Monthly Archives: October 2013

West Indians in Britain’s Great War army

Across the British Empire, men joined up to fight in the Great War in large numbers. Many West Indian men joined the British Army, leading to the creation of a (non-combatant) British West Indies Regiment. Not all West Indians ended up in that Regiment, though, and official acceptance of their place in other units evolved over time. This blog post, in Black History Month, looks at some elements of that story.

The British Empire in 1914 covered almost 12 million square miles and included 421 million people. Of the 59 million who were not in India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the UK, 1.7 million were in the British West Indies. This consisted of the colonies of: the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica (including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The vast majority of these British subjects in the West Indies were black, with only 35,000 white people among them.

There was already a West India Regiment, which was based in Sierra Leone at the start of the war and fought in East Africa and Palestine.  However, many West Indian men travelled to Britain to join the regular British Army rather than this unit. The authorities in Britain decided to group these men together into a new unit rather than having them dispersed across the army and serving alongside white men.  So the British West Indies Regiment was created in 1915. In total, 15,600 men served in the Regiment, two thirds from Jamaica; CWGC records the deaths of 1390 men of the regiment in the Great War period. Just over sixty are buried in the UK, with another 58 commemorated on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton after dying at sea. Although they did not serve in the front line on the Western Front, the BWIR did fight in Egypt and Palestine; 49 men of the regiment were mentioned in despatches and 81 earned medals for bravery (there is a good photo on flickr of one BWIR soldier being awarded the DCM).

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

We have already seen that not all West Indian men – or Britons of West Indian descent – enlisting in the UK were put into the new West Indies Regiment. The (Jamaican-born) Bemand brothers both served in the Royal Artillery, while footballer Walter Tull served in the Middlesex Regiment; all three of these men had a white British parent as well as a black West Indian parent, two of them earned commissions in the British Army but sadly all three were killed in action. Anorther notable West Indian soldier who joined up in the UK was William Robinson Clarke, who joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 as a driver and later became a pilot. A blog post on quotes a number of sources describing other black soldiers in the British Army.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Two other West Indians based in London demonstrate different experiences of West Indians who joined up to fight in the British Army. Ralph Ernest Vignalë and his brother Otto Rudolf Vignalë were born in Trinidad but moved to the UK before the war. In 1911, they were living together on Amberley Grove, Croydon, along with Ralph’s wife, the Deptford-born Henrietta, and the first of the couple’s three daughters. Ralph was an electrical engineer and Otto was a dental surgeon. By 1915 they were living on London Road, Croydon: Ralph at number 217 and Otto at 161. (Note: Their surname is sometimes recorded as Vignali)

In July 1915, Ralph joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. By early 1916, he was a corporal in their 4th/4th battalion (a reserve unit), based in Cambridge. He was never transferred to an active-service battalion of the West Surreys. Meanwhile, in February 1916, Otto attested under the Derby Scheme (the odd voluntary conscription system that preceded full compulsion); he was then called up in May and joined the Royal Artillery.

After nearly two years in the army, Ralph eventually did go out to France, but only after being transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment, whom he joined in France in late April 1917. The unit did not serve as combat troops on the Western front, so Ralph Vignalë would not have seen action directly.  After a period of sickness in late June, he returned to the unit but became severely ill in late September 1917. In October he was sent back to a hospital in the UK suffering from acute nephritis – a serious kidney problem, caused by exposure while serving in the BWIR. The illness was so severe that he was discharged and given a 100% army disability pension (meaning that he was deemed unable to earn money through work) until he had recovered; he was declared fully fit in 1920. Now a civilian again, Ralph studied to become a barrister, passing his final exams in 1922 and becoming a member of the Middle Temple. He later became mayor of his home town of Arima in Trinidad.

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades. Could this be O.R. Vignale? Sadly, we may never know

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades.

Otto Vignalë passed through artillery training and joined the 2/1st Northumbrian (North Riding) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, before moving on to ‘A’ Battery, Heavy Artillery, where he qualified as a signaller.  Like his brother, he was not sent abroad while serving in original unit, but he was also retained in the UK when the army (belatedly) transferred him to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He too survived illness (in his case influenza) and returned to civilian life after the war (when he lived at 8 Sydenham Road, Croydon); he qualified as a dentist and lived into the 1950s. Both Vignalë brothers enlisted in the British Army in active service units, but neither had the chance to fight at the front.

In 1917, the War Office had a different issue to resove relating to West Indian recruits. Under the Military Service (Conventions with Allied States) Act 1917, military citizens of one Allied Power living in another had the choice to join one or other of their armed forces – these men were to volunteer with their home country or be conscripted in their new homelands. This was controversial in relation to Russian Jews being forced to fight in the Russian Army or for their British allies (see this post-war book). Less well known is the situation of black British subjects living in the USA – the vast majority of whom were migrants from the British West Indies.

In the National Archives, there is correspondence between the Military Mission in Washington and the War Office in London about what to do with these men. It was reported that hundreds had expressed their preference to join the British Army rather than the American. However, they wanted to join combatant units in the regular British Army, rather than the British West Indies Regiment. The fact that they were not enlisting was reportedly causing indignation among citizens in Britain’s important new ally.  Existing rules (although clearly not always enforced) barred non-white soldiers from serving in the regular British Army.

While the issue was being resolved, these men were asked to sign an attestation that they wanted to serve. This would prevent the US authorities from conscripting them.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Eventually, the War Office allowed these West Indian men to enlist in the British Army and hundreds were signed up. Judging by the surviving service records a large number were assigned to the Royal Engineers, but others were put into reserve battalions of other units including the Scots Rifles, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Middlesex Regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Dorset Regiment. Most of those whose records have survived were resident in New York or New Jersey in the North East of the USA.

It is not clear how many were sent to Britain, but those who were appear to have arrived in autumn 1918 just as the fighting was ending on the Western Front. They were still in the UK when the Peace was finally signed in the summer of 1919 and then had to fill out more forms to get themselves sent back to the USA after ending up in Sunderland in the case of Allan Hoyt (who joined the York and Lancs Regt), Winchester in the case of James Desant (from Nevis and serving in the Scottish Rifles), Hounslow in the case of Joseph Edwards (a Jamaican in the KOSB who had only married in August 1918), and other military camps.

The way that men joining the Army of the British Empire were treated was unlikely to be completely consistent in a force of six million men, but these stories demonstrate the  different experiences of West Indian men and the vagaries of Government and military policy towards them. The policy seems largely to have been to avoid black British subjects who were not from the UK itself from serving in combat roles on the Western Front, which took the form of creating a new Regiment (which fought elsewhere but not in France and Flanders) as well as keeping West Indian men in reserve roles in other units, even when the rules had been changed to officially allow them to serve in other units in the British army.

Update 18/6/2015: in the caption for the last photo I originally wondered whether the man depicted was Otto Vignalë. Thanks to Joan Leggett for contacting me to let me know that it is not him.


Empire figures from Australian newspapers in 1914

War Memorial Gates page on Caribbean participants in the war

National Archives

Army service and other records on ancestry

Long, Long Trail on the British West Indies Regiment

Black Presence blog post on Black British Soldiers

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Posted by on 24 October 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, People, Recruitment


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Commandeered: German offices in London

Early in the Great War, the British Government were able to take extraordinary steps against German citizens and businesses. In 1914-15 many Germans were interned (including some held in Stratford). The Government also commandeered the headquarters of German owned shipping line Hamburg-Amerika in Cockspur Street, Westminster.

Hamburg-Amerika was a transatlantic shipping line founded in 1847 and based in Hamburg, Germany; in the early twentieth century, one of their ships held the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.  In 1906-07, they had a new London headquarters built at 14-16 Cockspur Street in Westminster. The  building was designed by Arthur T. Bolton, with sculpture by W.B. Fagan (both of them Londoners) – it was a magnificent structure. The website Oriental Passions has a good set of photographs of the facade in a blog post from 2011. The English Heritage Archives have a few photos of the building just after it was built (for example this one of the facade).

At the start of the Great War, this impressive German building was taken into the service of Britain and its armed forces:

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

Here is the same section today:

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

One of the English Heritage Archive photos shows this part of the building in detail before the war. This allows us to see how it was transformed.  The company’s name was removed from the top and a banner with ‘HIS MAJESTY’S ARMY’ erected in its place. Likewise the windows have been boarded up and plastered with recruiting messages – with the words ‘Men of the Empire. Your King & Country Need You. Enlist Today.’

Around this big poster are the usual 1914-era text-based recruiting posters – the picture posters were more common in 1915.  Either side of the door is an unofficial recruiting poster that did have a large picture on it. These were reprints of the poster from a pre-war film about the army, pressed into service in 1914 to serve as a recruiting poster:

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of two IWM poster images: title and image)

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of the images of two sections of the poster (c)IWM)

The building’s role as a recruiting office was far from the end of its use by the British Government. By late 1916 (when voluntary enlistment had been replaced with conscription), the Hamburg-Amerika Line section of the building moved from being used by the War Office to being an Admiralty building, according the Prime Minister in response to questions about whether steps were being made to sell the building. Eventually, in July 1917, the building (now being used by the Ministry of Munitions) was sold by the British Government for £60,200 to P&O, maintaining the presence of travel companies on Cockspur Street (reported in Times 1/8/1917). Throughout all this, the British/Canadian Allan Line Steamship Company Limited had continued to occupy the right-hand-side of the building (viewed from Cockspur Street), as they had before the war. Today, that side of the building is the Brazilian Embassy.

When war was declared, German citizens in Britain were subject to restrictions on their liberty. Similarly, German property could be seized by the Government. This prominent building in Westminster was seized and put to the key purpose of the day: recruiting men to fight against the Germans.

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Posted by on 21 October 2013 in Famous companies, Places, Recruitment


The Roy brothers: fighting for King and Emperor

Millions of Indians served in the British Indian army in the centuries of British rule over the subcontinent. There were also a small number of Indian-born men in London during the Great War who joined the British forces and served alongside white British servicemen. Two of them were Paresh Lal Roy and his younger brother Indra Lal Roy, who became the first Indian fighter ace.

Lolita Roy and her six children were all born in Calcutta but lived in London from 1901. Her husband Piera Lal Roy was the director of public prosecutions in Calcutta. In 1911, Lolita and the children lived at 77 Brook Green, West London.  The eldest daughter, Leilavati, was 22 years old and married, Lolita’s other daughters were Miravati and Hiravati. The sons all appear to have been educated at St Paul’s School: Paresh Lal, Indra Lal and Lolit Kumar. By 1914, they had moved to 15 Glazeby Road before moving on again in October 1915 to 67 Fitz-George Avenue in Kensington.

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, N1

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, W

On 21 December 1914, Paresh Lal Roy enlisted in the reserve battalion of the upper-class Honourable Artillery Company, signing up for overseas service immediately. After a few months of training, he left for the front, arriving with the 1st battalion on 1 May 1915, joining 3rd Division. The unit subsequently served as Headquarters troops, as well as serving in the Royal Naval Division (63rd Division) from July 1916 to June 1917.  Other than a note that he was wounded in action on 24 May, but was not hospitalised, and that he was sick for a week in August 1917, there is little information in his service record about his war service in the HAC.

Indra Lal Roy

Indra Lal Roy

Meanwhile, Indra Lal Roy was serving in the school cadet force at St Paul’s.  In April 1917 he left school and joined the Royal Flying Corps. During the months he spent in training he was commissioned the British Army, as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. As we’ve seen in the cases of G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, non-white men were not strictly allowed to become officers in the army. However, Roy was able to be commissioned; Flight magazine described him as

one of a band of young Indians studying here who, precluded until recently from any chance of obtaining commissions in the Army, found scope for striking a blow for the Empire in the new arm of our forces.

Roy was not the first of these young men who became flying officers. Hardutt Singh Malik, a student at Oxford at the outbreak of war, campaigned to be commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps. Eventually he was given an honorary commission in April 1917 and went to the front in June. Malik served in 62 and 28 Squadron and was credited with two victories.

Following his training and commission, Indra Lal Roy joined the elite 56 Squadron. He was not particularly successful as one of their SE5a pilots, though, and after being injured a crash in that winter he was sent home (accounts vary about whether this was November or December or even early 1918). He had further training back in the UK before being sent back out to the front and joining 40 Squadron (now part of the Royal Air Force) in June 1918, this time as a temporary Lieutenant.

An SE5a fighter

An SE5a fighter

This time, he was extremely successful. During two weeks from 6 to 19 July 1918, he shot down ten enemy aircraft in just over 170 hours of flying. Flying SE5a  number B180, he shot down three German aircraft on 8 July and two each on the 13th and 15th. This was an incredible run of success, perhaps unique. Indra Lal Roy became the first Indian fighter ace.

On 22 July, though Roy successful streak came to an end and he was shot down during a dogfight with Fokker DVIIs from Jasta 29.  He did not return from his mission, but his fate was unknown. It was not until 18 September that it was officially assumed that he had been killed in action.  In the end his body was found, identified and buried in Estevelles Communal Cemetery in France.

Just three days after he was officially declared dead, Roy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill in those weeks in July:

A very gallant and determined officer, who in thirteen days accounted for nine enemy machines. In these several engagements he has displayed remarkable skill and daring, on more than one occasion accounting for two machines in one patrol.

At the same time, Paresh Lal Roy was seeking to follow his younger brother’s lead and join the Royal Air Force. At the end of September, he was transferred home from the HAC to become a cadet in the RAF. He had not qualified by the end of the war and was discharged in early 1919.

Lt. Indra Lal Roy DFC and Pte Paresh Lal Roy were Indian-born British subjects, living in London. Like many of their contemporaries who remained in India, they joined up to fight in the war and they both served on the Western Front.  Indra was an exceptional example, both for getting a commission in the RFC and RAF and for the skill he displayed that earned him a gallantry medal. Paresh served in the army from 1914 to 1918 and survived the war; he appears to have returned to India and become a prominent amateur boxer (as well as a traffic superintendent).


Census records 1901 and 1911

P.L. Roy’s service record

Wikipedia entry on P.L. Roy

National Archives page on I.L. Roy including his service record

The Aerodrome page on I.L. Roy

Dictionary of National Biography entry on I.L. Roy

Flight magazine obituary of I.L Roy


Posted by on 9 October 2013 in Award-winners


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Remembering the fallen of the Great War, 1914-1917

In early 1917, there was a strong sense that this would be the year of victory. The directors of the East London Cemetery were so confident that they had it set in stone.

In February 1917, a new monument was unveiled in the East London Cemetery. Under a celtic cross and over a soldier’s cap, rifle and sword set in bronze, the monument’s main message read:













1914 – 1917

At some point the latter date was removed and, after the war, replaced with ‘1918’ to leave the monument as it stands today:

The East London Cemetery cross (photo (c) flickr user )

The East London Cemetery cross (photo (c) flickr user DeeGeeBee51)

On its other faces the directors express their sympathy of the families of the dead and their gratitude to the maimed servicemen and record the full list of Britain’s allies (which includes the ‘US America’, presumably added after they entered the war later in 1917).

The preemptory inclusion of an end-date for the war is an interesting reflection on the optimism hope felt early in 1917 that the war would indeed end that year. It is a reminder of the obvious fact that one must bear in mind when reading contemporary material from the Great War – that they simply did not know how much longer it would last.


UK National Inventory of War Memorials

West Ham and South Essex Mail, February 1917

Thanks to Dai (DeeGeeBee51) for permission to use his photograph of the cross


Posted by on 5 October 2013 in Places, War memorials


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