Why we commemorate the African, Black, West Indian, Caribbean, Pacific Islands and Indigenous Nations

By Selena Carty - BlackPoppyRose 

World War I and World War II impacted the entire planet. 

Yet every year, not all the narratives are represented. Regiments and battalions were mobilised in a time when Black and African communities were only valued for their labour and the economical contributions made to the various colonial empires which they served under.

How these wars impacted the Black and African communities has yet to be studied. By continuing to bring forward and unearth the information around ‘how’ Black and African communities were involved, we can contribute to a wider narrative around Black mental health and the identities of the future generations.

We served, contributed, and sacrificed for King and Country in more than two wars, and we will remember.

World War I

Africa

The British Colonial office formed the West African Frontier Forcer (WAFF) and Kings African Rifles (KAR) military units that comprised of (not exclusively) African servicemen before World War I started.

In South Africa they had the Southern African Coloured Corp and South African Native Labour Corp. There were thousands of Askari troops and porters and carriers who too often go unmentioned, yet their lives were given to the campaigns that took place all over the continent of Africa.

Men from Northern and Southern Rhodesia also served. 

These men served the Empire with pride and valour. Many men received medals for their strength, commitment, and dedication. 

The first shot of the war was on the continent of Africa. It was made by a soldier, Alhaji Grunshi, West African Frontier Force: Gold Coast Regiment, in Togoland (former German colony). 

North, South, East, West and Central Africa had brothers, uncles, families fighting on several different sides, wearing different uniforms and giving allegiance to foreign flags and kings.

Image shows the Nigeria Regiment of the West African Frontier Force
The Nigeria Regiment of the West African Frontier Force, Part of CO 1069/71 National Archives

West Indies and Caribbean

The British West India regiment formed in 1915 and was comprised of men from:

  • Jamaica
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Barbados
  • Bahamas
  • Grenada
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • Montserrat
  • Antigua
  • Anguilla
  • British Virgin Islands
  • British Guiana (Guyana)
  • British Honduras (Belize)

The 15,000+ men served at Ypres, Flanders, Palestine, Passchendaele, Egypt and many other significant World War I battles.

Winston Millington Churchill, from Barbados, recruited in Trinidad, is noted in history for his strength and courage within World War I.

The British West India Regiment were not the only Black Regiment that served during World War I. 

The Bermuda Contingent were a Black contingent led by white officers and also saw action on several war fronts. Their images can sometimes be mistaken for the British West Indies Regiment as their narrative isn't well known. However the West India Regiment pre-dates the 1915 formed British West Indies Regiment.
 
Britain formed the West India Regiments, which was inclusive of many black men from the Caribbean. They saw action all over the Caribbean and West Indies and even travelled to Sierra Leone to serve for the British against the Ashanti Empire (1824-1900).
 
Due to being stationed in Sierra Leone since 1900, the West India Regiment served during World War I. These men can be identified on headstones and monuments all over the world.

Their presence and contributions to the war has had a lasting effect, which has impacted the outcome which we all know and celebrate to date.

Picture taken by Selena Carty; BlackPoppyRose courtesy of Jamaica Military Museum, Up Park Camp, Jamaica, WI
Picture taken by Selena Carty; BlackPoppyRose courtesy of Jamaica Military Museum, Up Park Camp, Jamaica, WI

Oceania and Pacific Islands

Oceania and The Pacific Islands had their men join the war effort in the Maori Pioneer Battalion and Fiji Labour Company. Tribes and Nations sent forth their men, many who had never left their homes before.

This did not stop them from performing and executing their orders and duties to the absolute best of their abilities. They endured the transportation from their home islands to several battle fronts on different continents that they could have never imagined they would travel to.

Massey and Ward inspecting Pioneer Maori Battalion Soldiers (14808384596).jpg (c) Wiki Commons
Massey and Ward inspecting Pioneer Maori Battalion Soldiers (c) Wiki Commons

World War II

World War II saw more Black servicemen and women no longer in segregated regiments and battalions. 

The Royal West African Frontier Force served, as did the Kings African Rifles, just as they had in World War I.

The Royal Air Force saw the recruitment of over 5,000 men from the West Indies/Caribbean and West Africa.

Many of these men, like the men who served before them in World War I, served gallantly and have been honoured. They have had their names secured within the history books for us in turn to honour them today. 

Men like Ulric Cross, the highest decorated Serviceman from Trinidad and the West Indies/Caribbean.

Women like Lilian Bader, born in Liverpool, England, who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and later the Royal Air Force.

West Indian women also did their part and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Services. Many served within the West Indian/Caribbean Islands, USA and England.

Norma Best and Connie Marks came from Jamaica to do their part, joining the ATS and serving King and Country.

Another female battalion to serve in Birmingham England was the 6888th Central Postal Battalion.

They made a significant impact in the North and Europe. Due to being an all-black unit they ensured they could be self sufficient and had each woman responsible for specific jobs from engineering and electricians to beauticians and morticians.

They competed in soft ball tournaments throughout Europe, even with the racial prejudice they faced - winning every step of the way.

Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc (c) Wiki Commons
Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc (c) Wiki Commons

The world owes them much more than the terms ‘forgotten’ and ‘unremembered’.