When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, the reach of its empire was so vast that every fourth person on earth owed allegiance to the British Crown.
From the outset, Britain sought to harness the immense resources of its empire to secure victory over Germany. The British colonies in the West Indies played their part in this great struggle.
Some of the items below are on display in our First World War Galleries. You can use this article to guide you to their location in the galleries. We have also included additional information that sheds light on the story of the West Indies’ contribution to the war effort.
You can see this poster in the 'Your Country Needs You' area of our First World War Galleries.
When war broke out in 1914, the British colonies in the West Indies quickly pledged their support to Britain in men, money and materials. King George V called for 'men of every class, creed and colour' to join the fight against Germany. Thousands of West Indian young men came forward to answer that call. They wanted to be a part of this great struggle and to prove their loyalty to the king.
For many people in the West Indies, playing an active role in the fighting was seen as an opportunity to advance claims for representative government within the islands. Yet not all West Indians agreed. Some felt that this was a 'white man's war' and that West Indians should not get involved. In some places, men that enlisted to fight were jeered as they marched.
A new regiment
The young men from the West Indies who joined up were keen to prove their worth on the battlefield. Their enthusiasm was not shared by Britain's War Office, which did not want black men in its army. But on the personal intervention of King George V, the War Office eventually relented. On 3 November 1915, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was established by Royal Warrant. In addition to the BWIR, the West Indies contributed men through the West India Regiment (WIR), which had served Britain since 1795.
Troops were recruited from the West Indies using leaflets, posters and films, and rallies such as the one pictured above in Trinidad. In addition, the authorities used financial incentives such as tax concessions and the fact that wages were higher in the army than in many civilian jobs. Moral persuasion was used by many churches, who cast the war between Britain and Germany as a battle between good and evil.
A volunteer force
Although recruitment dropped over the course of the war, conscription was never introduced in the West Indies. All the men who served in the BWIR served as volunteers. The regiment ultimately consisted of 11 battalions - a total of 15,600 men. Two-thirds of them came from Jamaica. The remainder came from Barbados, the Bahamas, British Guiana, British Honduras, Grenada, the Leeward Islands, St Lucia, St Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago. However, military regulations prevented black West Indian soldiers from holding a rank higher than warrant officer.
Money and materials
You can see this tin of chocolates in the 'Your Country Needs You' area of our First World War Galleries.
The West Indies offered not only men but also money and materials towards Britain's cause. Approximately £2 million was given to Britain by West Indian authorities and charities, along with nine planes for the Royal Flying Corps and 11 ambulances. Through the Jamaica Agricultural Society a large number of goods were donated for the men on the fighting fronts, including 3,800 boxes of oranges and 2,700 boxes of grapefruit, as well as chocolate, sugar, cigarettes, clothing, bandages, walking sticks and crutches.
You can see this scroll in the 'Your Country Needs You' area of our First World War Galleries.
The donations given by the West Indies to the British government were not universally popular. When the Bahamas government donated £10,000, the local newspaper argued, 'It seems like madness to vote away so much which we are more than likely to need for our increasing army of unemployed and dependents'. Many of the islands experienced price rises, partly as a consequence of the war. They were not matched by increases in wages. Reflecting these difficult economic conditions, several islands including Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad experienced strikes, which were violently suppressed.
We would like to thank Arthur Torrington CBE, Projects Director of the Windrush Foundation, for his assistance in producing this article.