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True black heroes

Remembered: Black soldiers

Millions of people have honoured a two-minute silence to remember British soldiers, many of them black, who died in various wars, ranging from World War 1 to current conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan.

The two-minute silence was observed at 11.00am today (November 11) to mark Armstice day. As the war dead are remembered, The Voice is also paying tribute to the African and Caribbean heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – to ensure future generations had better opportunities.

Below is the history of some of these brave black soldiers who came from Jamaica.

On November 8, 1915, Brigadier General Blackden sent off the first Jamaican contingent under the command of Major W. D. Neish to serve in the First World War. "Some of you may be killed," he cautioned, "many will be wounded, but in bidding you farewell, I hope that those who fall may fall gloriously, their faces to the foe, victory gleaming on their bayonets." As the band played "Soldiers of the King," and prayers for their welfare and safe return home were said, 500 men sailed slowly off into the unknown looking for adventure, a chance to serve God and country. The world had been at war for over a year.

Most of the Jamaicans who served were between the ages of 19 and 25. Frank Cundall, in Jamaica's Part in the Great War, described these nine contingents and the over 10,000 Jamaicans, as being comprised of four types of men - (i) those who had already chosen the Navy or Army as their career, (ii) those who were in the West India Regiment, comprising Jamaicans under British officers, (iii) those who, on the outbreak of war, abandoned their occupations and went on their own, and (iv) the Contingent Men, like those first 500, who formed the British West Indies Regiment.

Recruiting meetings were held in each parish, public calls to duty were listed in newspapers, and in 1917, following glowing commendations on the services of Jamaican units of the British West Indies Regiment's eleven battalions, a conscription law was eventually passed in the House.

It was never put to use. Every man who went to the front from Jamaica was a volunteer. Many went out of patriotism, but just as many went out of a desire to simply "get out" and start a new chapter in their lives. At the time in Jamaica, unemployment was high and wages were low - men received nine pence a day to cut cane.

Together soldiers from the West Indies represented sons of gentry and sons of labourers. There were lawyers, doctors, engineers, farmers, carpenters, clerks, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, mason, printers, builders, coachmen and grooms.

The troops were trained in English camps - their long spells of work broken by competitive games of cricket and football. They saw action in Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The 2nd Battalion of the West India Regiment (then established for over 100 years) gained yet further Battle Honours in Belgium, France, Italy, Egypt and Palestine.

The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)

The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was known as a "coloured" regiment and as such was often the victim of racial discrimination. Eugent Clarke, a Clarendonian BWIR veteran, who in 1999 at the age of 105 received France's Legion d'Honour for meritorious service in WWI, remembered how when his ship had to put in at Halifax in Nova Scotia due to the dominance of German ships in certain waters, many members of the BWIR had their first contact with snow and frostbite.

They remained clothed in tropical lightweight khaki uniforms, denied issue of the heavier weight uniforms of British soldiers (which were on board) until half of the battalion had already died.

Clarke was one of 200 lucky survivors, and he was sent with others to Bermuda to convalesce before heading over to Europe. Once there conditions did not improve much.

The men of the BWIR were generally restricted to carrying out hard labour, digging trenches, carrying supplies to men at the fronts. Some, mainly those stationed in the Middle East, were allowed to serve as combat troops. In the meantime all continued to suffer from severe weather conditions, frostbite, measles and mumps. One thousand of the over ten thousand that left Jamaica never returned.

History of the Jamaica Militia

Jamaica's participation in Europe's wars was nothing new. This time, however, Caribbean waters were not a main battleground. This historical connection began in the 1600s when the first militia regiments were formed after the island was captured by Cromwell's English troops in 1662.

The "State of Jamaica under Sir Thomas Lynch," (1683) includes the following description of the militia: "The militia in this island is better arm'd and much better disciplin'd than in England, and do much more duty, as waiting on the Governors, guarding the Forts, especially at Port Royal, where there are Ten Companies of about 200 each, one of which watched every Night.

November 8, 1915: Section of a ship with the khaki clad fighting sons of Jamaica on board

All the Militia is commanded by the Governor, as Captain General, according to his Majesties Powers and the Act of Militia. There's Eight Regiments in the Eight Provinces, and a Troop of Horse in every Province….

Every man between the ages of 15 and 60 had to enlist and remain enlisted in the foot or horse and provide his own horse and ammunition, each in the place of his abode."

Except for a small artillery element manning harbour fortifications, the militia was disbanded in 1906 under the belief that their services would not be needed since the world was at peace and "the populations of the West Indies could not possibly be of any consequence in any imaginable war of the near future." A reserve regiment took its place.

Sending troops to the Front

On August 5, 1914, England declared war on Germany not long after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne. This time, however, submarines and tanks and dreadnoughts appeared on the world stage ushering in a new stage of warfare. There was never any doubt that Jamaica would show solidarity with the rest of the Empire.

As the Governor, Sir William Manning, said at an August 13th meeting of the Legislative Council: "I feel that Jamaica will loyally and patriotically assume her part in maintaining the integrity of our Empire, and will comport herself gallantly to-day as she has done in the past."

A decision to create a reserve regiment in every parish to guard against foreign invasion was immediately taken and well-received by the public. One Mr. William Wilson, unable to volunteer himself wrote to The Gleaner on April 23, 1915 - "if 99 other men will subscribe 30 pounds each I will give an equal amount and send 200 native-born Jamaicans to the front."

Over 90 pounds were raised and a war contingent committee formed. The target was 500 men for the First Contingent. By the end of June, 748 volunteered and 442 were accepted. The government agreed to be responsible for the expenses of recruiting, training and transport separation allowances, as well as disabilities, gratuities and pensions.

Jamaican women did their part, too. They organized Flag Day fundraisers, a War Relief Fund and sewed woollen garments for soldiers. In addition to the women's funds, there were others including the Gleaner Fund and Palace Amusement Co.'s Palace War Fund. Thousands of pounds were collected. Over 4000 packages of fruits, 71 bags of sugar, 49 cases of ginger, four casks of rum, and two cases of playing cards were shipped to military hospitals, and distributed locally to men manning Jamaica's coastal forts.


On November 11, 1918 armistice was declared, signaling the end of four years of war. His Majesty's Government recalled with gratitude the share of men of Jamaica in the final victory in Palestine and "expressed to the people of Jamaica and her Dependencies (The Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos) the Mother Country's high appreciation of the military effort they have made, their cheerful acceptance of compulsory service to the common cause and their unfailing support in the great struggle…."

TWO MINUTE SILENCE: Shoppers and staff at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, East London observe the two minutes silence earlier today (November 11) to mark Armistice Day. Pic PA

According to Cundall, many soldiers returned to Jamaica with money, after having already sent home considerable amounts. All soldiers were also eligible to obtain loans to buy land, or if soldiers already owned land, to build houses, purchase stock and cultivate. Re-employment Committees were created in every parish with information on pay and pension, the treatment of invalids and the disabled, as well as arrangements to obtain work.

Mutiny of the BWIR
"Some of you may be killed, he cautioned, many will be wounded, but in bidding you farewell, I hope that those who fall may fall gloriously, their faces to the foe, victory gleaming on their bayonets."

According to veteran Eugent Clarke who, along with thousands of other BWIR troops were held for close to a year at the end of the war by the British War Office at a camp in Taranto, Italy, when they returned home, times were just as hard as they had been before the war. It was still hard to get work and that work was still heavily agricultural based. Up to one-third of the veterans went to Cuba where prices for cutting cane were higher.

This disillusionment came after the even greater one of Taranto, where Clarke and his fellow BWIR soldiers were virtually kept prisoner in large barracks which still stand, by their British Commanding Officer who, as a result of colour prejudice, not only assigned them hard labour but also demeaning labour such as cleaning toilets for white troops. He also refused to allow day passes and recreational time.

On December 6, 1918 tensions at Taranto reached a boiling point and the soldiers of the BWIR who did not understand why they had not been sent home and wanted nothing more than to go home, mutinied.

Their vigorous protests at their treatment sent shock waves throughout the British Army. After four days the mutineers surrendered and the entire regiment suffered the humiliation of being disarmed.

The mutineers were severely punished, one was shot, one executed by firing squad and another sentenced to time in prison. When the last of the BWIR troops were finally repatriated in September 1919, they were accompanied by three cruisers in order to prevent unrest once the ships docked at ports in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.

These BWIR soldiers were not given a heroes welcome because there was simply great fear on behalf of colonials that these soldiers, well-trained and now more politically aware, could create havoc for the status quo under which colonial life was governed.

Today, the Caribbean's World War I veterans are well remembered in the region. For example, in Jamaica memorials were eventually erected around the island for those 1000 men who lost their lives. For example, Jamaica's National War Memorial, a 1.5 ton, 29-foot cross, made of Jamaica stone quarried at Knockalva with panels of marble from Serge Island, inscribed "To the men of Jamaica who fell in the Great War, 1914-18. Their name liveth forevermore" was erected in 1922 in what was then called Memorial Square, on Church St. in Kingston.

In 1953 this cenotaph (a monument erected in honour of person(s) buried elsewhere) was moved to its present location in the National Heroes Park in Kingston.

(However, critics have said there is still not enough being done to remember these black heroes in Britain to honour West Indians and other ethnic minorities who served in the Great War).

Tortello is a Jamaican-based historian and author of Pieces of the Past: A Stroll Down Jamaica's Memory Lane , which is available to buy on booksellers' websites such as Amazon.

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