Black History Month is important for so many reasons and, once again, this year those reasons have become clear.
Significant progress has been made in recent years and clearly the British Army is now very much an inclusive and diverse employer, and we celebrate that diversity.
A true story of discrimination, brotherhood, and determination
The story of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was told in our feature video. It is no ordinary story. It is a story about discrimination, brotherhood, determination but most importantly it is about the indomitable Caribbean spirit - sadly the story was almost forgotten but we wanted to tell it to remind everyone of how we did discriminate and why we must never do it again.
The story is of the men from the Caribbean who chose to fight for Britain during World War I. The war did not touch the shores of the Caribbean; nevertheless, the men from the Caribbean demonstrated their willingness to fight for Britain and to be masters of their own fate by enlisting.
So desperate were they to fight that some of them stowed away on ships bound for Britain, whilst others sold their belongings to pay their passage.
Unfortunately, the War Office was not enthusiastic about recruiting the men from the Caribbean and threatened to send them back to the islands. They continued to come forward but not all were enlisted.
King George V intervened and the BWIR was approved
By 1915, the Colonial Office and War Office could no longer ignore the offering from the men of the Caribbean to join the Army. They proposed raising a separate West Indian contingent, but the War Office rejected it.
It took the intervention of King George V, who wanted to show that the Empire was unified in wartime, to get the War Office’s approval, which was granted on 19 May 1915. A small unit of soldiers was mobilised at North Camp Seaford, Sussex and so the germination of the BWIR began.
Sadly, the soldiers of the BWIR were not given the opportunity to fight as equals alongside their British counterparts. Their ability to function as effective soldiers was questioned. Initially, the BWIR were not permitted to fight on the front line.
Instead of fighting, they were limited to labour duties. They spent their time loading food and ammunition, laying telephone wires, and digging trenches. It was important work, but they resented their exclusion from active duty. This was not what they signed up for, they signed up to fight.
After the Battle of the Somme in the second half of 1916, there was a shortage of manpower on the Western Front as the casualties among fighting troops intensified. This shortage of manpower allowed the BWIR to take a more active role in combat; however, they were only permitted to fight outside Europe.
Despite the restriction a small number of men fought in France and Belgium In September 1916, the 3rd Bn BWIR sailed to Marseilles and, from there, were taken to the Western Front and attached to heavy artillery units. When they arrived, they were immediately shelled by German artillery.
The 1st Bn and elements of 2nd Bn BWIR deployed to Alexandria, Egypt, to join the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Some were later transferred to the Indian Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), whilst others were sent to fight the Turkish Army in Palestine.
Bravery of men expressed in telegram to Governor of Jamaica
The bravery of BWIR soldiers was expressed in a telegram to the Governor of Jamaica from General Allenby, he stated: "I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. ‘All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations".
Speaking of the contribution of the BWIR, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig commended the BWIR for their resilience, dedications, and exceptional fitness. He also marvelled at how they remained cheerful with high morale despite taking heavy casualties. Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wood Hill described the men of the BWIR as ‘some of the most devoted members of the Empire’.
At the end of the First World War, the BWIR had sixteen soldiers decorated for bravery. Most of the BWIR service records were destroyed in an air raid during WWI. The most recognisable member of the BWIR is former Jamaican Prime Minister Norman Manley, who received the Military Medal for gallantry.
At the end of the war they were once again ordered to do demeaning work
At the end of the war some members of the BWIR were transferred to a camp in Cimino, Taranto, Italy were once again ordered to do demeaning work, after growing tired of the ill treatment they openly rebelled. Their treatment at Taranto encapsulated in Col Wood-Hill statement, "never were the West Indians so bad humiliated and treated". The rebellion lasted for three days. The mutineers were sentenced to 3 to 5 years imprisonment.
When the men of the BWIR returned, to the islands of the Caribbean, in Sep 1919 they were not greeted to hero’s welcome as they were denied homecoming or victory parades. Over 15,000 men served in the BWIR, mainly in Palestine and Jordan, where they fought against soldiers in the Turkish Army. Some battalions also served in France and Flanders.
Strong values, high standards and the ‘golden thread’ of belonging
Today, we value the contribution of every soldier irrespective of race, gender, faith, belief, or sexual orientation. We are rightly recognised as an inclusive employer that respects difference, attracts talent from all areas of society, embraces equality of opportunity and challenges unacceptable behaviour.
Our culture is built upon strong values, high standards and the ‘golden thread’ of belonging; it is essential that every member of the Army feels included and part of the team.
As an inclusive employer, the Army has a strong network of diversity champions and employee support networks to ensure an inclusive environment for all our personnel and employee communication. We will not tolerate racism, discrimination harassment, bullying, or other inappropriate behaviour and will support those that are affected by such incident.
We continue to work hard to break down the barriers and obstacles that sometimes prevent our people from giving their best, being comfortable in who they are and feeling valued and as our stories of serving soldiers, featured this month have demonstrated, we have come so far.