West Indian Soldiers in the First World War

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert-Amiens Road, September 1916; Soldiers from the West Indies served in many theatres of the war. Most battalions of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) saw service on the Western Front, predominantly as pioneers. Battalions of the regiment also served in Italy, with smaller contingents in Jordan, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Two battalions of the BWIR fought in Palestine. The West India Regiment served in East Africa, the Cameroon and Togo.

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles; Albert-Amiens Road, September 1916

photographs

Soldiers from the West Indies served in many theatres of the war. Most battalions of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) saw service on the Western Front, predominantly as pioneers. Battalions of the regiment also served in Italy, with smaller contingents in Jordan, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Two battalions of the BWIR fought in Palestine. The West India Regiment served in East Africa, the Cameroon and Togo.

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Over 16,000 men from the West Indies served in the First World War. West Indian soldiers already serving with the West India Regiment, an infantry unit in the regular British Army that had existed since 1795, were the first from the islands to join...

Over 16,000 men from the West Indies served in the First World War. West Indian soldiers already serving with the West India Regiment, an infantry unit in the regular British Army that had existed since 1795, were the first from the islands to join the war effort in West and East Africa.

After the outbreak of war, many West Indians volunteered to serve. Despite initial reluctance to recruit them, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was created in 1915 to serve overseas.

The soldiers volunteered for a number of reasons from loyalty to the British Empire to economic advantages. Some were also motivated by the idea that support for the war effort abroad could bring political reform at home in the West Indies.

Recruitment was hampered in March 1916 when a ship carrying some of these new recruits to Britain was diverted to Halifax in Canada to avoid enemy attacks. Soldiers on the ship - which was unprepared for such weather conditions - suffered severe frostbite, which in several cases led to amputations. Several deaths were also recorded. Reports in the press and the sight of other returning injured soldiers meant recruitment in the West Indies had to be temporarily suspended.

Soldiers of the BWIR faced discrimination and many worked as labourers rather than on the front line. This dissatisfaction contributed to a mutiny by some soldiers stationed at Taranto in Italy in December 1918, shortly after the war had ended.

West Indian soldiers had contributed to the war effort across the globe. Their return home contributed to the increasing nationalist movement in the West Indies.

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  • A soldier of the British West Indies Regiment in Palestine

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    A soldier of the British West Indies Regiment in Palestine; This soldier is resting during the digging of a new headquarters for XX Corps on the cliffs of the Mediterranean near Deir-el-Belah in Palestine. Whilst most of the soldiers who served with the British West Indies Regiment worked as pioneers, many of those who served in Palestine fought as infantry. The first, second and fifth (reserve) battalions of the British West Indies Regiment were stationed in Palestine and Jordan.
  • Black metal cigarette case

    souvenirs and ephemera

    Black metal cigarette case; This First World War period cigarette case was used by a soldier of the British West Indies Regiment. The front bears the regimental insignia and the inscription reads 'The British West Indies Regiment' and 'Christmas-New Year 1917-1918'.
  • West Indian troops

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    West Indian troops; West Indian troops stacking 8-inch shells at a dump on the Gordon Road, Ypres, October 1917. Nine of the twelve battalions of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) worked as labourers on the Western Front. The monotony of this work, along with the discrimination many of the soldiers faced, could contribute to disenchantment. This came to a head just after the end of the war at Taranto in Italy, where most of the battalions of the BWIR were stationed in December 1918 for demobilisation. A mutiny lasting four days broke out and although it was quashed, the incident contributed to increasing nationalist sentiment.
  • Men of the British West Indies Regiment

    photographs

    Men of the British West Indies Regiment; Men of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) in camp on the Albert-Amiens Road, September 1916. The majority of the men of the BWIR who served on the Western Front did so as pioneers, providing the labour required in constructing defences and supporting the Army's logistical effort. These men are in a camp of bell tents and appear to be looking up at aircraft in flight above them.