On Battlefield 1, Player Characters and Ethnicities

So in October the newest entry in the Battlefield video game series comes out- Battlefield 1 set, for the first time, during World War 1. I’ve had a few chances to play the Multiplayer Open Beta on PC and I’ve really enjoyed it for the most part. Generally I kind of struggle keeping up interest in multiplayer shooters nowadays because I get to the point where I feel there’s nowhere left for me to go- Another round of death, explosions and Gas? Fine, I guess. More endlessly capturing and losing points? Eh, whatever. It all feels a bit… pointless (Which seems somewhat accurate to WW1, I guess?). The last big multiplayer games that really gripped me were Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 1943, but whether I’d still enjoy them if I went back remains to be seen. Maybe I’m just growing out of mulitplayer games for the most part. Still though compared to other multiplayer experiences, Battlefield as a series still offers some engaging, exciting and atmospheric moments that do genuinely make me feel like the small part in a larger conflict.

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Something that’s coming up a lot online when discussing this game and a lot of games like it though is the age-old problem of revisionism. Now Battlefield 1 has, to its credit, done well in avoiding these tropes but not everyone agrees. Many feel that the inclusion of so many player ethnicities (you an essential chose your players race/skin colour etc in the loadout menu) is inaccurate or anachronistic. Many forum posts and comments have bemoaned the idea of such a diverse battlefield, and especially to anyone other than ‘white’ serving on the Western Front. It’s partly a problem that I think stems from looking at WW1 as what David Reynolds called the “Literary War”. There’s been much written before about annoying tropes surrounding the perception of WW1– such myths as the ‘ignorance of tactics’, the ‘unmoving and pointlessness of the conflict’, the ‘Donkeys leading Lions‘, and perhaps worst, the intense focus on the Western Front only, disregarding the often pivotal theatres outside of France and even Europe. These all surfaced again when Battlefield 1 was revealed, and something that has increasingly bothered me is the pervasive idea amongst some that including people of colour in the conflict (especially on the Western Front) is somehow historically inaccurate or (to use their own words) “pandering”. Character models in the game from only what I have experienced have been all ranges of ethnicities, colours and creeds on both sides, something that is certainly not outside the range of believability. Apparently though, to the denizens of gaming communities across the internet, this is inaccurate and unacceptable.

In a reddit thread (that I’m using as an example- it’s merely one of dozens that I’ve seen crop up in the past on the subject, of which many are put in a lot less moderate terms) that I guess is attempting to highlight how ridiculous it is to include people of colour in various armies, you will find numerous comments that purport that the Western Front was somehow a “white front”, only populated and fought by white Europeans. For example-

Most countries did use some colonial regiments, but the European part of the conflict back then had mostly white Europeans. Even in WW2 in the European theatre that was still the case for the most part. I understand people like their ethnicity being represented in a game, but you cannot make history more diverse, it just doesn’t work that way.

As someone pointed out in another thread, while the comment in question said ‘mostly’, what they were actually arguing, and what many posters in the thread are saying, is closer to ‘wholly’, which is, in my eyes, both uninformed and ignorant to just how many nationalities and ethnicities were involved and stationed on the Western Front. Here’s another comment on why the inclusion of black characters is somehow an insult to the Harlem Hellfighters-

Because the Hellfighters actually fought in the European theatre… Dice is just finding random groups of Black soldiers and making them the mainstay of the Europe conflict..

As well as-

Yeah, no. Use Google to look up photos of the trenches sometime and count how many non-white faces you see.

To set the record straight, Colonial troops made up large and significant parts of the British and French Army in WW1, specifically on the Western Front. At the same time the BEF fielded 70,000 men, The Indian Army represented the largest volunteer army in the world, with 150,000 of its 240,000 men ready for immediate service. By November 1914 Indian troops were holding positions around the Ypres. Alongside them were thirty-seven battalions of French troops from Senegal, Africa, Algeria and Morocco. It was many of these men that would later bear the brunt of the initial gas attacks in Flanders in April 1915. As historian David Olusoga puts it-

“By the time the maneuverings of 1914 had fizzled out and the Western Front had stabilised, the fantasy of the “White Mans War” had, like other assurances of the war, been exposed as naive.”

Indian cavalry from the Deccan Horse during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

Indian cavalry from the Deccan Horse during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

I think it also it’s important to recognise that front line troops (the ones you may find ‘while googling to look up photos of the trenches’) were only a tiny proportion of the huge machine that operated in the theatre. While the French were more than keen to pour, as Charles Mangin put it, “Reservoirs of [colonial troops]” into the front lines (Some 500,000 wore the uniform of the French army and manned the trenches of the Western Front), most black British troops (with the exception of a small few, see Walter Tull) were used as mass labour behind the lines.

Ironically, the Western Front during those four years of conflict was possibly the most ethnically diverse place on Earth at that time. Muslim prayers were held in the Fields of Flanders, Indian Soldiers observed the Eid Prayers before sitting down to share celebratory meals with their Indian Comrades of other faiths. Ramadan was observed in trenches, troops from the Punjab marked the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. In British Barracks and hospitals Chinese labourers (Over 100,000 men served in the Chinese Labour Corps) entertained troops and their own countrymen, marking Chinese New Years and Dragon Festivals. French troops were particularly entertained by displays of Tai chi and Martial Arts.

To quote The Worlds War

“The Great European War- as it was then still called- became the greatest employment opportunity in history, and hundreds of thousands of men, from some of the most beautiful lands and islands on earth descended upon Flanders and Northern France. They came from Bermuda, Macedonia, Malta, Greece, Arabia, Palestine, Singapore, Mauritius, Madagascar, Vietnam, Fiji, the Cook Island, the Seychelles.”

To put it in perspective, take the Halbmondlager. This German prisoner of war camp is one of the most bizarre and overlooked parts of the war on the Western Front. It housed almost 5,000 Muslim prisoners who had fought for the Allied side. The intended purpose of the camp was to convince detainees to wage jihad against the United Kingdom and France. Living in relative luxury, the camp included the first ever mosque built on German soil, all intended as part of a “Jihad Experiment” which the Germans thought would help turn the colonies against British and French rule.

Halbmondlager, Germany's First Mosque.

Halbmondlager, Germany’s First Mosque.

This problem is really bigger than a video games portrayal of soldier diversity. At the end of the day Battlefield has included ethnicities to represent more of its player base, but the reaction or veiled excuse to the inclusion of non-white non-Europeans in the conflict as somehow “inaccurate” is further examples of the pervasive and very real white-washing that occurred after WW1. Call me a cynic, but I feel many of these critics aren’t so much disliking the inclusion if black characters in Battlefield purely out of ‘historical accuracy‘. I think this is best exemplified in the strange division between ‘black’ and ‘white’ characters, as if they somehow represent two distinct groups. Even forgetting the British and French, the German army wasnt some homogeneous ‘blob’. To quote again The Worlds War, we’re talking about “30000 Danes, 3 million Poles, other minorities like Serbs, French, Luxembourgers. Even Germany was a patchwork of 5 dutchies, 25 federal states, 4 kingdoms, principalities, annexed provinces, The Hanseatic League… Germany was less than 50 years old and the extent to which each of its nationalities considered itself “German” varied massively”. It’s just for some reason when it comes to debates like this, it boils down to simply the difference between ‘white’ & ‘black’, which I imagine comes a lot from the influence and predominantly American audience. For some reason in a video game with respawning, point control and magically fixable vehicles and planes, the most unbelievable and unacceptable thing is to include a bit more diversity in character models for the games audience to (optionally) enjoy. To quote one commenter-

They’re not even complaining about inaccuracies. They’re fine with the abundance of tanks that work like modern vehicles and the fact that almost everybody is carrying a prototype weapon that probably never saw actual use. Nonwhite soldiers though? Completely unbelievable.

Highlanders and Indian Dogras sitting in a trench, 1915.

Highlanders and Indian Dogras sitting in a trench, 1915.

If you’re interested, here’s a fascinating book called “Our enemies: 96 character heads from German prisoner of war camps“, a propaganda book published by Germany to show the public the faces of various “exotic” or “Alien” soldiers from around the world Germany was fighting against.

 

Sources-

The World’s War– David Olusoga

The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire– BBC

British Library Website

Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918

Germany’s grand First World War jihad experiment– Telegraph