In the third of a series of scholarly articles ahead of the Armistice centenary, Dr Peter D Fraser, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, wonders why there is little to commemorate the British West Indians who came to the aid of the mother country during WWI.

There is a memorial in Mumbai with the names of perhaps the first British West Indians to die in combat in the First World War. They served as stokers or firefighters on the HMS Good Hope, flagship of the British squadron sunk in the Battle of Coronel, and died around 8pm on 1 November 1914 off the coast of Chile.

There is another monument to them in Derek Walcott Square in Castries, St Lucia, then a great coaling station and where they had joined HMS Good Hope. It is not clear why there is a monument in Mumbai because from their names, they appear to be all West Indian, if not St Lucian, and the Governor did write about monies owing by the Royal Navy to the families of some of them. However, the Royal Navy did not regard them as members.

More than 1,000 British West Indians served in the Merchant Marine during the war. The main effort came from the already existing West India Regiment which fought in West Africa and then in the more protracted campaigns in East Africa. Some volunteers like the Manley brothers, Norman who would become Jamaica’s prime minister and Roy who died at Ypres in July 1917, managed to join the British Army.

Eventually a new regiment was formed, the British West Indies Regiment, serving first as supply rather than fighting troops on the Western Front but finishing the war in the Middle East as the Turkish Empire collapsed. Some 15,000 men served and 5,000 more volunteered for this new regiment. Recruitment might have been even higher had five men not died and 100 injured while serving on the SS Verdala in March 1916, during an unusually long voyage in the North Atlantic with men inadequately clothed for freezing conditions. People in the West Indies, especially Jamaica where they were from, felt that this was shameful and unusual neglect: shameful but hardly unusual for any army in any war, even 21st century ones.

At home, things became more difficult since the British West Indies were closely connected to the world economy, being very open economies, reliant on exports and imports. Sugar and the newer exports of cocoa and bananas all suffered. This inter-connectedness became very clear when the Trinidadians sent cocoa to be made into chocolate for the British Army and it was discovered that there was a shortage of the German-made chocolate moulds. In her September talk on Amerindian Culture at Guyana Speaks in Tooting, Kayla De Freitas pointed out that to help the war effort in 1918, the Waipashana communities helped to build a cattle trail (now overgrown) to Georgetown from the south of British Guiana (now Guyana).

Oil was replacing coal in the Royal Navy and Trinidad was a growing producer; in British Guiana bauxite (more important in the Second World War) was discovered and mining started. Labour migration to the rest of the Caribbean and the US continued. Overall, the war caused hardship throughout the region though it did help to put a stop to the Indian indenture system.

So what did British West Indians do in the First World War? They served in the Pacific, West and East Africa, England, France, Belgium, Italy and the Middle East – one is even buried in Salonica – and in West and East Africa they helped expand the Empire and hence the Commonwealth.

And why, beyond the war memorials and Remembrance Day is the Great War so little remembered in the Caribbean and its diaspora? Graves are scattered across many countries from the West Indies to the Middle East. Memorials with names are one thing but the lack of accessible graves makes memorialisation difficult. The two regiments were disbanded (the British West Indies Regiment in 1921, the West India Regiment in 1927) leaving no regimental infrastructure to commemorate battles won.

A particularly strong memory among ex-servicemen was the racial prejudice they suffered at recruitment and during service. From Norman Manley and his brother Roy, public school educated, to working class West Indians this was a common memory and the Mutiny at Taranto in 1919 was the culmination of this. Post-war treatment was no better and it was no surprise that in Trinidad, Arthur Cipriani became an advocate for ex-servicemen and then a union leader.

Unlike the Second World War, it left almost no memory in the arts and popular culture. What people remembered most was its closing months and the Spanish flu, which wiped out many more than the 2,000 dead whose remains were scattered in four continents. The influenza virus unlike any before killed 30,000 people in the British West Indies and probably many more among migrant workers in the US and the non-British Caribbean.

Compared to the Second World War, which brought military action and the Americans to the West Indies with dramatic effect, WWI continued existing rather than starting new trends.

Also in this ‘Armistice’ series:
World War 1, India and memorialisation
South Africa in World War One

Image: © IWM (Q 1202) Troops of the West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert – Amiens road, September 1916.