British West Indies Regiment

At the outbreak of war in 1914, a significant number of countries in the Caribbean (then the West Indies) were staunchly loyal to Britain. Groups of volunteers began to arrive from all parts of the Caribbean to join the British Armed Forces. Some came to Britain as stowaways to “Serve Kind and Country”.

The following newspaper report from the “Stratford Express” (London) 19 May 1915, page 3:

“THE DOCKS – Black Men for the Front At West Ham Police Court To-day”

Nine Black men, natives of Barbadoes, West Indies, were charged with being stowaways on the S.S. Danube. Mr J.W. Richards, who prosecuted for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, said that the S.S. Danube made a voyage from Trinidad to England, and the day after leaving Trinidad the ship called at Barbadoes. It was presumed that the men came aboard there for the day. Afterwards they were found on the vessel. Mr Gillespie in court said “In a dark corner, I suppose”? and the people in court laughed. Mr Richards continued that the men were put to work, and they did not cause any trouble. He was told that the men were desirous of enlisting in the Army. Mr Gillespie in court said: “What, do they want to enlist in the Black Guards”?  and there was laughter in court. Detective Sergeant Holby said he had made enquiries at the local recruiting office and they told him they could not enlist because of their colour, but if application was made to the War Office no doubt they could enlist in some regiment of Black men. The accused were remanded for a week.”

There were also reformers in the Caribbean region who were attacking the Crown and saw the war as important for their movement for representative governance, to help them bring political and constitutional change.

Pro-participation arguments provided the basis for official representations to be made by the various governors to the British government. British officials were not keen on having people of African descent in the Caribbean serve on the Western Front – the War Office was tried to prevent any people from the West Indies enlisting, and actually threatened to repatriate any who arrived.

 

Eventually, the Colonial Office, the War Office, and King George V, formed a single contingent of troops, forces and fighters from the Caribbean – the British West Indian Regiment, and an army order was passed stating that the BWIR would be recognized as a corps for the purposes of the Army Act. The War Office also determined that Black colonial troops would not fight against Europeans, consequently most members of BWIR functioned in non-combat positions, as labour battalions.

COUNTRY NUMBER OF VOLUNTEERS
Jamaica 15,280
Trinidad & Tobago 1478
Barbados 831
British Guyana 700
British Honduras 533
Grenada 445
Bahamas 441
St. Lucia 359
St. Vincent 305
Leeward Islands 229
Total 20,601

Caribbean countries also gave the “war effort” money – £2,000,000 (equivalent to £141,693,641 in 2015) and provisions – several thousand pounds of sugar, rum, oil, lime, cotton, rice, clothing, logwood; 9 aeroplanes, and 11 ambulances with enough funds for their maintenance, were all donated.

The generosity of the colonies was, however, not uncontested locally. In several colonies including Trinidad, Grenada, Jamaica and British Honduras, a number of Black people adopted the position that it was a White man’s
war and therefore Black people should not get involved.

Over 20,000 people served in the British West Indies Regiment. Jamaica contributed two-thirds of these volunteers, while others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Bermuda, the Bahamas, British Honduras (now Belize), GrenadaBritish Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward IslandsSaint Lucia and St Vincent.

1st Battalion Formed at Seaford, Sussex, from West Indies volunteers: A Company from British Guyana, B from Trinidad, C from Trinidad & St. Vincent, D from Grenada & Barbados. Served in Egypt and Palestine. War diary September 1915 – April 1919 (WO95/4427, 4433, 4410, 4732)

2nd Battalion Served in Egypt and Palestine. War diary January 1916 – April 1919

3rd Battalion Served in France & Flanders. War diary March 1916 – January 1919

4th Battalion Served in France & Flanders. War diary May – November 1918

5th Battalion A reserve draft-finding unit. War diary July 1916 – April 1919

6th Battalion Served in France & Flanders. War diary March 1917 – April 1919

7th Battalion Served in France & Flanders. War diary June – December 1917

8th Battalion Served in France & Flanders and went to Italy in 1918.  War diary July – December 1917

9th Battalion Served in France & Flanders and went to Italy in 1918. War diary July – December 1917

10th Battalion Served in France and Italy.

11th Battalion Served in France and Italy.

Bermuda raised two more contingents: the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (which was a segregated and white unit attached to the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment) and the Bermuda Militia Artillery which were of African and/or indigenous origin and were raised from the Bermuda Garrison Artillery created in the 19th century, and who also served in WW2. A number of other fighters joined different British and Canadian regiments

BWIR troops were engaged in numerous support roles on the Western Front – digging trenches, building roads and gun emplacements, acting as stretcher bearers, loading ships and trains, and working in ammunition dumps. This work was often carried out within range of German artillery and snipers; on one occasion 13 men from the BWIR were killed by shell fire and aerial bombardment.

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. See http://www.westindiaregiment.com/history.html

In July 1916, 500 men of the BWIR were sent to fight in German East Africa. There they were engaged in guarding the railway line captured from German forces, manning communications posts, and finding and capturing German ammunition dumps. This was a difficult and little-remembered posting. The rainy season brought challenging conditions, and soldiers suffered from malaria, exposure and lack of supplies including clothing and food. Letters were rarely delivered due to the remote location.

A LIST OF ITEMS A SOLDIER IN THE BWIR LOOKED FORWARD TO RECEIVING

Cocoa (prepared),  Spices (prepared)

Chocolate, peppermints and sweets

Dried fruits,  Ginger (prepared)

Guava jelly and preserves

Hot sauces for salmagundi etc

Briar pipes and tobacco pouches

Tobacco (in thick tinfoil if possible)

Cigarettes, cigarette papers and cigarette tobacco

Automatic lighters (not containing oil, spirit or similar substances)

Safety matches (in sealed tins)

Antiseptic powder

Boracic ointment or borated vaseline for sore feet (in small tins)

Brompton cough lozenges

Jujubes

Notepaper, envelopes and pencils

Handkerchiefs, boot laces

1916 also saw the return of invalid fighters to the islands and most did not receive a pension; the few who did, experienced excessively long delays before assistance reached them. In Jamaica they were usually given a few shillings, a cheap suit of clothes and free railway transport to their home, but because of transportation problems some had to remain in Kingston for several days. This exhausted their money even before they actually left for home. The situation created major dissatisfaction because many had no other form of support. Having relinquished their jobs to fight for King and Country these soldiers were left to experience destitution and poverty.

In March of same year a third Jamaica contingent, comprising 25 officers and 1,115 other ranked personnel, departed for England on board the ship SS Verdala. Due to Germany’s warships and submarine activity in the region, the admiralty ordered the ship to make a diversion to Halifax, Canada, but before the ship could reach its destination it encountered a blizzard. The SS Verdala was not adequately heated, and the Jamaican soldiers had not been given warm clothing, temperatures in Halifax reached -9°C, inevitably, substantial casualties resulted and more than 600 men suffered from exposure and frostbite, 106 men required amputations, and there were five immediate deaths.

This incident had a negative effect on further recruiting from the islands, officials had to make house-to-house visits to generate interest. Additional volunteers came from Panama, particularly after America’s entry into the war in 1917.

The Taranto Revolt

Following the Armistice in November 1918 the battalions of the BWIR were concentrated at Taranto, Italy, to prepare for demobilisation. However, as a result of severe labour shortages at Taranto they were still required to work; loading and unloading ships, performing labour fatigues, and building and cleaning latrines for White soldiers; all of this caused resentment, which increased when they discovered that they had been classified as “natives” and were not entitled to the 50% pay rise the White soldiers were receiving.
Tensions brought about by this treatment eventually came to a head in December 1918; frustrated by their continued use as labourers whilst waiting for demobilisation, men of the 9th Battalion attacked their officers in a mutiny that lasted four days before being crushed.

On 6 December 1918, the men of the 9th Battalion refused to obey orders, and 180 sergeants signed and forwarded a petition to the Secretary of State complaining about the poor pay issue, the failure to increase their separation allowance, and the discrimination against them relating to promotions – as soldiers of African and Caribbean descent they would never rank beyond sergeant, they would always have White officers. The West Indian Contingent Committee signalled the hypocrisy and impossibility of the situation and warned of the serious effect differentiation would have on public opinion in the colonies when the British West Indies Regiment was demobilised.

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Three days later on 9 December, the 10th Battalion also refused to work. Over a period of four days a Black Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence, there was also a bombing, and senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Willis, who had ordered some BWIR men to clean the latrines of the Italian Labour Corps, was also subsequently assaulted. In response to calls for help from the commanders at Taranto, a machine-gun company and a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment were dispatched to restore order. The 9th Battalion was disbanded, and redistributed to other battalions, which were then disarmed. Approximately 60 soldiers were tried for mutiny, some received sentences from 3 to 5 years, with one man getting 20 years, and another was executed by firing squad. The authorities then made the decision to disarm all the soldiers and disband the BWIR as soon as possible

Bitterness persisted after the mutiny was suppressed, and on 17 December 1918 NCOs of the BWIR met to discuss the question of black rights, self-determination, and closer union in the West Indies. An organisation called the Caribbean League was formed at the gathering to further these objectives.

At another meeting on 20 December, under the chairmanship of one Sergeant Baxter, who had just been superseded by a White NCO, a sergeant of the 3rd BWIR argued that the black man “should have freedom and govern himself in the West Indies and that if necessary, force and bloodshed should be used to attain these aims”. His sentiments were loudly applauded by the majority of those present. The discussion eventually drifted from matters concerning the West Indies to one of grievances of the Black man against the White. The soldiers decided to hold a general strike for higher wages on their return to the West Indies. The headquarters for the Caribbean League was to be in Kingston, Jamaica, with sub-offices in the other colonies. The league was then betrayed to Officers and it was disbanded early in 1919. The pay increase originally fought for was eventually granted following further protests from governments in Caribbean countries.
As the racial hostilities subdued in the military, a profound change occurred in White attitudes to the presence of people of African descent in the United Kingdom – troops were kept away from the victory parades that marked the end of the war. As white seamen and soldiers were demobilized and the competition for jobs intensified, so too did the level of race and class grow in antagonism, especially in London and the port cities. The more serious aspect of this was the numerous riots which erupted and the large-scale onslaught of assaults on Black people. In an attempt to appease the British public, the government decided to repatriate as many of the volunteers from the Caribbean as they could and by the middle of September 1919, about 600 had been repatriated.

Even more alarming to the authorities, especially those in the West Indies, was the fact that between 1916 and 1919 a number of colonies including St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guiana experienced a series of strikes in which people were shot and killed.

The BWIR soldiers began arriving back home and they joined the wave of these worker protests resulting from a severe economic crisis produced by the war, alongside Black nationalist ideology by the Right Honourable Marcus Garvey and others. Together, the disenchanted ex-soldiers and resentful workers in the Caribbean unleashed a series of protest actions and riots in a number of countries including Jamaica, Grenada, and especially in British Honduras (Belize). Gunner Norman Manley, who had seen his brother blown apart in front of him during the war, eventually took Jamaica to independence, becoming its first prime minister in 1962.

George Blackman from Barbados, who was in Taranto for a short time, remembers it being hard


“From Marseille, it was seven days to reach Taranto. It is a seaport – all the boats were coming from London with ammunition. We have to unload the boat, the train come, and we got to load the train to take the ammunition up the line.”

When the war finish, there was nothing,” said George. “I had to come and look for work. The only thing that we had is the clothes and the uniform that we got on. The pants, the jacket and the shirt, and the boots. You can’t come home naked”.

He continued “When we got home, if you got a mother or father you have something, but if you’re alone, you got to look for work. When I come I had nobody. I had to look for work. I had to eat and buy clothes. Who going to give me clothes? I didn’t have a father or nobody. Now I said, ‘The English are no good.’ I went to Jamaica and I meet up some soldiers and I asked them, ‘Here boy, what the government give you?’ They said, ‘The government give us nothing.’ I said, ‘we just the same.’” Neither the Barbadian nor the British governments gave George Blackman a pension. He died at the age of 105 years.

Private A. Francis who had lost an arm during active service “Francis, a coloured man who worked in the shipyard at Liverpool, volunteered under the Derby Scheme and, because “great difficulty was found in posting men of colour to ordinary British units”, he was posted to the B.W.I.R., which had been set up expressly to cater for his and similar cases. Upon his being invalided out after the loss of an arm, he was granted a pension considerably lower than that to which he would have been entitled had he been assigned to an ordinary British line regiment. The Treasury was unwilling to open the door to revising the principle of differential rates but it did give the department the “loophole” of granting him an alternative pension at the “European” rate.”

Though living, working and fighting for Britain during the war he was not considered “British” by the army on volunteering or by government departments for a pension. Many of the volunteers remained in Britain in cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff.

“…the war as a bog into which flowed an idealized loyalty to Britain and an innocent belief in the justice of the metropolitan British and out of which flowed more realistic, jaundiced and cynical views of the true nature of the imperial connection” Peter Fraser VP of the Labour Party in New Zealand 1919, and then president 1920

Of the 20,601 BWIR contingent 185 soldiers were killed or died due to wounds received, a further 697 soldiers were wounded, and 1071 died of sickness. The high level of illness has been attributed to the conditions of wartime service, with a poor and irregular diet, unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, poor medical care, climatic conditions and the high incidence of contagious diseases.

Soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment received the following medals:

5 – D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order)

2 – M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire)

9 – M.C. (Military Cross)

8 – D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal)

37 – M.M. (Military Medal)

49 – Mentioned in dispatches.

More About the Racial Discrimination the BWIR Experienced

The British Empire in 1914 covered almost 12 million square miles and included 421 million people. Of the 59 million who were not in India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the UK, 1.7 million were in the British West Indies. This consisted of the colonies of: the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica (including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The vast majority of these British subjects in the West Indies were of African descent, with only 35,000 white people among them.


A secret colonial memo from 1919, uncovered by researchers for a Channel 4 programme on the Taranto mutiny, showed that the British government realised that everything had changed, too: “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.” In a sense, history was rewritten. That meant no celebrations, no official acknowledgment.


The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was meant to create not just a peaceful world but a fairer one as well. Yet this vision would not include self-determination for many of the subject peoples of Britain’s non-white colonies. In supporting the war effort many West Indians had hoped for change, but it would take several decades, and another world war, for the islands to gain independence from Britain.


Even though there was a high degree of standardisation and regularisation in the disciplinary code structure of the army, inequalities in attitudes towards and treatment of the different races, classes and ethnic groups did exist. Major problems of discrimination were to be found in the practical application of army regulations in an environment in which stereotypes of race and class were prevalent. Even though the army structure and system of accountability did in many instances eventually vindicate the rights of all soldiers, adjustment into army life was usually more difficult and precarious for the Black soldier than for his White counterpart because of racism. One veteran, Sir Etienne Dupuch, wrote of the ‘consciousness of discrimination’ against ‘native troops’ which Blacks felt in the army.


In 1918 about 50 members of the BWIR were being treated at Belmont Road Military Auxiliary Hospital, in Liverpool. All had been seriously injured and had suffered wounds which had resulted in foot or leg amputations. Relations between black and white soldiers were good at first until some South African causalities were brought in. They soon began to taunt and insult the BWIR soldiers. As relations deteriorated, fighting broke out between the two groups.


One response adopted by Black soldiers was to write to local newspapers urging for ‘something hot’ to be written against race prejudice. Their intention was to mobilise West Indian public opinion in the hope of getting proper representation and possibly relief from the daily harassment. In fact, soldiers sometimes accused the papers and the local public of getting them into these difficulties by having urged them to enlist.


Some soldiers sought a form of quiet accommodation within the system. Barbadian soldier Charles Rice, when questioned about racism, denied ever having experienced any racial insults; in his view ‘anything you looked for is the same thing you got’. Quiescence may have been the product of centuries of colonialism and the feelings of inferiority which it engendered, or else it simply made life easier.


For more information visit

http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/on-black-british-soldiers/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_West_Indies_Regiment

http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-story-of-the-british-west-indies-regiment-in-the-first-world-war

http://www.1914-1918.net/britishwestindiesregiment.html

https://libcom.org/history/british-west-indies-regiment-mutiny-1918

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/west_indies_01.shtml

https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/134/british-west-indies-regiment/

http://senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/2014/02/17/ww1-and-the-british-west-indies-regiment/

https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/west-indians-in-britains-great-war-army/

https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/west-indians-in-britains-great-war-army/

http://bcva.weebly.com/wir–bwir.html

http://www.mgtrust.org/car1.htm

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/10/first-world-war-colonial-soldiers-racism

http://www.cariwave.com/the_british_west_indies_regiment.htm

http://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/allied/britishwestindiesregiment-gw.php

http://www.hmdt.org.uk/hmdtmusic/trenchbrothersteaching/6-the-british-west-indies-regiment/