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from the Observer 10 November 2002


Soldiers from the British West Indies regiment in France in 1916
Caribbean honour officially restored
by Martin Bright

They are the forgotten soldiers of the Great War: thousands of black volunteers from the British colonies in the West Indies who joined up to fight in the bloody trenches of the Western Front.
Until now it was thought that all Caribbean soldiers joined the segregated British West Indies Regiment, whose battalions were not allowed near the front line and rarely mixed with white soldiers.

But documents to be released from the Public Record Office (PRO) tomorrow will show that many Caribbean recruits went directly into British regiments, where they fought and died side by side with their white comrades.

The records form part of 33,000 boxes of service details that survived German bombing of the PRO during the Second World War. These so-called 'burnt documents' were previously thought too fragile to be consulted by the public. Now all two million records of soldiers and non-commissioned officers who served from 1914 to 1920 have been microfilmed, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It appears many of the West Indian soldiers enlisted while living in the United States, where large numbers went at the start of the 20th century to escape the poverty of life in the Caribbean.

Herbert Greenidge from Barbados was one such recruit. The 34-year-old carpenter was living in Trenton, New Jersey, when he enlisted on 15 August, 1918. His file shows that he was signed up by the British and Canadian Recruiting Mission in Philadelphia. As with others from the West Indies, his file was stamped 'coloured' under instructions from the British authorities.

Before now, the only black soldier known to have fought in a British regiment was Walter Tull, a footballer who played for Tottenham Hotspur and was killed in action on the Somme. He was thought to have been a unique case.

The records do not show that Greenidge saw action, but he underwent training at Hounslow in Middlesex and Saltburn, near Redcar. Each week he sent his father three shillings and sixpence from his pay packet.

Greenidge served as a private in the 3rd Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, which was mainly made up of young factory hands from the northern mill towns of Preston and Burnley. Most would never have seen a black man before meeting the Barbadian. The East Lancashire Regiment fought in many battles of the Great War, including Ypres and the Somme.

The British military establishment was initially hostile to the recruitment of West Indian volunteers. Lord Kitchener, Minister of War, wrote: 'Blacks' colour makes them too conspicuous in the field' and 'Black soldiers; a greater source of danger to friends than enemy.'

PRO military records specialist William Spencer discovered the black soldiers while sifting through the new records. He knew about the British West Indies regiment and began looking for Caribbean names. He would never have have found the soldiers had he not remembered a famous cricketer, Gordon Greenidge, who played for the West Indies from 1975 and began searching for Barbadians with the same name.

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Greater London Assembly, paid tribute to the black recruits: 'This is a remarkable discovery. Anything that helps complete the picture and reminds people there are parts of black history that have been airbrushed out is most welcome,' he said.



Aftermath - when the boys came home

Tuesday 14 December 2004

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