Bwir in camp Albert-Amiens rd, sep 1916, during the somme offensive
The West India Regiment 1795–1927 1958–1962
The West India Regiment (WIR) was an infantry unit of the British Army recruited from and normally stationed in the British colonies of the Caribbean between 1795 and 1927. The regiment differed from similar forces raised in other parts of the British Empire in that it formed an integral part of the regular British Army. In 1958 the regiment was revived following the creation of the Federation of the West Indies with the establishment of three battalions, however, the regiment's existence was shortlived and it was disbanded in 1962 when its personnel were used to establish other units in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. Throughout its history, the regiment was involved in a number of campaigns in the West Indies and Africa, and also took part in the First World War where it served in the Middle East and East Africa.
History Origins and early basis of recruitment.The West India Regiments were initially raised in 1795. The original intention was to recruit both free blacks from the West Indian population together with purchased slaves from the West Indian plantations.
In 1807 all serving black soldiers recruited as slaves in the West India Regiments of the British Army were freed under the Mutiny Act passed by the British parliament that same year. In 1808 the Abolition Act caused all trading in slaves to be "utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful". In 1812 a West African recruiting depot was established on Blance Island in Sierre Leone to train West African volunteers for the West India Regiments. By 1816 the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the reduction of the West India regiments to six enabled this depot to be closed. Thereafter all recruitment for the various West India Regiments that fought in World War I and World War II were West Indian volunteers, with officers and some senior NCOs coming from Britain. The WIR soldiers became a valued part of the British forces garrisoning the West Indies, where losses from disease and climate were heavy amongst white troops. The black Caribbean soldiers by contrast proved better adapted to tropical service. They served against locally recruited French units that had been formed for the same reasons. Free black Caribbean soldiers played a prominent and often distinguished role in the military history of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nineteenth CenturyThe new West India Regiments saw considerable service during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, including participation in the British attack on New Orleans. In 1800 there were 12 battalion-sized regiments with this title. The numbers were reduced after 1815 but during most of the remainder of the nineteenth century there were never less than two West India Regiments. In 1888 these were merged into a single regiment comprising two battalions. A third Battalion was raised in 1897, but was disbanded in 1904.
Later YearsThe regiment served in West Africa throughout the 19th Century. In the early part of the twentieth century one battalion was stationed in Sierra Leone and the other was in Jamaica recruiting and training, the battalions exchanging every three years.
World War I On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the 1st Battalion of the WIR was stationed in Freetown where it had been based for two and a half years. A detachment of the Regiment's signallers saw service in the German Cameroons, where Private L. Jordon earned a DCM and several other men were mentioned in dispatches. The 1st Battalion returned to the West Indies in 1916.
The 2nd Battalion was sent from Kingston to West Africa in the second half of 1915. They took part in the capture of Yaounde' in January 1916. The Regiment was subsequently awarded the battle honour "Cameroons 1914-16". The 2nd Battalion, which had been divided into detachments, was brought together in Freetown in April 1916 and sent to Mombassa in Kenya, to take part in the East African campaign against German colonial forces based in German East Africa.
The five hundred and fifteen officers and men of the 2nd Battalion formed part of a column that took Dar es Salaam on 4 September 1916. After garrison duty, the battalion subsequently played a distinguished part in the Battle of Nyangao (German East Africa) in October 1917. For their service in East Africa the WIR earned eight Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as the battle honour "East Africa 1914-18".
The 2nd Battalion of the West India Regiment was then transferred to Egypt and Palestine where it undertook line of communications duties without seeing further active service, prior to returning to Kingston in July 1919.
From their own testimonies and documented records, the West India Regiment played a vital role in the campaign in Palestine in World War 1 by defeating the Turkish Army which paved the way for allied victory. Contrary to many white writers and historians trying to downplay this fact for their own national identity and superiority that exclude the long and sustained campaign by Caribbean soldiers fighting alongside the British Army, there is no denying of the fact that the role of the West India Regiment campaign in the Middle East was of a combative nature. Taranto mutiny At the end of the war, after years of hard fighting, not only against the Germans but also the Turks, men of the West Indies Regiment were transferred to a British army base in Taranto, Italy, where one of the bitterest events of the war would occur - a mutiny. Days were tough there and comprised largely of manual labour such as loading ammunition, or even cleaning clothes and latrines for British soldiers. George Blackman from Barbados, who was not there long, remembers it being hard. "From Marseille, it was seven days to reach Taranto. It is a seaport - all the boats were coming from London with ammunition. We have to unload the boat, the train come and we got to load the train to take the ammunition up the line."
For some of the black troops there, a pay rise for the white soldiers - but not them - was the final indignity. Riots ensued and senior British officers were assaulted. Eventually the mutiny was put down, with one soldier executed and several others given lengthy jail sentences. But the black soldiers were left with a new-found feeling of rebellion.
The immediate result was that the West Indies troops were kept away from the victory parades that marked the end of the war, and hurried home under armed guard. "When the war finish, there was nothing," says Blackman. "I had to come and look for work. The only thing that we had is the clothes and the uniform that we got on. The pants, the jacket and the shirt and the boots. You can't come home naked.
"When we got home, if you got a mother or father you have something, but if you're alone, you got to look for work. When I come I had nobody. I had to look for work. I had to eat and buy clothes. Who going to give me clothes? I didn't have a father or nobody. Now I said, 'The English are no good.' I went to Jamaica and I meet up some soldiers and I asked them, 'Here boy, what the government give you?' They said, 'The government give us nothing.' I said, 'We just the same.'"
And that's when Blackman disappeared off the veterans' radar. Travelling around South America, he worked as a mechanic in Colombia, before retiring to Venezuela to live with his daughter until the Barbados government helped to bring him home earlier this year.
As a Barbadian living in Venezuela for decades, he was not entitled to a pension there. The Barbados government (in the form of one dedicated civil servant) is still processing his application for one in his home country. And from the British? Nothing.
The empire changed when Blackman and his comrades returned from France. The soldiers who emerged were so politicised that island governments encouraged them to emigrate to Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela. Those who returned to their countries altered everything. Gunner Norman Manley, who had seen his brother blown apart in front of him during the war, eventually took Jamaica to independence, becoming its first prime minister in 1962.
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." In a sense, history was rewritten. That meant no celebrations, no official acknowledgment.
Post War After the war, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were amalgamated into a single 1st Battalion in 1920. This was disbanded in 1927. The reasons for disbandment were primarily economic. The West Indies had long been a peaceful military backwater with limited defence requirements and the substitute role under which the WIR had provided a single battalion as part of the garrison in Britain's West African possessions had become redundant as local forces were raised and expanded there.
Revival in 1958, with the foundation of the Federation of the West Indies, it was decided to raise the West India Regiment once again. Initially, the 1st Battalion was formed from the nucleus of the Jamaica Regiment. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were also formed by 1960. However, the Federation was short lived, and the regiment again disbanded by 1962, with the constituent battalions becoming the infantry regiments of the two largest islands:
1st Battalion—1st Battalion, jamaica Regiment
2nd Battalion—1st Battalion, Trinidad and Tobago Regiment
Officers Overall the WIR had a good record for discipline and effectiveness, although there were three separate mutinies between 1802 and 1837. A factor in these (and a weakness in the WIR throughout its history) was that it did not always attract a high calibre of British officer. Prevailing social attitudes meant that service with "black infantry" was not a popular option during the nineteenth century and many of the more capable officers saw their time with the WIR as simply a stepping stone to more sought after assignments. It needs to be remembered that a British officer on secondment to a colonial outfit was out of sight and out of mind as far as the Colonel of his parent British regiment, who had the most influence on his promotion and preferment, was concerned. The attraction of colonial service was a matter of extra monetary allowances. Long serving British officers and non-commissioned officers, who had built up ties of mutual respect with their men, had mostly dispersed or retired by the end of World War I and in its final years of service the WIR was led by officers seconded from other British regiments for relatively short assignments.
Dominica, Martinique 1809, Guadeloupe 1810, Ashantee 1873–74, West Africa 1887, West Africa 1892–93 & 94, Sierra Leone 1898
The Great War (2 battalions): palesting 1917-18, E.Africa 1916-18, Cameroons 1915–16.
Honours and Awards Private Samuel Hodge of the 2nd WIR was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1866 for courage shown during the capture of Tubab Kolon in the Gambia. Private Hodge was the second black recipient of this decoration—the first being Able Seaman William Hall of the Royal Navy. In 1891, Lance Corporal William Gordon of the 1st Battalion WIR received a VC for gallantry during a further campaign in the Gambia. Promoted to sergeant, Jamaican-born William Gordon remained in employment at regimental headquarters in Kingston until his death in 1922.
Uniform and traditions For the first half century of its existence the WIR wore the standard uniform (shako, red coat and dark coloured or white trousers) of the English line infantry of the period. The various units were distinguished by differing facing colours. One unusual feature was the use of slippers rather than heavy boots. In 1856 a very striking uniform was adopted for the regiments modelled on that of the French Zouaves. It comprised a red fez wound about by a white turban, scarlet sleeveless jacket with elaborate yellow braiding worn over a long-sleeved white waistcoat, and dark blue voluminous breeches piped in yellow. This distinctive uniform was retained for full dress throughout the regiment until 1914 and by the band until disbandment in 1927. It survives as the full dress of the band of the modern Barbados Defence Force.
Other West Indian Regiments Surprisingly limited use was made of the long serving regulars of the West India Regiment during World War I. However, in 1915 a second West Indies regiment was formed from Caribbean volunteers who had made their way to Britain. Initially, these volunteers were drafted into a variety of units within the British Army, but in 1915 it was decided to group them together into a single regiment, named the British West Indies Regiment.
Initially the new regiment was made up of men from:
British Guyana—A Company
Trinidad—B Company Trinidad and St. Vincent—C Company
Grenada and Barbados—D Company.
The British West Indies Regiment played a significant role in the First World War especially in Palestine and Jordan where they were employed in combat roles against the Turkish Army. A total of 15,600 men of the British West Indies Regiment served with the Allied forces. Jamaica contributed two-thirds of these volunteers, while others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Grenada, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent. Nearly 5,000 more subsequently volunteered to join up.
High wastage led to further drafts being required from Jamaica, British Honduras and Barbados before the regiment was able to begin training. The regiment totalled twelve battalions, and engaged in a number of roles and theatres. The British West Indies Regiment was finally disbanded in 1921.
The Great War (11 battalions): Messines 1917, Ypres 1917, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle, Passchendaele, Pursuit to Mons, France and Flanders 1916–18, Italy 1918, Rumani, Egypt 1916–17, Battles of Gaza, El Mughar, Nebi Samwil, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Battle of Megiddo 1918, Nablus, palestine 1917-18 and in World War I, 86 medals for bravery were won, and 49 men were mentioned in despatches.
Caribbean Regiment Another West Indies regiment was formed in 1944, this time called the Caribbean Regiment. This consisted of members of the local militia forces, as well as direct recruits. The regiment conducted brief training in Trinidad and the United States of America, before being sent to Italy. Once there, the regiment performed a number of general duties behind the front lines—these included the escort of 4,000 prisoners of war from Italy to Egypt. Subsequently, the regiment undertook mine clearance around the Suez Canal. The regiment returned to the Caribbean in 1946 to be disbanded, having not seen front line action—this was due to inadequate training and partly because of the political impact in the British West Indies if it had incurred heavy casualties.
Sierra Leone Creoles As noted above the West India Regiment provided detachments for service in West Africa for over a hundred years. This began when the 2nd WIR was sent to Sierra Leone to quell a rebellion of 'settlers' (freed slaves) in 1819. Upon completion of their service some soldiers of this and subsequent WIR regiments remained in West Africa intermarried with other Sierra Leone Creole, whose descendants today are the Sierra Leone people.