Martial on British soil. The charge was mutiny: the penalty, death. Kate Werran narrates the story of this troubling, but perhaps predictable, incident and its aftermath.
The firing started that September evening when MPs attempted to clear a crowd of ‘colored’ soldiers hanging around in Launceston town square. The soldiers opened fire, wounding two of the MPs, but in court the policemen could not identify their attackers and claimed there was no just cause for the assault when there clearly was. There were serious doubts about the witness statements too. But there Werran leaves us hanging while she explores the background to why these men were in England in the first place. She describes the horrific racism of a segregated army, which they brought with them. Werran continues that the Americans and British were antipathetic towards each other, except the ordinary British rejected segregation and treated Black soldiers well, much to the annoyance of white GIs. Their resentment erupted in a slew of violent incidents over the summer of 1943, then came Launceston.
Werran returns to the town, the build up to the mutiny, and the fateful day as told through the trial transcript. The trial was a media sensation, coming off the back of race riots in America and escalating tensions in England that summer. Werran highlights the inadequate defence put forward, missing many gaping holes in the prosecution’s case, suspiciously so, but she also notes the odds were already stacked against the Black soldiers. The cherry-picking of witnesses, moreover, suggested the trial was a sham designed to convict while disguising the evident racial bias underpinning that conviction. The verdict of Guilty was never revealed publicly, however, much to the consternation of the British, though the secretive decision did lead to some minor reforms in how the American forces acted in Britain. In her epilogue, Werran profiles the people involved in the Paignton trial and what happened to them. She closes with a personal account of how she became involved with the story.
Despite its overblown title An American Uprising is a very interesting read and, if you are unfamiliar with the depth of America’s historical racial problem, a surprising one too. Werran stitches together a moving and sometimes angry account of an ugly incident that contained the threads of much larger themes. Her book, therefore, works as a tense courtroom drama and a useful corrective to the untarnished ‘greatest generation’ myth. I felt reading it that there was the kernel of something much bigger and more profound waiting to be uncovered, but Werran skirts round that to tell her story, and there is nothing wrong with that. Students of race in America, social history during WWII, and legal history will gain much from An American Uprising.
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