For whom the bells toll

Many of us are aware of the historical contribution made by Gurkhas to the fighting strength of the British Army, and the involvement of troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa during the two World Wars.

West Indian troops stacking eight-inch shells at a dump on the Gordon Road, Ypres, October 1917.

However far fewer of us know about the contribution made by military and civilian personnel from other parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth; particularly those from Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the rest of Asia (including Hong Kong) and the West Indies

The men and women from these countries served in theatres of war throughout the world, many in the front-line, working as infantrymen, pilots and seamen. Others worked in the essential support services, such as medicine, logistics, transport and labour. Today, the Ministry of Defence and in the Armed Forces, are providing opportunities for people from all sections of the community, and all ethnic origins to join, and to rise within the organisation purely on merit.

Before 1914

Service of ethnic personnel in the Armed Forces of the British Crown can be traced back several centuries. Up to the First World War, service was mainly within the local defence forces formed in the Empire as it developed, to protect British strategic interests in the region from internal and external threat.

The largest of these military forces came from India. The Indian Army started life in the seventeenth Century when the East India Company recruited local personnel to guard its interests, although formed units were not organised until the mid eighteenth Century. It recruited throughout the sub continent, mainly in the south and coastal regions where the earliest European interests were located, but gradually expanded its recruitment base to include others including, from 1815, Gurkhas from Nepal (which was never actually part of the British Empire) and later men from the Punjab and other parts of northern India. Not all service was in the home country; between 1860 and 1914, for example, Indian Regiments served in China (1860), Abyssinia (1868) and Somaliland (1903).

Recruitment of ethnic personnel took place throughout the Empire, including China, East and West Africa, and the West Indies. Most recruits enlisted into local defence forces, although a few, such as the West India Regiment, existed for overseas service. The West India Regiment has an interesting history. Originally recruiting slaves and some free blacks, it was the longest continuously serving black regiment, existing from 1795 until its first disbandment in 1927. It won many honours in the process.

The Royal Navy has long been an ethnically diverse force. Throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, as Britain’s empire grew to cover a quarter of the globe, the Navy employed men from all over the world. Until 1853, recruitment was the responsibility of the captains of individual ships, and the Navy relied heavily on the Merchant Navy, which employed mixed race crews, for its manpower.

WW1 1914 – 1918

Well over 1 million men from parts of the Empire that are now linked with the UK’s minority ethnic communities served in the First World War. In some theatres of war, they provided a vital proportion of our fighting strength. Over 100,000 of them died or were wounded.

Shortly after Britain’s declaration of war, two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian Army were sent to Europe. In all 140,000 men served on the Western Front, 90,000 in the Indian Corps and 50,000 in the Labour Companies. Indian troops also played a major role in operations in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Gallipoli. They also served in the West and East African campaigns and in China.

In 1915 the British West Indies Regiment was formed from local volunteers to fight overseas. There was widespread enthusiasm on the islands to help the war effort, and the cost of sending the Regiment to France was raised from public subscription. Two thirds of the total recruitment of 15,200 were Jamaican, though each of the colonies sent volunteers. The Regiment served in Palestine, Italy and on the Western Front.

African soldiers were also heavily involved. Soon after the declaration of war, soldiers from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland, Rhodesia and Kenya were mobilised to defend the borders of their own lands which adjoined German territories. They later took the lead in the campaigns to remove the Germans from Africa.

60,000 black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units which provided logistic support to front line troops. Other uniformed Labour Units were raised in China (with 92,000 recruits), Mauritius and Fiji.

Pic: A group of soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert-Amiens Road, Northern France, September 1916. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

WW2 1939-1945

The huge involvement of men and women from the West Indies, Africa, India and many smaller Commonwealth nations in the allied war effort is one of the lesser known stories of the Second World War. They provided manpower, equipment and support in theatres throughout the world and made a vital contribution to the war effort.

At the end of the War over three million men were under arms, 2 million of them in the Indian Army, over 200, 000 from East Africa and 150,000 from West Africa. This is a hugely impressive figure given that many thousands more civilians from the Empire were also involved in the war effort. The vast majority were volunteers (but some colonies did use limited forms of conscription) who played a major part in the operations in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East.

Britain’s population of about 7,000 people from the ethnic minorities also played a significant role. Many were merchant seamen who prior to the outbreak of war had settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields. As the war progressed, the Merchant Navy, which had continued to employ sailors from all over the world, lost many of its men to the Royal Navy, recruited under the Naval Discipline Act. Seafarers from India, Africa, Malaya, Burma, the West Indies, China and Malta also provided manpower to assist the Allied cause at sea.

The Royal Air Force also looked to recruit personnel from across the Commonwealth. At first, recruitment concentrated on British subjects of European descent. However after October 1939 questions of nationality and race were put aside, and all Commonwealth people became eligible to join the Royal Air Force on equal terms. By the end of the Second World War, over 17,500 such men and women had volunteered to join the RAF, in a variety of roles, and a further 25,000 served in the Royal Indian Air Force