In 1917 Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig said of the BWIR, “[Their] work has been very arduous and has been carried out almost continuously under shell-fire. In spite of casualties the men have always shown themselves willing and cheerful workers, and the assistance they have rendered has been much appreciated by the units to which they have been attached and for whom they have been working. The physique of the men is exceptional, their discipline excellent and their morale high”.
They played a significant role in Palestine and Jordan where they were employed in military operations against the Turkish Army. During the Palestine Campaign General Allenby sent the following telegram to the Governor of Jamaica: “I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations“.
In one particular action, the 2nd Battalion BWIR was given orders to clear enemy posts close to the British line in Palestine. This involved advancing across over 5km of open land under heavy fire. They achieved their mission though nine men were killed and 43 were wounded. Two men, Lance Corporal Sampson and Private Spence, were awarded the Military Medal for bravery during the action. The commanding officer of the BWIR, Major General Sir Edward Chaytor, wrote, “Outside my own division there are no troops I would sooner have with me than the BWIs who have won the highest opinions of all who have been with them during our operations here”.
Two battalions were involved in fighting against the Turks in Palestine and Jordan in 1918. At first, they were seen as to be employed as “native labour” battalions – carrying ammunition, digging trenches, and gun emplacements; and often under heavy German bombardment they were used in support functions, such as guarding prisoners, as garrison troops, and holding reserve posts and outposts. By 1916 the War Office relaxed its opposition to the BWIR being used in combat.
By the end of the First World War, 185 men from the BWIR had been killed in action and 1,071 had died of sickness. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends the graves of BWIR men in cemeteries in Britain, the West Indies, Belgium, Egypt, France, Italy, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, and Tanzania.
In addition to the BWIR, the West Indies contributed men through the West India Regiment (WIR), which consisted mainly of African soldiers. The WIR had existed since 1795 and served Britain until 1927, when it was disbanded for economic reasons. During the First World War, the regiment was deployed in East Africa as well as Togoland and Cameroon. Togoland (which now forms modern day Togo and part of Ghana) and Cameroon were German colonies with important wireless stations. The first two years of the war saw a multi-national force – including West Indians, Nigerians, Ghanians (Gold Coast) and Indians – capture Togoland and Cameroon from Germany. The social divide of the British Caribbean was reflected in that the Officers and Senior Non-commissioned Officers were of European decent while the other ranks were of African and Asian decent and of mixed race. The similarity of titles led to some confusion as both had recruits from the Caribbean, and a number of officers from the WIR were transferred to the BWIR.