Fri | Jan 24, 2020

Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica and the British army

Published:Sunday | November 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

One hundred years ago on Sunday, November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the Armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany ending World War I. Known as the Great War, it was "the war to end all wars". In just over 20 years, this proved to be a forlorn hope.

On August 5, 1914, England declared war on Germany. There was never any doubt that Jamaica, like the rest of the British Empire, would play a role in the forthcoming conflict. Jamaicans had been serving in the British army for more than 200 years. Originally, 13,400 enslaved Africans destined for British Caribbean plantations were purchased as the nucleus of a British West India Regiment at the end of the 18th century.

Troops were needed to defend Britain's economic interests in the West Indies as the English troops' numbers dwindled decimated by tropical diseases. They were to even see action during the American War of Independence.

In 1807, under the British Mutiny Act, all serving slaves in the British Army were freed, increasingly given the same rights as white soldiers, and recognised formally as part of the British Army. The First West India Regiment from Jamaica was sent to West Africa to fight in the Ashanti Wars in 1873 and 1874. It was in 1892 that Lance Corporal William James Gordon of the First Battalion of the West India Regiment was to receive Britain's highest and seldom-awarded Victoria Cross for saving the life of his commanding officer. When he died in 1992, he was buried in a simple grave in Up Park Camp.

It was during the early years of the West India Regiment that the now legendary Zouave uniform was introduced at the command of Queen Victoria, who had been impressed by their appearance on French North African soldiers. Adopted as the full-dress uniform, it was to be left only with the military band on the demise of the West India Regiment in 1927.


World War I


The first evidence that World War I was under way was when a German supply ship was detained and brought into Kingston Harbour as a prize by the British Navy on September 10, 1914. It wasn't until November of the following year that the first contingent of Jamaican men left the island to join the British Army.

Tragedy struck in March 1916, when the SS Verdala transporting volunteers from Jamaica was diverted to Halifax on Canada's east coast to avoid lurking German warships. As a result of the inadequate equipment issued to the men, more than 600 suffered exposure and frostbite, 106 required the amputation of limbs and at least five died. Eleven contingents were to leave eventually. Many included Jamaican volunteers living and working in Panama and even the United States once that country had declared war against Germany.

More than 10,000 Jamaicans from all walks of life volunteered - none were conscripted - to serve 'God and country'. They were to serve in France, Italy, and Egypt. They were employed to carry out hard labour, digging trenches, carrying ammunition, and laying telephone lines continuously under shellfire. The appalling weather conditions and sickness was responsible for an enormous loss of life.

Following the outbreak of World War I, the West India Regiment earned distinction while taking part in the campaign against the Germans, who had established colonies in West and East Africa. Later, the second battalion of the West India Regiment was sent to the Middle East for the remainder of the war.

It was in a campaign against the Turkish army in Palestine that the Jamaicans won high praise from British General Allenby, who wrote to the governor of Jamaica: "I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids as the Turkish trenches."

West Indians were to be awarded five distinguished service orders, 19 military crosses, 11 military crosses with a bar, 18 distinguished conduct medals and 49 mentions in dispatches. Norman Washington Manley, Jamaica's future premier, himself won a military medal and lost a brother in the fighting.

In December 1918, a number of Jamaican soldiers being held before demobilisation in Taranto, Italy, anxious to go home and unable to understand why no transport was available, were given demeaning tasks while being poorly paid. As they had been through the war, they were discriminated against both by their fellow soldiers and military authorities. Disaffection led to mutiny and the men assaulted their officers. The mutiny lasted four days and ended in severe punishment for the mutineers, including one execution. Repatriation didn't take place for another nine months.

Significantly, the ships carrying them home to Jamaica as well as Barbados and Trinidad were accompanied by naval cruisers to ensure that they created no social unrest when stepping ashore. Social upheaval was to become a reality throughout the West Indies.

It was calculated that more than 15,000 West Indians - 10,000 from Jamaica - had enrolled in the British West Indies Regiment. One hundred and eighty-five died in battle or from wounds, 697 were wounded and survived, and another thousand died in sickness. The first and second battalions of the West India Regiment were amalgamated in 1920 and this regiment was finally disbanded in 1927.

There are several memorials in Jamaica to those who served in the Great War. The most prominent of these is the ton-and-a-half Serge Island marble cenotaph in National Heroes Park.

In a closing statement to a final meeting of the West Indian Contingent Committee, the acting secretary of state for the colonies, Colonel Amery, said, "It is significant that the native population of the West Indies should come forward voluntarily in the way they did to take part in this great struggle. It is a very remarkable thing politically as it is also a remarkable testimony, I think, to the patriotism and courage of the men who did it."

Understandably, memories are short. The descendants of those who took part in the Great War are today expecting at least an apology from Britain for the injustices of slavery. They seem to be facing an ungrateful nation.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to