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The role of West Indian soldiers during the First World War

As Black History Month 2013 begins, respect is paid to black soldiers that fought in the war.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

West Indian soldiers
Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles, Albert-Amiens Road, September 1916. © IWM (Q 1201)

Soldiers of varying backgrounds fought alongside the British Army in the First World War. Whilst many people may associate the events of 1914-1918 with trenches, shellshock and a huge loss of life, what is not nearly so well known – or recognised – is the role that black people played.

With 2014 marking the 100 years since the First World War to celebrate Black History Month 2013, we’re reflecting on the role of men from the West Indies during the war.

The beginning of the British West Indies Regiment

Prior to the First World War, West Indian soldiers had been serving with the West India Regiment – an infantry unit in the regular British Army – since 1795.

Following the outbreak of war, many West Indians volunteered to serve. This willingness stemmed from loyalty to the British Empire. Some hoped that their support in the war would bring political reform at home in the West Indies. In 1915, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was created and over 16,000 men from the West Indies served as part of this in the First World War. They were posted to many locations including the Western Front, Italy, Palestine, East Africa, Cameroon and Togo

First black officer in British Army

In 1917 Walter Tull – whose father was Barbadian – played for Tottenham Hotspur in 1909, the second black/mixed heritage player to play in the top division. Walter became the first ever black/mixed-heritage officer in the British Army, and the first to lead white men into battle. He fought in Italy in 1917-1918 and was cited for gallantry. He was killed in action in northern France in 1918.

The First World War saw soldiers from the Commonwealth coming together in defence of the British Empire. The sacrifices of the men from the West Indies – and the torch bearing actions of Walter Tull as he crossed racial barriers – are part of the shared history of multi-cultural Britain.

More information

  • Find out more and see what’s happening in your area for Black History Month
  • Find out more about First World War Centenary at 1914.org
Published 17 October 2013