Dr Peter D Fraser
Senior Research Fellow
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.
Over a thousand British West Indians served in the Merchant Marine during the War. The main effort came first from the already existing West India Regiment which fought first in West Africa and then in the more protracted campaigns in East Africa. Some volunteers like the Manley brothers, Norman who would become Prime Minister of Jamaica and Roy who would die at Ypres in July 1917 managed to join the British Army. Eventually a new regiment was formed, the British West Indies Regiment, serving first as supply rather than fighting troops on the Western Front but finishing the war in the Middle East as the Turkish Empire collapsed. Over fifteen thousand men served and five thousand more volunteered for this new regiment. Recruitment might have been even higher had not five men died and a hundred been injured when the S.S. Verdala in March 1916 had an unusually long voyage in the North Atlantic with men inadequately clothed for freezing conditions. People felt in the West Indies, especially Jamaica where they were from, that this was shameful and unusual neglect: shameful but hardly unusual for any army in any war, even 21st century ones.