Serving soldiers and veterans from the Army’s Black Afro-Caribbean community gathered in Southampton’s Hollybrook cemetery to pay their respects and remember their forefathers who ventured from the West Indies to fight in World War One but never returned.
It was Captain Keva Hackshaw, who joined the British Army from his homeland on the island of St Vincent in the Caribbean, who decided to do a bit of historical research. It led him to realise he had taken the same path as so many of his forebears 107 years ago; only they had done so under very different circumstances – to fight for King and country on the bloodstained battlefields of World War One.
Of course, back in 1914 at the outbreak of war the West Indies were a colony within the British Empire; however, undaunted by the cultural and climatic differences and the long and perilous voyage avoiding U-boats, thousands of fiercely patriotic black volunteers stepped forward to support what they then referred to as the ‘Mother Country’.
Initially, there was a reluctance on the part of the British military authorities to accept them and they were refused entry into any of the British Army’s regiments, discrimination and racial prejudice were after all considered a societal norm in 1914. However, such was their determination and tenacity that this contingent of black volunteers from the Caribbean formed their own regiment, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) that eventually became recognised and accepted by the Army’s command in October of 1915.
“I want to make sure that my fellow Commonwealth descendant soldiers understand and know the contribution these men made.” Captain Keva Hackshaw
To start with, the British West Indies Regiment was consigned to labouring and support roles back in England. As time progressed, their determination, spirit and value to the allies became increasingly apparent. It would lead them to see service in Egypt, Africa, Mesopotamia and, of course, the Western Front.
It is a piece of history that is today seldom mentioned, and the contributions and perhaps more significantly the sacrifices made by those black soldiers from the many corners of the then British Empire goes largely unrecognised. It is for that reason that Captain Keva Hackshaw was determined to make amends.
“I had been in the Army for 20 years and didn’t know that this regiment had existed, and I am ashamed to have to admit that because this is all about remembrance and we have forgotten those men. I want to make sure that my fellow Commonwealth descendant soldiers understand and know the contribution these men made. Back in St Vincent, although we commemorate Remembrance Day, we do not have any links It is almost empty because we haven’t those personal stories, we haven’t really got a legacy – so that is one thing I’d like to achieve through research and change the narrative so people understand that when we do Remembrance Day, it’s about individuals and by personalising it hopefully the sacrifices of those men and women will be remembered long into the future.”
Cultural and ancestral historian, Selena Carty founded the organisation Black Poppy Rose eleven years. It aims to recognise and commemorate the contributions and sacrifices made by the black African, West Indian, Pacific Islands and other indigenous communities in Europe’s wars both on its own continent and further afield. She said: “Africans, Indians and Asians have been involved with European conflicts for centuries, men from these continents were fighting with Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar!
Their work has been very arduous and carried out almost continuously under shell-fire. The physique of these men is exceptional, their discipline excellent and their morale high. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig - 1917
During World War One 15,000 soldiers came from the West Indies, with 10,000 of them from Jamaica alone. Many of them never made it back to their homes. Coming from a warm climate many succumbed to the cold conditions with pneumonia and the poor conditions they were expected to have to endure taking their toll”
The British West Indies Regiment’s reputation grew to the extent whereby in 1917, only two years after its official founding and being recognised by the British military authorities, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was moved to say: “Their work has been very arduous and carried out almost continuously under shell-fire. The physique of these men is exceptional, their discipline excellent and their morale high.”
Many thousands have followed in the footsteps of those men who overcame so many obstacles and fought such prejudice in order to show their patriotic duty many of whom paid with their lives. Today’s British Army embraces and celebrates its rich array of varied ethnicities within its ranks. It recruits from as far afield as Fiji and South Africa into what is one of the world’s most culturally diverse armies.