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Remembering the brave black soldiers of WWI, part 2

MEMORIAL: The BAME Network at Department for Communities and Local Government honoured 66 British West Indies soldiers who died during October 1917

ACROSS THE country schools, youth groups, community and arts groups and others have joined this movement to commemorate the Caribbean, South African, Indian and Chinese men who worked as Labour

Corps during the First World War. British West Indies Regiment men are buried in the Caribbean, Belgium, Egypt, France, Italy, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, and Tanzania. It’s estimated that 124 men of the British West Indies Regiment are buried or commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission here in the United Kingdom with 19 graves in a single cemetery in Seaford.

Situated on the south coast where the new recruits spent their first winter training in Seaford, the men were blighted by mumps and influenza. They never reached the battlefront. The locations of their graves are listed in the Unremembered database alongside all the Labour Corps graves in the UK.

These graves are more than 5,000 British locations listed as places of remembrance for the project. Unremembered groups are visiting cemeteries and bringing friends and families together to discover forgotten stories.

The project is also honouring the heritage of the British West Indies Regiment in the Caribbean. This November, for the first time, people have come together to create Unremembered wreaths which the Department for Communities and Local Government have given to the Foreign Office.

St.Michael’s Youth Project leader Patrick McKay and Lord Bourne with the special wreaths paying tribute to the oft forgotten soldiers

Patrick McKay, leader of St Michael’s Youth Project, a steel pan band in north London, represented everyone when he presented the wreaths to Lord Bourne, Minister for Faith at the House of Lords for them to be sent to the Caribbean. Lord Bourne said: “So many brave Caribbean men travelled across the Atlantic to defend Britain in the First World War and many sacrificed their own lives for the freedoms we enjoy today.


“By making these wreaths, which are now on their way to the Caribbean to be laid, British children had a chance to learn and be inspired by these stories of courage and selflessness.”

Unremembered wreaths will be laid in Georgetown Guyana, Belmopan Belize, Castries St Lucia, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Bridgetown Barbados and Kingston Jamaica will lay these wreaths at Remembrance events last week.

In contrast to their European experience, the British West Indies troops were treated as part of the fighting force in the Middle East. In one action, they were ordered to advance across three miles of open ground under heavy fire to take enemy posts close to the British line in Palestine.

They were successful but suffered nine fatalities, 43 wounded and two men, Lance Corporal Sampson and Private Spence, receiving the Military Medal for bravery. Sometimes, they were treated as equals and called upon to undertake the most dangerous acts of courage. At other times, they were given menial work and denied recognition. The combination was combustible.

At the end of the war, the regiment was gathered in Taranto in Italy. They were denied a pay rise and given menial work – in this case, cleaning toilets. The fuse was lit. Less than a month after the Armistice, the 9th Battalion led a mutiny. The British army acted swiftly. Court martials were held and Private Arthur Sanches, who was identified as the leader, received a death sentence commuted to 20 years imprisonment.

Though the mutiny was quickly stamped out, political consciousness in the region had undergone an irreversible change. The impact on politics sits alongside the impact on those individuals who served, and those who died.

This week, as part of an event held at Royal United Services Institution, Jazz legend Courtney Pine played Redemption Song as a tribute to the Unremembered Caribbean story.
Remembrance – it cannot restore but can, perhaps, redeem.

Dr Virginia Compton is Chief Executive of the Big Ideas Company which runs the Unremembered project

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