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Guest Post: West Indian soldiers in the First World War

Image of Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916. IWM Q1201

Arthur Torrington is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Arthur’s research looked at the contribution of West Indian soldiers to the First World War which he writes about here.

Soon after war was declared, British military operations in Africa were  launched against Germany’s colonies of Cameroon and Togo.  Both the first and second battalions of the West India Regiments (WIR) participated in these attacks against German East Africa.  The WIRs  were highly commended for their service.  Formed in 1795, the West India Regiment  served the British Empire until 1927. The soldiers were mainly former African slaves.  

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) encouraged his countrymen to volunteer to fight in order to prove their loyalty to the King and to be treated as equals. While Lord Kitchener’s personal view was that black British soldiers should not be allowed to join the forces, King George V ‘s intervention made it possible.  Over 15,000 West Indians volunteered and were included in new units called ‘British West Indies Regiments’. The recruits’ initial journey to England was perilous and hundreds of soldiers suffered from severe frostbite when their troopships were diverted via Halifax in Canada. Very many had to return home no longer fit to serve as soldiers. When the others arrived in England, they found that the fighting was to be done by white soldiers, and that West Indians  were to be assigned the dirty and dangerous work of loading ammunition and digging trenches.  Most of them went to war without guns.

Having served in the war against the Germans and the Turks, some West Indian soldiers were transferred to the British army base in Taranto, Italy, where one of the bitterest events of the war would occur – a mutiny.  The days comprised largely of manual labour such as loading ammunition, or even cleaning clothes and latrines for British soldiers.  For some of the black troops there, a pay rise was given to the white soldiers but not to them.  For many, that was the final indignity and on 6 December 1918 the men of the 9th Battalion revolted. In the following four days, the unrest spread. The mutiny was put down, and around 60 soldiers went on trial. One black soldier was executed – and several others given lengthy jail sentences. 

West Indian troops were kept away from the victory parades that marked the end of the war, and some of them were hurried home under armed guard. Their only possessions were the clothes and the uniforms they wore. There was no work for them at home. Many of the soldiers went on to become political activists, but the islands’ governments put pressure on thousands to emigrate to Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela or North America.    

Working on the Whose remembrance? project has been a pleasure for me. I got on very well with all members of the team.

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