The war after the war | On this day

Thousands of men from the British West Indies enlisted in the armed forces during the First World War, playing a crucial but often thankless role in the Allied victory. And when the fighting was over, another struggle for respect and recognition began — feeding a new wave of self-determination in the Caribbean. James Ferguson remembers the events of a century ago that set it all in motion

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell
  • Trenches on the Somme battlefield during the First World War. Photo by Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

A couple of issues ago I told the story of the First World War hero Walter Tull, the grandson of a Barbados plantation slave who went on to become a ground-breaking professional footballer before enlisting in the British Army and gaining promotion to the rank of lieutenant — the first non-white soldier ever to do so. Tull’s experience, though it ended tragically in the mud of northern France in March 1918, showed at least that an exceptional individual could shrug off the institutional racism of the British military establishment in the early twentieth century and set an example of self-sacrifice.

Tull was not alone among people from the Caribbean or of Caribbean descent in wanting to play a part in the war effort, and to assist the imperial “motherland.” When conflict broke out in Europe in July 1914, thousands of men across the region volunteered to join the army. Some may have been inspired by patriotic idealism, others were perhaps keener to escape the hardships of an economically and socially stagnant colonial backwater — but the enthusiasm was real enough, and considerable numbers made their way to Britain under their own steam.

The response of the War Office was at first negative, as the prevailing racism of the day questioned the volunteers’ loyalty and commitment. But pragmatism took over as casualties mounted on the Western Front, and in 1915 it was decided to form an exclusively Caribbean regiment, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR). The First Battalion was comprised of volunteers who had already been accepted into other regiments, members of the much older West India Regiment — a body founded during the Napoleonic Wars to defend British colonial territories — and, finally, new recruits from Jamaica, Barbados, and British Honduras (Belize). When formal training began in Sussex in September 1915, the BWIR numbered 15,600 men, two-thirds from Jamaica, and with sizable contingents from Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, and the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean.

Many of these men would have been bitterly disappointed, as it became evident that they were seen less as a fighting force than as a supply of cheap, albeit vital, labour. In the Somme, for instance, they were put to work digging trenches, stockpiling munitions, and building roads in the thick mud. It was gruelling but also dangerous work, since they were within shelling and sniping range of the German front line. Some battalions were sent to the Middle East, Egypt and Palestine in particular, and here they saw some direct action, participating in driving the remaining Ottoman forces from the region after the Battle of Jerusalem in 1917. Two men won the Military Medal for valour, and the commanding officer of the BWIR, Major General Sir Edward Chaytor, wrote: “Outside my own division there are no troops I would sooner have with me than the BWIs who have won the highest opinions of all those who have been with them during our operations here.” 

 

High opinions aside, many in the regiment nursed grievances, sensing they were being treated as second-rate personnel, useful for hard physical work but not for real combat. There were many instances of discrimination and poor treatment, as in March 1916, when a troop ship carrying recruits from Jamaica was diverted into a freezing blizzard near Halifax, Canada, leading to five deaths and more than a hundred amputations due to frostbite among men who had been given no cold weather clothing. BWIR personnel were routinely discriminated against in terms of pay, accommodation, and promotion. As the war drew to a close, resentment simmered, leading to an episode in November and December 1918, exactly a century ago, that was more or less unprecedented in the history of the conflict.

It occurred in the southern Italian port city of Taranto, where eight of the BWIR’s battalions were gathered together after their time in France, or having been shipped back from the Middle East and Mesopotamia prior to demobilisation after the Armistice of 11 November. While other troops were allowed to rest, the Caribbean men were ordered to work, loading ships, moving supplies, and even digging latrines for white soldiers. They were also forbidden to enter Taranto itself. To make matters worse, word spread that other regiments had been awarded a pay raise, but that the BWIR had not, on the grounds that it was a “native” regiment. 

At this point, tempers boiled over. A previous polite petition complaining about discrimination had been sent to the authorities by men of the First and Second Battalions in August, but was flatly ignored. Then on 6 December, soldiers from the Ninth Battalion simply refused to work, followed three days later by the Tenth. Another petition to the Secretary of State, signed by 180 sergeants, outlined the men’s grievances and demanded equal treatment. This was nothing less than a mutiny, though it was mainly peaceful, except when several officers, who were trying to maintain discipline, were assaulted. One private was shot dead by an NCO, allegedly in self-defence.

With the protests threatening to escalate, the top brass at Taranto sent for help, with the Worcestershire Regiment, armed with machine guns, answering the appeal. In the ensuing imposition of order, writes Steven Johns, “Approximately sixty soldiers were later tried for mutiny, and those convicted received sentences ranging from three to five years, but one man got twenty years, while another was executed by firing squad. The BWIR itself was disbanded in 1921.” In the process of demobilisation, the battalions were repatriated under armed escort. With a revealing taste for vindictiveness, the authorities banned them from any victory parade, especially in London. 

But the genie was out of the bottle, and the experience of the BWIR fed directly into a wave of militancy and nationalism across the Caribbean in the 1920s and 30s, which would eventually lead to greater self-determination and independence. Better organised and more confident after their wartime experience, ex-soldiers returned to every Caribbean colony with a new sense of mission. And, as Johns points out, their erstwhile superiors now understood that something would have to give:

A secret colonial memo from 1919, uncovered by researchers for a Channel 4 programme on the Taranto mutiny, showed that the British government realised that everything had changed, too: “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.”

By the end of the war, 185 BWIR personnel had been killed in action, and 1,071 of disease. It was not, as we know, “the war to end all wars,” but it was certainly a defining moment in the English-speaking Caribbean’s quest for independence.