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Remembered Today:

West Indian WW1 Veteran.

Simon Furnell

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Evening all.

The Daily Mail today carries an article about The Commonwealth Gates dedication ceremony on Wednesday.

The article mentions a WW1 veteran,Mr George Blackman 105,who served with 4th Battalion,British West Indian Regiment.

Mr Blackman is thought to be the last survivor of 15,000 West Indians that served on the Western Front and he originally came from Barbados.

He enlisted at 17 and arrived on the Western Front in 1915.

By all accounts he saw action,bearing in mind that the high command were not keen on using black soldiers in action.

Does anyone one know what Division the 4th West Indians were with and is it possible that these men saw action in the March Offensive of 1918?

I seem to remember reading that the Americans,also,were not keen on using black divisions during the 2nd World war,but due to manpower shortages,finally released them for combat and they were some of the most successful divisions in the army.

Were there any VC winners?

Of his time on the Western Front he says"They called us Darkies,but when the battle starts it didn't make a difference.We were all the same".


Simon Furnell.

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Simon, the USA in WW1 used almost all black soldiers as laborers. We did train two divisions, 91 & 92 as combat troops. 91 saw action in Meuse Argonne offensive and was heavily criticized though it did no worse that the white divisions that also had no prior experience.

Though the British were angry at Pershing for taking all troops Brits had trained except 27( NY) and 30 ( Tennessee, North Carolina) which fought with British until the end, they refused the blacks.

The French took them, they did well, Freddie Sowers won MOH, though not granted until a few years ago. Wore French uniform, used French equipment and ate French ration except, at US insistence, extra sugar was substituted for wine, I think you can guess why.

The Unknown Soldiers by Henri and Barbusse is a great account of the apalling treatment of these men.

One example, Charles M Young of my town, Lexington, Kentucky, 3d black to graduate from West Point, only one on active duty 1917. He was 6th I think on promotion list to Colonel. Great misgivings arose about the fact that he would command whites. AEF advancement turned out to be such after we went from 127,000 to 4,000,000 that a man in that position would easily reach general.

Complaints went as high as Wilson who was no progressive on race. He was given a physical and discharged for blood pressure. To prove fitness he rode a horse from Ohio to DC but discharge stood. This will ever be a disgrace to the army and country and I can say British were not a bit better after refusing these men when the country was in danger.

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Like you I read with interest the Daily Mail report. However I think that the reference to the Battalion seeing action on the Western Front is quite likely an example of how one's memory plays tricks over the years.

The 4th BWIR arrived in Marseilles on 13 February 1917 and were then transported north to serve as a labour unit in XVII Corps area from 7 April 1917.

During the remainder of 1917 the Battalion was to serve, as a labour unit, in a number of different Corps areas (including I, V, VIII, XVIII, and XIX Corps).

They undertook a variety of tasks and seem to have spent much of their time moving ammunition at ammunition dumps and railheads.

They were certainly working in areas that were within the range of German guns and at least 6 men were awarded MM and an Officer the MC. His citation says it was for ‘Actions under shell fire at ammunition railhead on 10 Jul 17 rescuing wounded and salving ammunition’.

In January 1918 a detachment of the Battalion was moved to Marseilles as the Army considered the weather in Northern France too cold for these men. However the majority remained in France where they appear to be used primarily at ammunition dumps.

At the moment I have no reference to them for the period of the March offensive so it is possible that they may have seen action at this time.

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There's quite a big piece on Mr. Blackman in Wednesday's 'Guardian'. His account makes two things clear. First, he - and others in the West Indian Regment - saw action at very close quarters; he describes how colonial troops, himself included, were used to repel German counter-attacks; he refers to his involvement in hand-to-hand fighting; he himself still boasts a bayonet-scar above his left eye.

Second, he describes the appalling treatment of West Indian soldiers at the hands of the British Army, which eventually resulted in a mutiny resulting in the execution of one of the alleged ring-leaders. At Kitchener's insistence these soldiers were not armed; their physical and mental welfare was totally neglected, both during and after the war, by all concerned in the British Army. If you are interested there is a page on the SAD website on the awful experiences of the West Indian Regiment, British soldiers whose only wish was to serve King George.

This connects with another thread: what else could Haig have done? The expericences of the BWI Regiment and other so-called 'coloured' regiments suggests that he could have made much better use of the resources at his disposal. If he had treated black soldiers with a measure of equality he would certainly have strengthened the moral case for the British Army to have ended up on the winning side.

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Having written my MA thesis on Black Soldiers in the British Army, including the contribution of BWIR, I was interested to see that at least one of them is still alive.

Let me just confirm that the BWIR played no part in the March offensive, as such; under WO regulations Black Soldiers were not meant to take part in the fighting on the WF (although many did!) - the only theatre of war in which BWIR 'fought' was Palestine. However, elements of them no doubt got caught up in the retreat; there is a photo of a Black Afro-Carribbean at a CCS in March '18 in Middlebrook's The Kaiser's Battle, for example. Difficult to know whether he was BWIR or not, though.

The War Office and the British establishment were never keen on the idea of Black men fighting White men in a European conflict; a far contrast from the French, who would use anyone to evict the Germans from France. The British even paid them lower pensions - a soldier of BWIR who lost his leg on the Somme through shell-fire applied for a pension, was given one, but at a lower rate than a white soldier in a similar position.

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In 2000 the MoD had a touring exhibition entitled 'We were there' about those from ethnic minorities who had served in the forces.

Photos from the exhibition can be viewed at www.mod.uk/wewerethere.

It includes a'photo of the West Indies Regt. on the Albert-Amiens Road in Sept. 1916.


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(snip) ... I was interested to see that at least one of them is still alive.

According to the Guardian report Mr. Blackman, a Barbadian, is the last BWIR veteran left alive.

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Evening all.

Nice to chat to you all again.

I had heard of some West Indian soldiers that had served on the Western Front,although they were mainly white and Jamaican plantation heirs.

I was very interested to read your reference,Ivor,about XVIII corps.

I seem to remember,although don't quote me on this,that my Great-Grandads MG Company were part of the 18th Corps during 3rd Ypres.

The story of Charles m Young,Paul G, is,as you say,disgracefull and i am sure that it is still a common phenomenon,even in these enlightened days.

The slave mentality was obviously still evident at the begining of the 20th century and the misuse of willing men,during both world wars,is something that has always amazed me.

I have read about the Japanese division that served with the American Army during the second world war and became the most decorated division in the US army,i believe.

There was also the US fighter squadron,made up of only black pilots,that never lost a bomber on the raids into Germany.

It does make me wonder that if all the prejudice had been missing,perhaps these wars would have been a lot shorter.

Regards and thank you for the information.

Simon Furnell.

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I was very interested in your comment "under WO regulations Black Soldiers were not meant to take part in the fighting on the WF (although many did!)".

As you know I am particularly interested in the use of Black and Foreign troops in Labour units.

I can understand how during the March 1918 retreat men may have become involved in figthing the Germans although I have not found any official evidence of it so far.

So if you can help me with any sources that confirm this I would be most grateful.

In addition can you provide more details of your thesis - title, date etc.


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