West Indies Regiment
Black History Month

Black History Month: Remembering The Personnel Of Both World Wars

Many black soldiers were recruited from the West Indies and Africa during the First and Second World Wars.

West Indies Regiment

(Picture: Imperial War Museum).

This Black History Month, Forces News has been speaking to Garry Stewart, former soldier in the Royal Signals and Director of Recognize Black Heritage and Culture, about the involvement of black soldiers in the world wars.

Countries in the Caribbean and Africa were greatly involved during the World Wars, sending manpower, materials and money to aid the war effort.

Mr Stewart notes the lack of black representation in history books: "One of the things for me growing up, studying history, was that I never saw people that represented me in my history books, especially during the war."

West Indian soldiers in the world wars

Many soldiers from the West Indies served in the First World War, forming a new regiment, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) in 1915, which served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The West Indian soldiers carried out their training in the Caribbean, but many did not make it, Mr Stewart explained: "The rules were quite stringent on who could pass and who could fail... another attempt to stop them fighting during the war."

Among those who made it through the training was Walter Tull, who was the first black soldier to be commissioned as an officer in 1917.

Tull, who died in action, fought in six battles, including the Battle of the Somme and at Ypres.

In March 2018, Tull was awarded a posthumous Military Cross.

West Indies - credit IWM
West Indian troops stacking shells at Ypres, October 1917 (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

Despite the formation of the BWIR, soldiers from the West Indies were not able to fight as equals alongside white soldiers.

Instead, the War Office largely limited their participation to 'labour' duties, according to the Imperial War Museum.

BWIR soldiers were also denied as much pay as their fellow white troops.

In 1918, West Indian soldiers were denied a pay rise given to other British troops on the basis that they had been classified as 'natives'. 

cleaning guns CREDIT IWM
Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert in September 1916 (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

Herbert Morris was one of the youngest members of the BWIR in the First World War. He was shot at dawn for desertion when he was just 17 years old.

As Garry Stewart notes: "In today's modern army we'd look at it - he was suffering from PTSD, the sound of the guns were actually scaring him.

"But in those days, he was told to just get on with it."

The majority of those who were shot at dawn were pardoned in 2016.

BWIR CREDIT IWM
Men of the BWIR creating dugouts in Palestine (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

By the end of the war, 11 battalions comprising more than 15,000 soldiers had served in the BWIR.

A number of them were awarded gallantry medals during the war, including five Distinguished Service Orders, nineteen Military Crosses, eleven Military Crosses with Bar, eighteen Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as 49 Mentions in Despatches. 

185 were killed in action and 1,071 died of sickness. 

West Indies Regiment
Troops of the West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert-Amiens Road in September 1916 (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

Around 10,000 West Indian soldiers, such as RAF and Royal Navy veteran Allan Wilmot, fought in World War Two.

Garry Stewart discussed the large involvement of Caribbean soldiers during the Second World War: "During the Second World War, many men from the Caribbean served in the RAF.

"The RAF had lifted its 'colour bar' which was in place at the time.

"Over six thousand men from the Caribbean served in the RAF."

Allan Wilmot joined the military when he was 16-years-old, having lied about his age.

West Indian women, such as Millie Dunn Veasey, also served in the second world war. 

Veasey served in the Women’s Air Corps as a member of the “Six-Triple-Eight,” the only all-female, all-black unit.

Allan Wilmot, like many other West Indian veterans, came back to the UK to live after the war, being met with a much less warm welcome than when he was serving.

Caribbean regiment ww2 CREDIT IWM
1st Battalion, Caribbean Regiment preparing to return from Egypt to the West Indies in 1945 (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

African soldiers in the world wars

In the First World War, the British also recruited 55,000 men from Africa, hailing from Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

While African troops did not serve on the European battlefields, they fought in the Middle East and Africa.

It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed, with 166 receiving awards for bravery.

British West Africa was of strategic importance to the war effort, since Nigeria borders German Cameroon and the former Gold Coast borders the former German Togoland.

Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia made up the West African Frontier Force (WAFF).

Alhaji Grunshi served in the WAFF as Lance Corporal in the Gold Regiment and later as Regiment Sergeant-Major.

Grunshi was reportedly the first British soldier to fire a shot in the First World War on 12 August, 1914, when he shot at a wireless German station, according to the National Archives.

He was mentioned in despatches and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal for bravery.

According to Garry Stewart, African soldiers were conscripted from local tribes. "The troops would set up a recruiting day and the local chief would have to give 100 men to the British campaign, and he would be paid for the services of those men."

"What most people don't realise is the families of these men would follow behind them to the battlefield as it was a moving war - there was never ever a defined battlefield."

"Many of them died on the move on the road on what was known as the 'Death Marches'."

In the Second World War, more than a million African troops were recruited, including John Henry Smythe from Sierra Leone.

Walter Tull
Walter Tull was the first black soldier to be commissioned as an officer in 1917 (Picture: Imperial War Museum).

'The True Contributions'

Garry Stewart told Forces News about why he thinks Black History Month is important: "There is a large disconnect between the young communities and identity in this country."

"We have Black History Month simply because black history isn't included in world history.

"Black people have fought for this country, been part of this country for many many centuries, not just since 1948.

"It's been disappointing that after a hundred years, we're only starting to find out the true story, the true contributions of men who fought in the First World War.

"It's been great that the centenary has highlighted these stories to us, but it's also been sad that the men weren't given the respect they were due, as more servicemen should receive."