The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Like their Indian counterparts, native soldiers from the Caribbean and the British African territories found themselves on the wrong side of the colour bar. Their experience, however, showed a less benevolent side to the Empire.

Marcus Garvey In 1914, black men from the British West Indies hoped to contribute to the war effort on an equal footing as fighting soldiers. Even Jamaica’s most celebrated black leader enthusiastically endorsed the Empire’s cause. Marcus Garvey wrote to the Governor of Jamaica in September 1914 on behalf of his newly formed Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League:

Being mindful of the great protecting and civilising influence of the English nation and people of whom we are subjects, and their justice to all men, and especially to their Negro subjects scattered all over the world, we hereby beg to express our loyalty and devotion to His Majesty the King and Empire… Thrice we hail ‘God Save the King!’ Long live the King and Empire.

By supporting the war, they were not expressing their undying devotion to the plantation owners or to the white people who were seen as exploiting them. They were displaying a genuine loyalty to the Crown and to the greater British values that they believed it embodied.

02 In fact, the British authorities did not entirely welcome these loyal sentiments. The War Office had conceded it needed the highly trained non-white Indian Army at the front. In the case of the eager, unproved black volunteers of the British West Indies, it arrived at a different decision. In May 1915, the War Office agreed that these troops could be sent to the Western Front. But they could serve only as labour corps.

Stanley Stair In Jamaica, the young Stanley Stair decided to volunteer. A poor plantation labourer of 15 years of age, he was eager for the pay, the adventure, and the opportunity to see the world. His grandchildren live in London, and they say that he died in 2008 at the age of 107. He was the last of the British West Indian Regiment soldiers. He told his granddaughter that he had gone to sign up, but was then sent back because he was too young. But there was another recruitment office in the same town, and he went there, and gave them the older age. He was a man who thought he had a duty to defend what was an attack on Britain; being only fifteen didn’t deter him at all.

West Indian Soldiers Stanley Stair mentioned in an interview on the occasion of his 100th birthday that he went on board a ship called the Verdala, which took several weeks to reach France, having stopped in Cuba in Halifax. He never elaborated further, but it so happened that to avoid a German gunboat, the Verdala’s course was diverted via Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, equipped only with warm-weather uniforms, the men endured a blizzard. 600 of them suffered exposure. Five died, and frostbite necessitated more than a 100 amputations. This raised quite a stink on the island. The newspaper, The Gleaner spoke of ‘the dead and the maimed.’ People were horrified… It went on to say, ‘We can’t guess who it was that sent a 1000 men from a hot tropical climate to a country of Arctic cold. Rest assured this country’s indignation has been fully conveyed by the Colonial Office.’

Caribbean Soldiers on the Western Front Stanley Stair survived the Verdala journey intact, and reached the Western Front in France in September 1916. There, the 3rd Battalion joined the support work for the fighting soldiers. The British West Indies’ regimental diary is different from that of regular combat troops. Here were men who had joined up thinking they were going to fight at the front for King and Empire, and this can’t have been what they were expecting. An entry from 9 September 1916 reads:

Ammunition dump road repaired. Loaded shells, about 6000 handled.

The next day:

Trenches for cables to heavy batteries dug out. Shelled.


Day and night working and unloading shells. 9000 shells handled. Usual work.

Usual work…

Usual work…

Sharp frost at night.

This became a theme.

300 men work all night in addition to day on clearing ammunition.

Three killed, three wounded, two missing, presumed dead.

Caribbean soldiers carrying shells On and on it goes like this. It was drudgery, but it was dangerous drudgery. The men were carrying artillery shells up to the field guns so they could be loaded and fired. They were supporting trenches for troops to sit in. The enemy obviously didn’t want them to continue, so they were fired on as they worked.

It might appear as menial, discriminatory work today, but it was absolutely essential to the war effort. Stanley Stair never showed any sign he was not OK with it. But it couldn’t have provided for those black soldiers what they hoped for, the chance to show themselves equal on the field of battle. After the war, Stanley Stair returned to Jamaica. He worked his way up to become overseer of a large plantation, and he raised fifteen children.

Stanley Stair on plantation in Jamaica In retrospect, it is difficult to understand why the men of the British West Indies would have wanted to join up. Stanley Stair emerged unscathed and remarkably positive, but there’s no doubt that his regiment was treated thoroughly shabbily from the beginning to the end of the war. They weren’t allowed to fight for Britain, but they were allowed to die for Britain.

[Text and images from Ian Hislop’s Not Forgotten, shown recently on Channel 4.]


Anonymous said...

Stanley Stair is my greatgrandfather, I didn't know the details but knew it couldn't have been easy. I just know he was a great father to us all and we will all miss him forever. I'm so proud to have his blood running through my veins. We all love and miss Big Daddy! I'm sure he's with God smiling down at us hoping we are all doing good and praying for us each day. We thank much for acknowledging him in your article and hope to read more enlightening articles. Keep up the good work. His Great Grand Monique.

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather Allen Douse was one of the soldiers who lost his legs from frostbite on the verdala.

Academic Researcher said...

Dear Grandchild of Allen Douse, I came across Pte. Douse's hospital records from 1916 when he was in Halifax, Canada recovering from frostbite. I am writing about the frostbitten soldiers and would love to know if you have any additional information and/or records of your grandfather's service in the BWIR. Here is the link to a newspaper article on my research. I'd love to hear from you.

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