Despite the protests of Lord Kitchener who believed black men should not be allowed to serve, many black men volunteered for and were recruited to all branches of the British armed forces during the First World War.
Black men were recruited from Britain's African colonies including Gambia, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone - a total of more than 120,ooo Black African men. More than 15,000 black men from the Caribbean volunteered to serve in the British Army. At first, they were placed within regular units across the service, but in 1915, the decision was made to form a new regiment specifically for them - the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR).
Those men who volunteered from the Caribbean had to travel to England at their own expense. When their ships were forced to divert course via Canada, hundreds were afflicted with severe frostbite. These men had to return to the Caribbean as unfit to serve, and received neither benefits nor compensation.
All commanding officers in the BWIR were white, and no black man was permitted to hold a higher rank than Sergeant. Once deployed, all fighting was carried out by white soldiers, while the BWIR were given support work loading ammunition, laying cables and digging trenches. Most were unarmed.
‘Stripped to the waist and sweated chest, midday's reprieve brings much-needed rest;
From trenches deep toward the sky, non-fighting troops and yet we die.’
- ‘Black Soldier's Lament’, by an anonymous trooper
The BWIR's rôle in the conflict was considerable, in particular in fighting the Turkish Army in Palestine and Jordan. Of the Regiment's eleven battalions, the 1st and 2nd were deployed chiefly in Palestine and Egypt; the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th were deployed in France and Flanders; the 5th were reserves; the 8th and 9th were deployed in France and Flanders and then Italy; and the 10th and 11th were also deployed in France and Italy.
1917 - Egyptian Labour Corps and British West Indies Regiment building dug outs for the XXth Corps Headquarters on the cliffs near the shore of the Mediterranean near Deir el Belah. The old headquarters camp at Deir el Belah had been shelled from Gaza by a Naval gun and also bombed by aeroplanes on four successive nights.
‘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’
- Palestine Campaign General Allenby to the then Governor of Jamaica William Henry Manning
At the end of the War, in November 1918, the BWIR was chiefly stationed in and around the Southern Italian coastal town of Taranto. While white soldiers were being readied for demobilisation, and were awarded a pay rise, the men of the BWIR were still put to service, including constructing latrines for white soldiers. On December 6th, the 9th Battalion off the BWIR refused orders and put forward a petition of complaint, signed by 180 sergeants. Three days later, the 10th Battalion also refused orders. 60 of the men were then tried for mutiny and sentenced to between three and five years in prison. One man was imprisoned for twenty years, and one other man was executed.
The British West Indies Regiment received more than eighty medals for bravery between 1914 and 1918.
July 1917 - Men from Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados receive free refreshments at a buffet. A sign reads ‘Economy in Food - please do not take more than 1 sandwich’.
1916 - British West Indian troops undergo physical training at Kingston, Jamaica
‘Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.’
- Secret British Colonial Service memo, 1919
July 30th 1918 - A royal visit to Roehampton Hospital, specialising in the treatment of soldiers who have lost limbs. The King speaks to Private Davis, a West Indian soldier who has two artificial legs
July 1917 - West Indian men serving in the British Navy, in the Fleet Auxillary.
Thank you to: Black History 365; Steven Johns
All images: Topfoto