Compiled by S. Davis & J. Adams – Contributions to WWI & II

Contributions by people of ethnic minorities in Britain and people from the Commonwealth to World War I and World War II. Their Hidden in History is remembered here.


Inmates at a prisoner of war camp – WWII – on the right is a black prisoner

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”

Martin Luther King, 1929 – 1968

One of the lesser-known stories of World War One & World War Two is that of the active roles people from the West Indies, Africa, India and smaller Commonwealth nations played in both these wars.

The British media tend to focus on the wars in Europe, but this does a great disservice to the millions of men and women from all parts of the former Empire and present commonwealth nations who answered Britain’s call to arms, or who assisted by providing, labour, goods and financial aid. Their support was crucial to the success of the allied war efforts.

When Hitler went to war with Britain, he also went to war with the people of her vast Empire. In 1939, the start of the Second World War this was around some 500 million people – this is their story. But first we step back:

The First World War, known as The Great War

Well over 1 million men and women from all parts of the Empire and Commonwealth that are now linked with the Britain’s minority ethnic communities served in the First World War. In some theatres of war, they provided a vital proportion of our fighting strength. Over 100,000 of them died or were wounded.

Shortly after Britain’s declaration of war, two infantry divisions and cavalry brigade of the Indian Army were sent to Europe. In all 140,000 men served on the Western Front, 90,000 in the Indian Corps and 50,000 in the Labour Companies. Indian troops also played a major role in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Palestine and Gallipoli in Turkey. They also served in the West and East African campaigns and in China.

Indian cavalry await the order to advance on the Somme 1914

In 1915 the British West Indies Regiment was formed from local volunteers to fight overseas. There was widespread enthusiasm on the islands to help the war effort and the cost of sending the Regiment to France was raised from public subscription. Two thirds of the total recruitment of 15,200 were Jamaicans, though each of the colonies sent volunteers. The Regiment served in Palestine, Italy and on the Western Front (regions of the Sahara Desert).

African soldiers were also heavily involved.  Soon after declaration of war, soldiers from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland, Rhodesia and Kenya were mobilised to defend the borders of their own lands which adjoined German territories. They took the lead in the campaigns to remove the Germans from Africa.

In addition to the fighting force, 60,000 black South Africans and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units which provided logistic support to front line troops. Other uniformed Labour Units were raised in China (with 92,000 recruits), Mauritius and Fiji.

From St. Lucia, Service at Sea and we are reminded:

After the declaration of war in 1939, the British Government received many offers of assistance from West Indian sailors. These included 300 applications from Antiguans and 100 from St. Lucians. Two of the latter wrote to the Minister of shipping, Sir John Gilmore in November 1939 to remind him ‘that during the 1914-1918 war… many St. Lucians were enlisted on the HMS Good Hope and they had gone down with the good ship off the Falkland Islands’.

HMS Good Hope

“There is a memorial in Mumbai containing the names of perhaps the first British West Indians to die in combat in the First World War. They died around 8 p.m. on 1 November 1914 off the coast of Chile; they served as stokers or firemen on H.M.S. Good Hope, flagship of the British squadron sunk in the battle of Coronel. There is another monument to them in Derek Walcott Square in Castries, St. Lucia. Castries was then a great coaling station and that is where they had joined H.M.S. Good Hope. It is not clear why there is a monument in Mumbai as from their names they appear to be all West Indian, if not St. Lucian, and the Governor did write about monies owing by the Royal Navy to the families of some of them; they were not regarded as members of the Royal Navy.”

Dr Peter D Fraser, Senior Research Fellow at The Institute of Commonwealth Studies

French Senegalese Infantry off to the Front Line in WW I

Six battalions of Senegalese were shipped to France to fight in the opening weeks of the war. In all 163,000 served on the Western Front; 30.000 of them died.

Haitian Soldiers gathered in the market place waiting to go off to war

Help from the Colonies – The First World War

In the course of the war 100,000 Ghurkhas enlisted in the Indian Army. As well as in France, Ghurkha regiments also fought on the Western Front, and in Egypt, Gallipoli, and Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq).

As citizens of the French Empire, over 200,000 Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians gave their support to France.

Some 50,000 Vietnamese and 13,000 Chinese from territories overseen by the French were recruited to work in France’s supplies factories and labour corps.

Help From America – Black Americans

367,000 African Americans served in the Armed forces. 130,000 served in France.

A number of Indian troops were brought from India to fight for the allies, including these Sikh soldiers.

Part Two tomorrow: The First World War – Black Britain’s Served Too!

Front photo from the Imperial War Museum: Troops of the West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert – Amiens Road September 2016

More about the involvement of people from the British Empire and the Commonwealth in WW I from:

David Olusoga in his article Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable Guardian 11 November 2018

History Workshop and trailer for Mutiny

Black History Month 2020 and here

The History Press

Each Other

The British Army

Imperial War Museum

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