The centenary commemorations of the First World War have provided a new opportunity to explore the impact and legacies of that momentous event on a more inclusive footing. Quite rightly, the often under explored crucial roles of African and Caribbean troops in supporting the Allied forces has begun to receive greater attention, as demonstrated with new books, exhibitions and public engagement in the form of community projects currently being undertaken across the country.
The former British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean aided the ‘mother country’ with its resources, human and material. Being able to draw on these resources is an aspect of the war that is seldom discussed in the narrative of the Great War. It is not universally known that the West Indies sent 15,600 troops to serve alongside its other British regiments. These men served in Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, East Africa, France, Italy, Belgium and England. The British government’s reluctance to engage black troops in combat against Europeans meant that only two battalions fought against the enemy, in Palestine and Jordan, against Turkish forces. Consequently, the majority of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) functioned in non-combatant positions, such as labour battalions. Moreover, they experienced discrimination in housing, promotion, treatment in demobilisation and pay. However, these men displayed the greatest professionalism and courage in all of the tasks they undertook. Performing these task often under heavy shell fire, many men in the BWIR received medals and commendations for their service, including 30 Military Crosses, 18 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 49 mentions in despatches.
African forces also served on the front line, taking part in campaigns to capture German controlled territories in Togo, Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania. 55,000 men served as combatant soldiers and many hundreds of thousands more as auxiliary troops. Without them, many European soldiers would not have survived. For every one soldier, German and British troops used four ‘native carriers’, including women and children, who carried food supplies, arms and artillery. They cooked, cleaned and tended to the soldiers’ needs. Many of these carriers died of malnutrition, exhaustion and disease: of the 105,000 deaths among British forces during the East Africa campaign, 90% were carriers. Two million African soldiers, carriers and workers served in the First World War. This contribution has never been fully acknowledged.
The Caribbean colonies also contributed to the war financially. Barbados, for example donated £20,000 to the British government ‘to assist in the prosecution of the war to a victorious conclusion’. It is clear that without Britain drawing on the service of African and Caribbean troops, the outcome of the war might have been very different.