The coronation of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia in November 1930 engendered Pan-African feeling among West Indian ex-servicemen. After the League of Nations did not act to stall Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, West Indian veterans petitioned for intervention and to be allowed to fight in defence of the pre-eminent symbol of African statehood. A petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies organised by Jamaican veteran, St. William Grant, demanded ‘that in the same way as we helped to safeguard the integrity of other races, we are asking that our race be protected at this crucial moment’.[xiv] Although the petition was unsuccessful, the Ethiopian crisis revealed how the memory of West Indian war service could be reworked to take account of new political circumstances.
In more recent times, West Indian war service has been routinely represented as overlooked. Television documentaries touching on the experiences of West Indian soldiers such as The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire[xv] and Not Forgotten: Soldiers of Empire[xvi]reflect this view. Yet the sacrifices of West Indian volunteers were commemorated in the years following the conflict. Jamaica’s first memorial was a Portland stone calvary unveiled at Montego Bay in September 1921. Memorial tablets were erected in other parishes by public subscription.[xvii]
As the post-war treaties were being concluded, W. T. Massey, a Daily Telegraph journalist who had accompanied General Allenby’s troops in the Middle East, praised the British West Indies Regiment for its part in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and highlighted the diversity of the British imperial forces
“From all over the Seven Seas the empire’s sons came to illustrate the unanimity of all the King’s subjects … the West Indies furnished infantry who, when the fierce summer heat made the air in the Jordan Valley like a draught from a furnace, had a bayonet charge which aroused an Anzac brigade to enthusiasm.[i]
Commemoration of the First World War has subsequently been central to the articulation of Australian and New Zealand national identities. However, memories of West Indian involvement have followed more complex routes. Although West Indian volunteers enlisted in support of the British Empire, their contribution was also recalled by nationalist movements, independent Caribbean nations, and pan-African organisations. More recently the commemoration of West Indian involvement has been most visible in contemporary multicultural Britain which increasingly remembers past imperial military endeavours as the particular achievements of ethnic communities or the Commonwealth.
The First World War centenary commemorations allow us to reappraise these perspectives of West Indian participation. This is important in terms of contemporary community relations and as, in recent years, the British armed services have looked to former West Indian colonies for recruits.
After the First World War, the military achievements of diverse imperial forces could be used as an example of the British Empire’s progressive nature. In the West Indies, memories of military service underpinned campaigns to secure rewards of land and employment for veterans. More broadly, through the 1920s and 1930s, the contribution and experiences of West Indian ex-servicemen was recalled by a variety of nationalists and trade unionists whose political aims included more efficient colonial economies and self-government.
From the 1960s, independent West Indian nation states remembered military service in the world wars as a means of asserting national identity. The pan-African dimension to West Indian politics, particularly through the northward migration to the United States, meant that the memory of military service moved beyond the boundaries of both empire and nation.
During the First World War, the British West Indies Regiment enlisted over 16,000 officers and men from the West Indies, the Bahamas, British Honduras and the West Indian community in Panama. Around 1200 West Indians served with the West India Regiment and perhaps a further 1000 enlisted in other British Army units. West Indians also saw wartime service in the Royal Navy, British merchant fleet and in medical services as doctors and nursing staff.
The West Indian colonies also contributed nearly £2 million from tax revenue and voluntary donations provided war supplies such as planes and British Red Cross ambulances. West Indian produce such as sugar, rum, cocoa and rice continued to be sent to Britain and Trinidadian oil production increased three-fold to meet wartime demand and Sea Island cotton was used for aircraft production.[ii]
The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA), founded by Marcus Garvey in Jamaica on the eve of the war, telegrammed a resolution to the Colonial Office in London ‘express[ing] our loyalty and devotion to His Majesty the King, and Empire … pray[ing] for the success of British Arms on the battlefields of Europe and Africa, and at Sea’.[iii] Many West Indians were keen to fulfil such pledges of loyalty by volunteering for military service. Others were motivated by more mundane concerns such as obtaining regular food and wages in economies characterised by casual and low-paid employment.
British policy was that West Indians should assist the war effort by increasing the production of raw materials. However, the enthusiasm to take a direct military role was not dampened this Barbadian made clear,
“We have put up sugar and money … but that won’t win our battles. It’s lives we desire to give … it is only fair to give these colonies the opportunity of showing the true spirit of patriotism that they have always evinced in the past.[iv]”
Some West Indians sailed directly to the United Kingdom to enlist, where they were often rejected by recruiting officers as military and civil law was unclear whether West Indians should be regarded as British subjects, aliens or ‘negroes’.[v] Subsequent discussions between the War Office and the Colonial Office and a conversation between George V and Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, resulted in the acceptance of West Indian war contingents. The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was created in October 1915 and by the spring of 1916 two battalions had arrived in Egypt following initial training in Seaford on the south coast of England. Twelve BWIR battalions had been formed by the end of the war.
Although designated as an infantry regiment and entitled to the same terms of service as other British regiments, commanders and officials often subjected the BWIR to the inferior conditions dictated for ‘native’ corps. The medical care and recreational facilities offered to West Indian troops was often inferior as a result and pay increases, granted to the British army in 1917, were withheld until protests from West Indian soldiers.[vi]
Equally problematic was the official reluctance to deploy West Indians as combat troops. Nine BWIR battalions served as military labour on the Western Front and at the strategic port of Taranto, southern Italy. The men worked on road, railway and trench construction, unloaded supplies from ships and trains, carried ammunition to artillery batteries and laid telephone wires in the line of enemy fire.
West Indian troops occasionally engaged in direct combat roles. Detachments of the second battalion of the WIR were deployed against the German forces in the Tanganyika campaign. The first, second and fifth battalions remained as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) until the end of the war. In July 1917, during the Palestine campaign, the machine gun section of the 1BWIR was involved in several raids on Turkish trenches at Umbrella Hill on the Gaza-Beersheba line.
General Allenby, who had recently been made Commander-in-Chief of the EEF, reported to the Jamaican Governor that he had ‘great pleasure in informing you of the excellent conduct of the Machine Gun Section … All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle fire and shell fire, and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations’.[vii]
In September 1918, during the defeat of the Turkish forces at Megiddo (Armageddon) by Allenby’s army, the first and second battalions attacked several positions in the Jordan Valley under heavy artillery fire. The Turkish lines at the Bridge of Adam (Damieh) were broken by the assault so vividly described by Massey when West Indian troops accounted for one hundred and forty casualties, forty prisoners and fourteen captured machine guns. West Indian newspapers applauded the BWIR and published citations for valour.[viii] This moment in the West Indian war memory was a key symbol in the post-war campaigns of ex-servicemen into the 1930s. The bayonet charge, provided a lasting image of front-line heroism when fatalities from disease among the BWIR outnumbered battle casualties by six to one.[ix]
There was a further significance to the role of the BWIR in the liberation of the Holy Land. Their action at Megiddo, a site with biblical associations to the ‘end of days’ and millennial prophecy, were potent symbols of hope for many West Indian troops. This symbolism was recognised by Captain Cipriani of Trinidad who called Allenby’s forces ‘20th Century Crusaders’.[x]
The heroic exploits of the first and second battalions in the Middle East did not bring an end to the discrimination in pay and conditions experienced by the BWIR. Nor did this achievement lessen the increasing resentment of West Indians employed as military labour. At Taranto shortly after the Armistice, several BWIR battalions mutinied when asked to clean latrines used by Italian labourers who had recently won wage and ration increases. Although the mutiny was swiftly suppressed, the forty-seven men found guilty of involvement received heavy sentences at courts martial.[xi]
During this period around sixty BWIR sergeants formed the short-lived Caribbean League at Taranto, to promote ‘matters conducive to the General Welfare of the islands constituting the British West Indies and the British Territories adjacent thereto’.[xii] Although some members chose radical rhetoric, many in the League adopted a moderate position that envisaged social reform and a degree of cooperation with the colonial authorities.
After demobilisation, campaigns by West Indian veterans were focused primarily on land settlement and preferential employment schemes. During the 1930s economic depression, many former West Indian soldiers returned home following post-war labour migration to Cuba and Central America. Veterans began to adopt more overtly anti-colonial positions, although claims for settlement on fertile land and employment on Jamaica government projects still predominated. In Jamaica, the Ex-British West Indies Regiment Association resolved ‘that no member … will indulge in any WAR in which our EMPIRE is engaged’[xiii] until such demands were met, suggesting that loyalty to British imperial rule was conditional, rather than unequivocal.
British Guiana dedicated a memorial in Georgetown in August 1923. A Memorial Park with a central cenotaph was laid out in Port of Spain, Trinidad and opened in June 1924. Publications, such as the Times History of the War (1918), Lucas’, The Empire at War and Frank Cundall’s, Jamaica’s Part in the Great War 1914-1918[xviii] also celebrated the West Indian contribution.
Jamaica’s principal memorial was dedicated in Church Street, Kingston on Armistice Day 1922 by Acting Governor Bryan who spoke of Jamaicans as part of an imperial brotherhood whose graves ‘girdled’ the world.[xix] In 1953, the memorial was re-located to the newly inaugurated George VI Memorial Park which was renamed National Heroes Park following independence. It could be said, therefore, that the Kingston memorial embodies the journey of West Indian war memory through imperial military service to independent nationhood.
That journey has continued with the migration from the West Indies to Britain since the end of the Second World War. Interest in the imperial dimensions of the First World War has gradually been rekindled among academics and publics over the past five decades on both sides of the Atlantic.[xx] West Indian migrants and their descendants have affirmed their citizenship rights in Britain by recalling ancestral sacrifice in the world wars.
The role of imperial troops in both world wars from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean was visibly commemorated in 2002 when the Memorial Gates were opened on Constitution Hill, London with funding the Millennium Commission. The West Indian Association of Service Personal (WASP), which represents veterans of West Indian descent who have served in the forces since the Second World War, takes part in an annual Remembrance Day service at Seaford Cemetery, Sussex where nineteen members of the BWIR are buried.
The West Indian contingents were based at Seaford before the BWIR depot was transferred to Egypt in 1916. The West Indians buried in Seaford died of diseases contracted on arrival in Britain, not in battle. The desire to commemorate these graves suggests that the preoccupation with front-line heroic imagery, which characterised West Indian recollections of the war during the 1920s and 1930s, has given way to a wider definition of sacrifice.
All West Indians who served in the First World War were volunteers. Having enlisted to fight for the British Empire, their war service has subsequently been remembered within the causes of pan-Africanism and West Indian nationhood. More recently, particularly through community efforts and projects associated with the centenary, the memory of West Indian war service has been re-established to encourage a sense of belonging and purpose within contemporary multicultural Britain.
[i] W. T. Massey, How Jerusalem Was Won: Being the Record of Allenby’s Campaign in Palestine (London: Constable, 1919), p. 17.
[ii] C. Lucas, The Empire at War, Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1923.
[iii] M. Garvey ‘Letter to Right Honourable Lewis Harcourt, MP, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 16 September 1914’, National Archives CO137/705/5.
[iv] West India Committee Circular, 17 November 1914: 502
[v] R. Smith, Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of National Consciousness(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 63-68.
[vi] Smith, pp. 122-6.
[vii] A. A. Cipriani, Twenty-five Years After: The British West Indies Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918 (Port of Spain: Trinidad Publishing Co., 1940), p. 20.
[viii] See, for example DG 29 March 1919, 18.
[ix] West India Committee Circular, 29 May 1919, 128.
[x] Cipriani, p. 35.
[xi] Smith, pp. 130-133.
[xii] National Archives CO318/350/2590 Notes of meeting held at Cimino Camp [Taranto], Italy, 17 December 1918.
[xiii] Ex-British West Indies Regiment Association (1937) ‘Resolution passed by Ex-BWIR Ass.’ 24 October, National Archives CO137/828/5.
[xiv] ‘Petition to Secretary of State for the Colonies’, 5 October 1935, National Archives CO318/418/4/71062.
[xv] Episode 2, BBC2, 13 Aug 2014, 21:30.
[xvi] Channel 4, 9 November 2009, 20:00.
[xvii] Daily Gleaner 23 September 1921, 9; 24 October 1921, 9; 26 October 1921, 6; 21 November 1921, 4; 2 December 1921, 4.
[xviii] (London: West India Committee, 1925).
[xix] Daily Gleaner, 13 November 1922, 8.
[xx] For early examples see Elkins, W.F. (1970) ‘A Source of Black Nationalism in the Caribbean: the Revolt of the BWIR at Taranto, Italy’,Science and Society, 33: 2, 99-103; Joseph, C. L. (1971) ‘The British West Indies Regiment, 1914-1918’, Journal of Caribbean History, 2, 94-124.
via: West Indian Committe