Why the British West Indies Regiment joined World War One
Who were the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)?
At the time of World War One (1914-1918), Britain had a large empire of countries and territories which it controlled.
During WWI, the British called upon over 3 million soldiers from all over their empire to fight. Troops from the empire played a significant role in the war effort and often faced dangerous conditions and discrimination.
At this time the British West Indies was part of the British Empire. It consisted of British territories in the Caribbean; Barbados, the Bahamas, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Leeward Islands. These countries are now independent nations.
Initially, the British war office had refused to accept soldiers from the British West Indies, however, from 1915 onwards, this policy changed due to increasing war demands. The men who enlisted in the BWIR came from all backgrounds, working in many different trades and industries such as shipwrights, tailors, shoemakers, mechanics, blacksmiths, motor engineers, carpenters, painters, cooks and bakers.
The table shows the total numbers where the men came from and what rank they belonged to.
|Officers ⁽¹⁾||Other ranks|
|Trinidad & Tobago||40||1,438|
Source: Empire at War - Vol. 2 Sir Charles Lucas, Humphrey, Milford, Oxford University Press, 1923.
⁽¹⁾ Officers would have largely been white Caribbean of European descent, or white British.
What can source analysis tell us about the BWIR?
Source analysis is an important skill used by historians. They look at sources and ask questions, and using their knowledge of the time, draw conclusions to help understand the past.
When historians analyse a source, they will consider the following:
- where it came from
- when it was created
- its purpose
- who was meant to see it
- the views of the time and the information people had access to
In the video above, we looked at the picture of soldiers from the BWIR and used source analysis techniques to think of more questions.
To find out more about the experience of these men, we can apply our source analysis skills to more sources from the same time period such as the recruitment posters below.
We know that men from the Bahamas and Britain were recruited for similar service but what differences can these sources tell us? Source analysis helps us identify the difference in language and tone between these two posters.
Why did people sign up?
When World War One was declared in 1914, men in Britain signed up to join the war effort in their millions, most often from a sense of duty or for adventure, and the chance of a better life.
This was true for the young men from the Caribbean as well, but they were also fighting for their civil rights. Despite the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, many of those who had been freed were unable to acquire land and were still treated as second class citizens.
Activists such as Marcus Garvey also encouraged men to sign up in the Caribbean as he saw an opportunity to legitimise civil rights movements. He believed that their service as soldiers for the British Empire would result in the people of the Caribbean being entitled to more rights from the Empire.
What was the BWIR’s experience?
The BWIR volunteered themselves as soldiers on the same conditions as British volunteer soldiers, which meant that they should have done the same work and received the same treatment, pay, uniform and living conditions. However, this was not always the case.
One strong motivator for the Caribbean men to sign up was the promise of equality within the structure of the army but they often experienced racial discrimination from other soldiers and army authorities. When British troops were given a pay rise, the BWIR were initially denied a pay rise because they had been classified as 'natives'.
Despite many being suitable for leadership, the men of the BWIR could only rise to the ranks of non-commissioned officer, even if their education and professional life before signing up was at a higher level than many of the white officers who would command them during the war.
Watch this video to find out more.
What did the BWIR do?
Two battalions were sent to France to assist with labouring duties in August 1916. They built roads and railways to transport men and resources to the front line – hugely important work. But as soldiers, this was not what they had signed up for and expected to be doing.
They would also transport great amounts of ammunition to the Western Front, often putting themselves in the firing line.
The rest of the BWIR were sent to many places around the world to fight during WWI. For example, the regiment was sent to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal from the Turkish Army. All their combat and fighting experience was in and around East Africa and the Middle East.
|Battalion||An army unit that forms part of a regiment. A soldier will often have a strong association with their battalion during their service in the Army.|
|British Empire||The areas of the world once colonised and controlled by the British monarchy and government.|
|Civil rights movement||A name given to a series of movements, events and leaders which together aimed to campaign for equal rights.|
|Non-Commissioned Officer||NCOs are often experienced soldiers who have been promoted into a leadership position but are not as senior ranks as officers.|
|Officer||A leadership position usually responsible for a larger group of soldiers. Most officers start their military career in a leadership role and command larger units as their career progresses.|
|Racial discrimination||The act of making unjustified distinctions and treating people differently based on the colour of their skin or ethnic origin.|
|Regiment||An army unit with a distinct identity and usually a combat role.|
|West Indies||The West Indies was a term first used during the period of European colonialism to refer to the islands in the Caribbean.|