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Remembering the brave black soldiers of WWI

BRAVERY AND JUSTICE: Soldiers of the West Indies Regiment work during the war

IT IS a hot day and trees only shade the edges of this vast war cemetery in the small Belgian town of Ypres. I’m here with the Big Ideas team as part of a project to remember the Labour Corps.

This is just one of more than 100 war cemeteries within and around Ypres. They are everywhere. Some, only a few graves. Others – like Ypres Reservoir Cemetery – are vast. There are 1,583 headstones, surrounded on all sides by or- dinary houses in the midst of the modern town.

We know that somewhere in these smart rows of identical headstones is the grave of Private J.E. Bryan of the British West Indies Regiment. Service number 3218. Grave reference 1.H.93. We split up and search separately, and I’m sure I’m not the only one wishing there were more trees.

An hour later it’s my colleague Sarah who finds his headstone in the shade towards the back of the cemetery. According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, Private Bryan was 25 years old when he died on October 25, 1917, 100 years and two weeks ago. His parents’ names are also given: “Son of James Daid Bryan and Mary E Bryan”.


Sadly, there is no further information about Private Bryan. We can only imagine where he lived, what his family was like and who he loved. The British West Indies Regiment was formed in 1915 as an infantry regiment.

From the start of the war onwards, a great public campaign was launched to encourage young men to join the army. Yet the British War Office at this time only wanted recruits of European descent to bear weapons – with the notable exception of the Indian army which grew to 1.5 million men during the war. Caribbean men including Barbadian teenager George Blackman volunteered to fight.

PICTURED: Poet Valerie Bloom visits the graves at Seaford

Interviewed in 2002 by The Guardian when he was 105 years old, George Blackman described his motivation: “We sang songs, ‘Run Kaiser William, run for your life, boy’. We wanted to go. Because the island government told us that the king said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us.”

In Britain, political pressure mounted and in May 1915 the issue was resolved through the formation of British West Indies Regiment, which re- cruited African Caribbean volunteers alongside men of Indian and Chinese descent as well as the local indigenous population.

Seventeen-year-old George Blackman was one of thousands of young Caribbean men who made up the British West Indies Regiment. Their story shows us how attitudes to race have changed in the century since World War One.

Men enlisted from across the region. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize [then British Honduras], Grenada, Guyana [then British Guiana], The Leeward Islands, St Lucia, St Vincent.

More than 15,000 volunteered for the war effort, travelling to Britain, before being sent on to Europe – France, Belgium, Italy – and further afield to East Africa and the Middle East.

But they were not treated equally and despite their wish to serve and their willingness to fight and to die, they were deployed almost all the time as Labour Corps. It was a regiment – fifteen thousand men – caught between politics, prejudice and compromise.

Wars cannot be conducted without labourers. During the First World War – and in particular following the terrible losses of the Somme in 1916 – Britain’s War Office assembled an army of workers. Yet today, they are almost uniformly forgotten.

The story of the Labour Corps is global – China, Kenya, the Caribbean, Canada, from the Cook Islands to the Brit- ish Isles volunteers formed an army of workers. Each of them would have their reason to volunteer – most often motivated by patriotism, politics or poverty.

West Indies Regiment soldiers with their weapons

The numbers are big: 500,000 Indians, 96,000 Chinese, tens of thousands from the Caribbean and South Africa. The Unremembered project marks the centenary of the Labour Corps in World War One.

It is a campaign that is working with grassroots communities to put their sidelined history at the heart of British commemoration. It is most likely because labourers did not fight that they are rarely remembered.

They were afforded few opportunities to commit acts of great battlefield courage and were rarely awarded military medals. Their contribution – filling sand bags, cooking and cleaning, building roads and rail- ways, supplying ammunition, carrying the wounded and dying, digging graves, digging latrines, clearing the horrific debris of battle – was seen as less attractive and less important, and somehow unworthy of history’s commentary.

How ironic it is, then, that the Great War cemeteries – today the emblem of remembrance – were created by men whose contribution is forgotten. The Black Soldier’s Lament – written by Canadian veteran George A Borden in the 1980s- reflects on the injustice: “From trenches deep toward the sky/ Non-fighting troops and yet we die.”

In the case of the British West Indies Regiment 1476 names are listed as War Dead on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. The Unremembered is a community movement to commemorate them, funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Read part 2 of Remembering the brave black soldiers of WWI, tomorrow at 8pm

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