Out of sheer idleness the other day, I was googling my father’s name, and the first hit I got was the First World War (1914 to 1918).
I never knew my Dad. I was not yet four when he drowned at Cattlewash in the 1940s, his body never recovered. But I knew he had volunteered when he was 21 and served as a private in the British West Indies Regiment in the Great War. In fact, he brought back a memento of a German artillery brass shell casing, which I still have.
I had also been told he had fought in Palestine. Sadly, I never dug deeper while my Mum was alive.
Anyway my googling connected me with a formative part of our Caribbean history with which I was not familiar: the 1918 “mutiny” of West Indian soldiers at Taranto in Italy.
Apparently, enthusiasm for the war was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers like Marcus Garvey encouraged young black men to enlist to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals.
Black West Indian volunteers were not welcome at first.
The Secretary Of State for War Lord Kitchener (from whom our calypsonian Kitch took his name), with his colonial military background, objected to black soldiers joining the forces. But the heavy loss of men in the first year of the war, coupled with King George V’s personal intervention,
made it possible.
In 1915, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed by grouping together the Caribbean volunteers in 12 battalions of 15,600 men.
Two-thirds of the volunteers came from Jamaica and the rest from the other territories. The Barbados contingent numbered 831.
Little did these patriotic volunteers know the fate that awaited them, especially those who served in Europe. Military regulations prevented black West Indian soldiers from holding a rank higher than sergeant. Black troops were forbidden to fight alongside Whites while fighting a European enemy. There is evidence, however, that West Indians did fight in Europe.
They were often subject to discrimination and degrading conditions, and were used primarily for doing the most menial of tasks. They were assigned to heavy labour such as digging trenches and gun emplacements, and loading ammunition, most of the time under constant enemy fire. George Blackman, a Barbadian who served with the BWIR, has documented the harsh conditions.
Two battalions of the BWIR fought in Palestine and Egypt, playing a major role in defeating the seventh Turkish Army. Machine gun crews of the BWIR were sent into action against a large body of Turkish soldiers and showed great coolness and self-discipline under fire.
One soldier who distinguished himself in courage was Barbadian-born Winston Millington. When the Turks attacked, the rest of his gun crew were killed by enemy fire, but Winston continued to fire his gun for several minutes. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Famous West Indians who served in the war included A. A. Cipriani, of Trinidad; Norman Manley, of Jamaica; and our own Clennell Wickham.
BWIR soldiers were awarded five Distinguished Service Orders, 19 Military Crosses, 11 Military Crosses With Bar, and 18 Distinguished Conduct Medals.
But it was the unfairness with which they were treated that led to one of the most scandalous events of the Great War: the “mutiny” at Taranto in Italy.
At the end of the war in November, 1918, the European battalions of the BWIR were transferred to Taranto in Italy to prepare for demobilization. They were assigned the hardest and most demeaning labour tasks, including building and cleaning the latrines of the white soldiers. This provoked widespread resentment among the soldiers. And then the final straw was when they discovered that their white counterparts in the army had been given a pay raise of 50 per cent which was denied them.
Resentment and indignation soon spilled over into protest.
On December 6, the men of the 9th Battalion refused to obey orders, and 180 sergeants signed a petition complaining about poor pay, allowances, and promotions. On December 9 the 10th Battalion also refused to work. The “mutiny” lasted four days.
In response, the British sent in an armed battalion to restore order. The alleged ringleaders were rounded up. The 9th Battalion was disbanded and the men assigned to the other battalions which were all subsequently disarmed.
Sixty men were tried for mutiny, receiving sentences from three to five years, with one getting 20 years. One man was executed by firing squad (who was he?).
The British then decided to disband the BWIR and send it back to the West Indies with indecent haste.
Bitterness persisted after the mutiny was suppressed. On December 17, about 60 sergeants formed the Caribbean League, calling for equal rights, self-determination and closer union in the West Indies.
The “mutiny” at Taranto caused consternation in the Colonial Office and forced it into pressing the War Office to grant the BWIR the pay increase. The reasoning was not fairness and justice, but to prevent unrest in the West Indies. The fear was that the demobbed soldiers would promote disorder on their return home.
The soldiers of the BWIR were not met with victory parades. Instead, the British, fearing unrest, sent three cruisers with machine guns into docks at Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad. Thousands of former soldiers were exiled elsewhere in the wider Caribbean.
But despite this, many former soldiers joined the wave of worker protests resulting from the economic crisis of the time.
A colonial memo from 1919 showed that the British government realized that everything had changed: “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.”
Bless our unsung heroes!
Much of my information comes from an article by Dr Glenford D. Howe published in The Guardian newspaper in 2011. He has also written the book A White Man’s War? World War One And The West Indies.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbadian diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)