Why the British West Indies Regiment joined World War One

Who were the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)?

Play the video to watch the work of war from the British West Indies Regiment

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
Barbados20811
the Bahamas2439
British Guiana14686
British Honduras5528
Jamaica3039,977
Trinidad & Tobago401,438
Grenada4441
St Lucia5354
St Vincent0305
Leeward Islands4225
Total39715,205

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?

Play the video to discover how to become a World War One historian

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.

The poster on the left was used to encourage British men to join the war and the poster on the right was used in the Bahamas

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.

Photo - a man speaks on stage at a recruitment rally.

A recruiting meeting at the Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1916

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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.

Play the video to understand the treatment of the British West Indies Regiment

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.

Men from the BWIR moving heavy artillery shells.

BWIR troops moving artillery shells on the Western Front

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Archive images and footage provided by Imperial War Museums

Glossary

TermDefinition
BattalionAn 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 EmpireThe areas of the world once colonised and controlled by the British monarchy and government.
Civil rights movementA name given to a series of movements, events and leaders which together aimed to campaign for equal rights.
Non-Commissioned OfficerNCOs are often experienced soldiers who have been promoted into a leadership position but are not as senior ranks as officers.
OfficerA 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 discriminationThe act of making unjustified distinctions and treating people differently based on the colour of their skin or ethnic origin.
RegimentAn army unit with a distinct identity and usually a combat role.
West IndiesThe West Indies was a term first used during the period of European colonialism to refer to the islands in the Caribbean.

Where next?

Segregation and racism of the South African Native Labour Corps
What happened to the British West Indies Regiment after World War One
World War One