During Black History Month 2018, Samuel Ali challenges the idea that African and Caribbean soldiers served to support British troops, not as British troops in WW1
@museumpoetry

The narrative that African and Caribbean peoples served in support of but not as British soldiers, during WW1, was perpetuated during the unveiling of Britain’s first African and Caribbean War Memorial last year, in Brixton. Over one hundred years after the outbreak of the war, then Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, was amongst those expressing this view, stating: “(s)erving thousands of miles from home, they fought and fell with British soldiers to defend the freedoms we enjoy today…”

The main inscription on the memorial itself, unveiled on Windrush Day, 22 June 2017, is dedicated to the “(m)emory of the service men and women from Africa and the Caribbean who served alongside the forces of the British Commonwealth and her allies during WWI and WWII.” Whilst recognising the important service of Africans and Caribbeans for Britain during WW1 – over 100,000 African and over 1,200 Caribbean men were killed, the denial of their British status is to implicitly erase their historic struggle for equal treatment.

West Indian and African men of the British Empire were “natural-born British subjects” having been born within “His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance.” Some lived in Britain before outbreak of war in 1914 and others migrated during to sign up to the British Army, despite racially discriminatory practices amongst recruiters enabled by incoherent legislation and discouragement from the War Office. Those rejected by an unofficial colour bar sometimes served instead on merchant ships as part of the so-called ‘merchant navy.’ Lionel Turpin, who was commemorated during the memorial unveiling, was from British Guiana and served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps from 1916 to 1918, suffering wounding and gassing. Ralph Vignalë of Trinidad had married in England and lived in Croydon at the time of the outbreak of war. He enlisted with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and then the British West Indies Regiment.

Meanwhile, British military law recognised that regiments of colonial troops raised abroad “by direct order of His Majesty” were “to serve as auxiliary to, and in fact form part for the time being of, the regular forces.” These forces were subject to British law and considered part of Imperial troops and included the West India Regiment and the West African Regiment, who were enlisted to serve in any part of the world.

Nineteen soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment are buried at Seaford Cemetery, their graves cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Kevin Gordon)

The West Indies contributed £2 million in cash donations for the war effort and £54 million, according to the West India Committee, in goods, including oil and medical supplies. Men such as the nine stowaways on the SS Danube in May 1915, arrived in England desiring to enlist. Travelling via Trinidad and Barbados, they were remanded in jail as stowaways by West Ham police court and then told to seek enlistment in a coloured regiment.

 

The segregated British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was raised during the war, in October, 1915, after opposition from the War Office and concern that “a large body of trained and disciplined black men would create obvious difficulties, and might seriously menace the supremacy of the white,” as stated in a secret memorandum by Andrew Bonar Law, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

A compromise was reached between the War Office and the Colonial Office, whereby, despite being an infantry regiment, BWIR battalions would be used primarily to perform labour duties, such as transporting munitions to the front line. The first recruits included educated, middle class West Indians who were lead to believe that they were “on an entirely different footing to the regular West Indian Regiment” and that they would enjoy “every privilege just as any other British soldier.” King George V issued an announcement published in the Caribbean expressing, “pride in the voluntary response from my Subjects all over the world who have sacrificed home, fortune and life itself…”

In July 1917, as British forces fought in Gaza, in Palestine, BWIR men served in machine gun detachments against the Ottoman Empire, with a number being decorated with the Military Medal. Subsequently, there was greater use of BWIR battalions on the front line in the Middle East as British forces fought their way towards Jerusalem. In an unusual case, in August 1917, Fitz Arthur Rojas, a Trinidadian serving in Palestine with the BWIR, allegedly shot and killed an officer, 2nd Lieutenant Francis Lansdown, following demotion in rank on a misconduct charge. Rojas subsequently deserted and is recorded as having committed suicide.

In August 1918, twelve men of the BWIR, based in Egypt, forwarded a petition to Barbadian authorities complaining of discriminatory practices, including, exclusion from a pay increase awarded to all Imperial troops on the basis of being “natives” and the bar from certain promotions. “We have been deceived. We like to think that the deception was not intentional,” they wrote. The Governor of Barbados forwarded the petition to the British Government a few months later, requesting that, “any representations of our men serving may be enquired into before their return, that the harmony of such return may not be interfered with…”

Of the over 15,000 West Indian men who volunteered for the BWIR, two-thirds from Jamaica, 185 were killed and 1,071 died of illness as a result of the war. Deaths occurred from pneumonia at Seaford camp in East Sussex, where they had first arrived to train. Furthermore, on 6 March 1916, the SS Verdala set sail for Europe transporting the third Jamaica contingent of the BWIR. En route, it was diverted to Canada, in fear of German submarine activity. The ship was hit by a blizzard and the 1,000 men onboard experienced freezing temperatures without adequate heating or clothing. Six hundred of the men suffered frostbite, with some one hundred requiring amputations and at least five men dying.

After the Armistice, a number of BWIR battalions, consisting of 8,000 men, were stationed at at the port city of Taranto, Italy. Soldiers reported being ostracised: “(s)ince we came here, we couldn’t understand why these British soldiers they didn’t seem to want any attachment with us. We had always seemed to get on good together in Egypt,” a soldier from British Guiana recalled.  They were given labour duties, loading and unloading ships and trains, as well as being ordered to clean latrines for white units. Meanwhile, sick and wounded BWIR men continued to succumb in the military hospital, being buried in Taranto Cemetery.

The Vignalë family were from Arima, Trinidad. In the back row of the image are Otho and Ralph Vignalë, brothers who were living in Croydon, UK, on the outbreak of WW1 and who both enlisted in the British Army. (Image c/o Joan Leggett)

It was in this context that, on 6 December 1918, sergeants from the BWIR forwarded a petition to the Secretary of State repeating demands made previously by men of the BWIR, including for the pay increase granted by Army Order No.1 1918 to all Imperial troops and access to promotions to the commissioned officer class from which they were barred. Additionally, the petition demanded separation pay increase as granted to other soldiers for their relatives, stating “cost of living in the West Indies has greatly increased on account of conditions arising from the war – as in Jamaica where it has gone up over 130 per centum.”

The same day, men of the 9th BWIR battalion refused orders and over the next few days, they were joined by the 10th battalion. Clashes broke out and a BWIR man was shot and killed. The uprising lasted four days and was quelled as soldiers from other regiments were brought in. The 9th battalion was disbanded; some sixty men were charged with mutiny and amongst those convicted, sentences of between three and five years were received. One man received a twenty year sentence and one was executed by firing squad. In 1921, the BWIR was disbanded.

Although the BWIR were subsequently awarded the pay increase, in 1919, other regiments, such as the West India Regiment, remained excluded. Discontent continued as part of serious wider civil and military unrest – Canadian troops stationed in Britain staged three major riots that year. BWIR sergeants at Taranto had formed the Caribbean League, organising for the welfare of the West Indies, in the midst of an even harsher camp regime enforced after the revolt. Those that had been convicted and repatriated to the West Indies staged further revolts; disturbances occurred on the SS Orca which docked at Kingston, Jamaica. There, BWIR men allied themselves with seamen repatriated from Britain to protest their treatment.

In Britain, in 1919, racialised violence broke out in port cities, fuelled by high post-war unemployment, targetting, in particular, black seaman, some of whom had served on British merchant ships during the war. The Government, fearing wider threats to their authority from police, soldier and worker strikes, tightened alien registration and deportation and introduced a voluntary repatriation scheme aimed particularly at black and mixed race men. The Home Office informed authorities in Liverpool, “while it is not possible to deport compulsorily any coloured men who are British subjects it is considered desirable that so far as possible all unemployed coloured men should be induced to return to their own countries as quickly as possible”.

Black regiments were excluded from official British victory parades of 1919 and black delegations, alongside other colonial and minority groups, were barred from the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris. The West Indian assertion to equal treatment “as taxpayers… and loyal British subjects of His Majesty,” as BWIR NCOs in Palestine put it, threatened the Imperial project. Disaffected veteran soldiers played key roles in post-war uprisings, strikes and nationalist movements across the British West Indies, their status as British subjects and veterans of the British Army forming a source of authority.

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Samuel Ali has worked in various roles in the heritage sector and writes about the sector, alongside issues of mental health, history and social justice. Contact on Twitter @museumpoetry

Main image: Kelly Foster/ Wikimedia


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3 thoughts on “How British were the Caribbean soldiers of the First World War?

    1. I believe nothing has changed; look how the Windrush Generation is be treated today….
      But what gets me is that despite the consistent poor treatment the West Indians still ran to assist when the British gov’t begs for help…..

      Like

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