Gershom Browne’s stoicism forbade him to speak of the full horrors he encountered while serving. Other stories were not so easy to suppress.
Soldiers serving in the British West India Regiment (BWIR) were often discriminated against and treated badly. One notable experience occurred when 1,115 Jamaican volunteer soldiers along with twenty-five white officers were heading to England. Their ship the SS Verdala was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia because of enemy activities in the Atlantic Ocean. While en route, they encountered a blizzard. Inadequately dressed, their lightweight khaki uniforms were no match for snow and although heavier uniforms were on board, access to them was denied until it was too late.
Six hundred men suffered from hypothermia and frostbite that resulted in 5 deaths. One hundred and six had to have their limbs amputated in Halifax while others were sent to Bermuda to convalesce. Survivor, Eugent Clarke, a BWIR veteran who later received France’s highest decoration, Légion d’honneur, for meritorious service during WW1 recounted his harrowing experience: ‘When we got to Bermuda, I was just creeping. I couldn’t walk. Just creep on my knees. After we were there six weeks, some of us feel strong.’ Needless to say, when news of their treatment reached Jamaica many became reluctant to join the BWIR.
West Indian soldiers were prevented from seeing action on the Western Front; however the 1st and 2nd Battalions fought in Egypt and Palestine. The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Battalions went to France and Flanders but not as combats. Soldiers of the 8th and 9th Battalions served in France and Flanders and were later sent to Italy. The 10th and 11th Battalions served in France and Italy. The BWIR serving in Europe were there to perform arduous work: digging trenches, carrying the wounded, laying telephone cables, road and railway construction as well as delivering and loading ammunition. Few were allowed to carry arms and none were allowed to go into combat against Europeans.
After Armistice Day on 11 November 1918, another notable incident happened in Italy when regiments of the BWIR had arrived in Taranto for demobilisation. Once again, they were put to work doing menial tasks such as barrack cleaning, building, cleaning toilets for white soldiers and loading and unloading ships. They were refused recreational time and were also confined to the base. Demeaned and humiliated by their treatment the final straw came when white soldiers were awarded a pay increase under Army Order No. 1 of 1918.
On 6 December 1918 the men mutinied, refusing to take orders and attacking their black officers. At the same time a petition was sent to the Secretary of State complaining about the pay issue, discrimination over promotion and the failure to increase the separation allowance which was supposed to be paid to wives and children of married soldiers and dependants of unmarried soldiers. The mutiny lasted four days, during which, a black NCO shot and killed one of the mutineers and a bomb was detonated. As a result of the revolt the Colonial Office put pressure on the War Office to award the BWIR their pay increase and a battalion was sent from England to restore order.
The perpetrators of the rebellion, the 9th BWIR were disbanded and distributed to other battalions and all BWIR battalions were disarmed. Later approximately 60 soldiers were court-marshalled; one was executed by firing squad and another got 20 years. However, most received lighter sentences. The War Office conceded not on the principle of equal pay, but in an effort to avoid more unrest. In the West Indies, the war had produced a severe economic crisis and between 1916 and 1919 many islands were experiencing a tide of violent strikes. Fearing unrest and agitation from returning soldiers, many were exiled to Cuba and Venezuela.
While many communities have been remembering and celebrating their war heroes, let’s not forget men like Gershom Browne. Jamaicans made up two-thirds (10,280) of the 15,601 men who volunteered to serve in the British West India Regiment. Others came from Barbados (831), British Honduras (533), The Bahamas (441), Grenada (445), the Leeward Islands (229), Trinidad & Tobago (1478), St Lucia (359) and St Vincent and the Grenadines (305).
One hundred and eighty-five volunteer soldiers from the BWIR were killed or died as a result of their wounds. Six hundred and sixty-nine were wounded while 1,071 men died of sickness including measles and mumps. The BWIR were awarded 81 medals. Five were Distinguished Service Orders (D.S.O.), nine, Military Crosses (M.C.), two Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.), eight Distinguish Conduct Medals(D.C.M.), 37 Military Medals(M.M.) and 49 Mentions in Dispatches. The BWIR was disbanded in 1921.
If you’d like to see recreations of WWI trenches and the Blitz, many tanks and planes and revolving military exhibitions you can visit the IWM History Museum. See map below: