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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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