Magazine article The World Today

Racism in the Trenches

Magazine article The World Today

Racism in the Trenches

Article excerpt

The contribution of West Indians to the war effort lies at the heart of national memory in the Anglophone Caribbean. Military service for Empire contributed to post-war campaigns for independent nationhood and is still deployed by Britons of Caribbean heritage to support citizenship entitlement in the 21st century.

The Jamaica Legion is planning activities to commemorate more than 10,000 men from the island who served in the First World War. In Britain, the West Indian Ex- Servicemen's and Women's Association is campaigning to commission a memorial to the West Indian war contribution in Windrush Square, Brixton.

When hostilities started in August 1914, British West Indians from across the region expressed an eagerness to serve. However, the War Office opposed the recruitment of non-white volunteers. Officials argued that black men would make poor soldiers. Concern was also expressed about the effect military service might have on post-war colonial society.

Colonial governors, however, advocated the use of black troops, and they became increasingly concerned that the refusal to accept West Indian volunteers might undermine loyalty to Empire. This point was reinforced by King George V and his advisers who intervened in April 1915 to support the establishment of West Indian battalions.

On October 26, 1915 the formation of the British West Indies Regiment was announced in the London Gazette and by the Armistice, 12 battalions of around 15, 200 men had been recruited.

Two battalions saw front-line action against Turks in Palestine and Jordan, winning praise from Allenby, liberator of Jerusalem. …

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