Talk given at Church of God of Prophecy, Small Heath, Birmingham, 21st November 2016
I was invited last week by the membership of the Church of God of Prophecy in Small Heath, to deliver a talk about the British West Indies Regiment. I wanted to present to the audience the reasons why Caribbean men wanted to enlist, how many served, where they served and their experiences during their service. I also wanted to explore the impact of those experiences on the men, and what they did when they came back to the Caribbean.
We first looked at the reasons why war broke out in 1914 – since the late 19th century, alliances had been formed among the European powers, with promises of protection and support if members were attacked. There was an arms race – a proliferation of warships, tanks and arms in years leading up to the war, as well as a strong imperialist desire from Germany, who wanted to enjoy the same benefits of empire as Britain and France.
As British and imperial subjects, men from the Caribbean wanted to demonstrate their loyalty by volunteering to enlist. They wanted to be involved in this great imperial struggle. Strong reluctance from the War Office on having black regiments was overruled by the King’s intervention that West Indians should serve. This reluctance was based on the view that Black soldiers should not fight against white troops, and despite the royal intervention, War Office official found ways to ensure that they would serve on a non-combatant basis, in primarily auxiliary roles.
Despite excellent service, and many commendations, the men of the BWIR suffered discriminatory treatment in pay, housing, assignments and general treatment by their commanding officers and white privates. Unsurprisingly and understandably, there were mutinies. When they returned home, many ex-servicemen expressed their anger at their treatment by rioting; many became politicised and became involved in organisations that called for greater autonomy and independence from Britain. These men were viewed as troublemakers by the authorities, and were watched by the police.
There were some former members of the armed forces in the audience who spoke about their experiences in the Q&A session. Some people wanted to talk about the impact of colour hierarchies on Caribbean society, both past and present. It was suggested that my point that working with bombs and other ammunition – one of the principal jobs for many BWIR personnel – was not specialised work – rather, doing this type of work under heavy fire was because these men were expendable, they were cannon fodder. Overall, the presentation was well received -the feedback was encouraging and the audience were totally engaged.