Search for a British Army servicemen in the British West Indies Regiment in the First World War.
The purpose of this record set is a listing of “other ranks” service personnel – in other words, privates and non-commissioned officers. Commissioned officers are not included (except in rare instances of commission from the ranks, as in those cases the man previously held an army service number). Each index entry is simple and comprises the following basic information: - Name(s) - Army service number - Rank - Place of origin
Where place of origin is blank, Jamaica may be assumed in most instances.
In addition, some entries also give:
This record set is intended to help orientate your research and be the starting point for deeper investigation.
This record set is a work in progress endeavouring to identify all men who enlisted and served in the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) during the Great War. It is compiled and collated from multiple sources, with view to forming a simple but hopefully increasingly definitive list.
There was no conscription in the British West Indies. However, from the outbreak of the Great War there was considerable interest among local men in enlisting in the armed forces. Individual men may have had different motivations for volunteering – for instance, loyalty and patriotism; adventure; securing a reliable income during a time of widespread unemployment; or political aspirations for island self-determination and independence once the War was over. Initially, there was institutional resistance within the War Office to the idea of Black soldiers serving in theatres of war against European enemy. It was the Colonial Office, with the support of the monarch King George V, which persuaded them in May 1915. The British West Indies Regiment was established in October 1915 and its strength eventually expanded from the initial two to a total of 12 battalions.
There remained a reluctance to allow the men of the British West Indies Regiment to fight in France and Flanders. Although some men clearly did fight, the majority were engaged in other tasks essential to the war effort – the digging of trenches, carrying of shells, loading of supplies, and general labouring work. In this sense, the War Office never fully overcame its resistance to the idea of the BWIR. Various battalions of the British West Indies Regiment served in the Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia as well as on the Western Front.
Places of origin
The British West Indies Regiment is usually, and correctly, thought of as a Black army corps, primarily composed of Black volunteers led by white officers. However, not all the private soldiers and other ranks were Black and mixed race. Among them were also some Asian men, especially from British Guiana and Trinidad, whose ancestors would probably have been indentured labourers from the Indian Sub-continent. There might also have been a few Sephardic Jewish recruits, Latin Americans and perhaps men of other backgrounds in the ranks.
Most of the private soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers enlisted in the British West Indies but some came from elsewhere – for instance, from Cuba and Panama (which were not part of the BWI). In most cases, however, the men concerned hailed from the British West Indies and were working away from home when they volunteered.
A majority of the servicemen in the BWIR came from Jamaica – perhaps over two thirds of the total. There were contingents from all the island groups in the Caribbean and also, of course, from British Guyana (now Guiana) and British Honduras (now Belize). When the full list of men is sorted by army service number, it quickly becomes apparent that certain sequences of numbers related to contingents from individual British colonies. Within these numerical sequences, the servicemen are often arranged more or less alphabetically by surname. For example: • Army service numbers 279 to 564 = Trinidad & Tobago • Numbers 5006 to 5402 = British Honduras • Numbers 6769 to 6878 = Grenada • Numbers 9024 to 9124 = Barbados • Numbers 9234 to 9313 = St Lucia … and so on. The place given here is thought to be the place of origin or enlistment and not necessarily the place of birth. This also explains the occasional discrepancy where a man was born in a place not expected from his army service number.
Names and service numbers
Care should be exercised when identifying and researching a man known or believed to have served in the British West Indies Regiment. Not all names are unique. Rather, names should be used in combination with army service numbers. In theory at least, a British Army service number within a regiment should be unique to a man. Army numbers should not be recycled, for instance due to casualties; new recruits should have been given new numbers not used before. Together, then, name and service number should provide a unique identifier.
In compiling this database, we have included name variations where we have come across them. A few of these are genuine aliases; i.e. cases where, for whatever reason, a man used two different names. Most, however, are variants or clerical errors. Note that we have retained the errors where we know that they were used in official army records, as you will then expect to find other documents (including on Findmypast) under the erroneous name and not the true name.
Indian names sometimes comprise a single element. For instance, we have Private 602 Dalloo and Private 16891 Siblal. In army records these are most often treated as if they were surnames – that is to say, Dalloo will appear under the letter D in an alphabetical listing and Siblal under S. However, it seems more likely that most of these 40 or so men only used a personal name and had no settled surname (or none that was recorded by the army). In this database, therefore, Dalloo and Siblal are treated as forenames and the surname field is left blank.
Confusion with the West India Regiment
The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) should not be confused with the West India Regiment (WIR). The West India Regiment existed long before the Great War, and its 1st and 2nd Battalions served in West Africa, East Africa and Mesopotamia during the War. However, although some WIR men transferred to the BWIR in 1915, the corps was unrelated to the BWIR.
This is worth mentioning because there are some errors in the official records, in which West India Regiment men were wrongly assigned to the British West Indies Regiment (and presumably vice versa). Sometimes, the army became aware of these errors and, for example, you may come across medal index cards where the regiment has been changed from “Br.W.I.R.” to “W.I.R.” by partial erasure of the “Br.”. Where we have felt confident to do so, we have removed apparent WIR men from this database.
We often identified such West India Regiment men through their service numbers. Where we had two men seemingly sharing an army service number, we investigated and in many cases were able to positively identify and remove the WIR man. In some cases, however, there are still paired men seemingly sharing the same service number. It is likely that at least a portion of these are clerical errors from the time of enlistment; these errors were then repeated and perpetuated throughout a man’s career as further army forms were produced. In some cases, the service number shared by the pair of men is in close proximity to an army service number for which we have not identified a soldier and where mis-reading of the number is feasible.
Work in progress
This record set is known to contain omissions. All army service numbers from 1 to 16950, plus outliers 23500 to 23502, are included as records. Within the main range, however, there are several sections which were not used; for instance, army service numbers from 12750 to 13499 were almost certainly never used. However, where there are individual numbers within a sequence of army service numbers otherwise used, it is clear that we have not yet been able to identify the man in question – perhaps he did not actively serve or leave the West Indies and did not become entitled to campaign medals.
Currently, we have over 15,700 positively identified men. It is possible that up to 200 men remain to be identified.
Similarly, the record set will contain errors. As mentioned above, where we have two men apparently with the same army service number, one of the men very probably holds that number in error and rightfully belongs to an army service number which currently displays as a blank. There may also be errors in spelling of names, especially where the army spelt the names phonetically or a surname has innate variation (e.g. Brown / Browne).
If you identify any errors of any kind, please contribute them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we will update the dataset. In this way, over time we will be able to develop an ever more complete and accurate listing of the men of the British West Indies Regiment for the benefit of all researchers.