The British West Indies Regiment
Information about these units is scarce with (it would seem) very little material available in the United Kingdom. The service records of the men of the Regiment were destoyed during the Second World War by the German air raid "Blitz" of 1940.
The autumn of 1914 saw groups of volunteers begin to arrive from all parts of the Caribbean to join the British Armed Forces. Some men came to Britain as stowaways to "Serve Kind and Country". There efforts were not always welcomed as demonstrated in the following newspaper report:
"Stratford Express" (London) 19 May 1915, page 3:
THE DOCKS - Black Men for the Front At West Ham Police Court to-day (Wednesday).
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 a dark corner, I suppose? (Laughter). 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: What, do they want to enlist in the Black Guards? (Laughter). Det. Sergt. 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. Remanded for a week.
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 consisted of men from African and Asian decent and those of mixed race. Initially these volunteers were split up and drafted into a variety of units within the British Army. In October and November 1915 many of the contingents were brought together at Seaford, West Sussex, England and were formed into the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR).
It's make-up reflected Britain's colonies in the Caribbean:
"A" Company - British Guiana (now Guyana).
"B" Company - Trinidad
"C" Company - Trinidad and St. Vincent.
"D" Company - Grenada and Barbados.
Wastage due to disease was high with many dying from pneumonia and others being found unfit and sent home. A further draft of 725 men from Jamaica, British Honduras (now Belize) and Barbados made the regiment a viable operation. Training commenced and soon the regiment was expanded to four battalions.
Internet Page by T.F.Mills "The British Army 1918" lists the regiments of the First World War - including the British West Indies Regiment.
The regiment's battalions saw service in East Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, France and Italy. Two battalions were involved in fighting against the Turks in Palestine and Jordan in 1918, but the War Office considered that colonial troops could not fight against Europeans. Consequently the remaining battalions were employed as "native labour" battalions - carrying ammunition, digging trenches and gun emplacements in France (often under heavy German bombardment). Other detachments were used as garrison troops in Egypt and working unloading ships in Taranto, Italy. This discrimination was to break out in mutiny later.
A total of 397 officers and 15,204 other ranks served in the BWIR. The number of serving men per colony is as follows:
|Trinidad & Tobago||1478|
British West Indies Brigade
|1st (Inf)||06/1915||/1919||Middle East|
|2nd (Inf)||01/1916||/1919||Middle East|
|3rd (Inf)||01/1916||/1919||France 07/16|
|4th (Inf)||05/1916||/1919||France 07/16|
|5th (Res)||08/1916||/1919||Original Reserve|
Eygptian Expeditionary Force
September 1918 - Chaytor's Force.
Commander: Major-General Sir. E.W.C. Chaytor.
ANZAC Mounted Division:
1st Light Horse Brigade:
1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiments.
2nd Light Horse Brigade:
5th, 6th and 7th Regiments.
New Zeland Mounted Rifles Brigade:
Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiments.
29th Indian Brigade:
Alwar, Patiala and Gwalior Imperial Service Infantry Regiments.
110th Mahratta Light Infantry.
38th and 39th Royal Fusiliers (Jewish Legion).
1st and 2nd British West Indies Regiments.
Loses during the war were:
185 killed or died of wounds, 697 wounded and 1,071 died due to sickness. Many of the wounded were moved back to Military Hospitals in Britain for treatment.
I am presently compiling a list of burial or memorial details of those who were killed in action, died of wounds or disease.
The following decorations and recognition were awarded to members of the British West Indies Regiment:
|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.|
Towards the end of the war British Troops were given a 50% pay rise but the War Office denied the West Indian troops this payment. This was latter reversed by the Colonial Office who feared the resentment it caused would result in violence on their return home after demobilisation. Another policy was that black troops had to have white Officers, this limited the promotion prospects of West Indians to the rank of sergeant.
After the war, the battalions who were serving in France and Egypt were moved to Taranto, Italy, to join their comrades already there. Again they were used as "labour" battalions. On the 6th December 1918 members of the 9th Battalion attacked there officers due to their poor treatment. More incidents of of insubordination followed as the troops refused to carry out duties that were assigned to them.
On 17th December 1918, about 60 sergeants formed the "Caribbean League" and one of their demands was that "the black man should have freedom to govern himself". The league was betrayed to Officers and it was disbanded early in 1919. Some soldiers were accused of mutiny and received sentences of between 3 and 5 years in prison. One man was sentenced to 20 years and another was executed by firing squad. The authorities then made the decision to disarm the the soldiers and disband the BWIR as soon as possible.
The fear then was that the demobbed soldiers would promote disorder on return back to the West Indies. Some disturbances did take place and were lead by demobilised soldiers, but on the whole an uneasy truce had broken out.
Even the wounded and disabled.
Wounded BWIR soldiers were not spared prejudice and discrimination. In the Autumn of 1918 about 50 members of the B.W.I.R. were being treated at Belmont Road Military Auxiliary Hospital, 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 B.W.I.R. soldiers. As relations deteriorated fighting broke out between the two groups.
Problems occurred after the war had ended with pensions. See the following example of Private Pte. 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.
Ref: PRO document: T 1/12482
End of the War - 1919.
The First World War had initiated the breaking down of social barriers and the class system in England, so was the race and class system in the West Indies now being challenged. As the Caribbean League stated, "the black man should have freedom to govern himself", so had the flame of independence been kindled in the hearts of many men.
This is a picture of a badge of the British West Indies Regiment. It was found by Bob Cable on Aberavon Beach, Port Talbot, which is
about 6 miles from Swansea, Wales while using a metal detector. How did it get there?... just one of those mysteries of life. Then again there could be easy answer to it! Picture © Bob.J.Cable
Not all the men of the BWIR returned to the Caribbean and on leaving the army they remained in Britain in cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff.