In the period when segregation and discrimination of colors were a thing, it was a challenge to get an education, a decent job, fair treatment, and respect from other nations. However, joining to fight for the nation that you wanted to fight for, too, would require some level of persistence. Something that Simon Perris, the only black Austro-Hungarian soldier, had when he braved the battle of the Great War.

A Patriotic Porter

There were not many detailed records on Simon Perris’ roots, but reports say that he was born and given the name Ali Mahmud either in Congo or Senegal. He came to Hungary as a little boy, where he became a servant for a Turkish man who resided in Budapest.

When his Turkish master died, Perris started to work as a porter at a cinema in what was then was called Nagyvárad (now Oradea). He was known to people for his fluent Hungarian tongue, which he often used to craft colorful insults. It was also said that the people of the city adored him for his good sense of humor and that he was also very patriotic and proud of Hungary.

“I want to fight for my homeland.”

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were shot dead by a young Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. This became the beginning of the First World War. The decisive action against Serbia meant the country risked going to war with Russia, too, which was a Serbian supporter. A risk that Austria-Hungary was willing to take, given that Germany pledged its support to them.

Franz Ferdinand Archduke of Austria with family, 1908. (New-York Tribune, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many brave men rushed in to enlist, willing to fight for their country, including Perris. He was, however, not allowed to join the Austro-Hungarian army at that time. The reason being he was of foreign nationality. But Perris could not just sit at home while others were fighting on the front lines, so he kept on trying to apply, even appealing to the Secretary of Defense, saying,

“I am very ashamed that as a Hungarian I have to sit at home when others can fight. I want to fight for my homeland.”

Due to his persistence, he was eventually accepted into the army and fought alongside the other soldier on the Russian front in 1915, where he stood out and earned several military awards and even got promoted to the corporal rank.

Back home during that time, his photo was starting to circulate on the front page of various newspapers. They wrote stuff like, “a man with a completely black face is walking down the streets of Budapest in Hungarian military uniform” and began describing him as s szerecsen.

Szerecsen was a term derived from Saracen, a term that refers to black people, although it got forgotten somewhere in history and was not used anymore. Saracens were Arab or Muslim soldiers of the Eastern Mediterranean that earned respect during and after the time of the Crusades. They were nomads deemed as enemies that were really skillful.

When an officer once asked him why he wanted to become part of the military, he responded, “because I want to merit a Hungarian girl!” Unfortunately, there were no records of him after he became a soldier, whether he survived or not, or if he was able to marry a Hungarian girl just like he said.

A Disastrous War

Bridge construction, Austro-Hungarian troops at war, 1916. (National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Austria-Hungary Empire at that time had more than a dozen of different ethnicities with various languages, traditions, and histories. The people were united only because they were subjects of the Emperor. When the war was declared, 8 million soldiers were mobilized, and only around 3.8 million of them were Hungarian citizens. Even so, many of the troops did not really want to fight in a war that was only started to avenge the death of Archduke Ferdinand that no one really liked, the Emperor included. The Slavic soldiers did not also like the idea of fighting against other Slavs.

The military outcomes were even more disastrous; one scholar argued, “The losses suffered in Galicia and Serbia were so enormous that the army would have dwindled by the end of 1914 had there been no replacements.” The civilians were untrained, the physical standards of those drafted were lowered, and the age range was even changed from 21-42 to 18-50.