How Black Soldiers Helped Britain in First World War

British Empire called on people across world to sacrifice themselves to cause

British West Indies Regiment

WALTER TULL has become the most celebrated black British soldier of the First World War. He enlisted in December 1914, suffered shell shock, returned to action in the battle of the Somme and was decorated with the 1914-15 star and other British war and victory medals.

Commissioned as an officer in 1917, Tull was mentioned in dispatches for his ‘gallantry and coolness’ at the battle of Piave in Italy in January 1918, but two months later he was killed in No Man’s Land during the second battle of the Somme.

With the centenary of the First World War from 2014 to 2018, there are many others who have been overlooked in the history books and need to be acknowledged.

Walter Tull
Walter Tull

After Britain joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, Black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces. From 1914 Black Britons volunteered at recruitment centres and were joined by West Indian colonials.


They travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ from the Caribbean at their own expense to take part in the fight against the Germans. Their support was needed, and they gave it.

Soon after the war started, soldiers from Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies were recruited. They helped to defend the borders of their countries which adjoined German territories and later played an important role in the campaigns to remove the Germans from Africa. Throughout the war, 60,000 Black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed Labour Units.

No one could have been more loyal to his king and country than the Guyanese merchant seaman Lionel Turpin. He was just 19 years old when he enlisted in the British Army and was sent out with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front in Europe.

He was in the battles of the Somme and his army service ended in 1919 with two medals, two gas-burnt lungs and a shell wound in his back.

Lionel died in 1929 from the after-effects of war-time gassing. Lionel’s story is typical of many Black colonials who came to the aid of the ‘Mother Country’ during the First World War.

In 1915 a proposal for a separate West Indian contingent to aid the war effort was approved. Consequently the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was formed as a separate Black unit within the British Army. The first recruits sailed from Jamaica to
Britain and arrived in October 1915 to train at a camp near Seaford on the Sussex coast.

The 3rd battalion arrived in early 1916 in Plymouth while other battalions sailed direct to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria in March 1916.

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


By the war’s end in November 1918, a total of 15,204 black men, had served in the BWIR.

However, the Black soldiers of the BWIR were mostly led by white officers and used as non-combatant soldiers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe. For example, in July 1916 the BWIR’s 3rd and 4th battalions were sent to France and Belgium to work as ammunition carriers.

The BWIR spent much of their time at labouring work, such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches, but they were not permitted to fight as a battalion.

By the end of the war the BWIR had lost 185 soldiers (killed or died of wounds).

A further 1,071 died of illness and 697 were wounded.

In Seaford Cemetery there are more than 300 Commonwealth War Graves and
nineteen of the headstones display the crest of the BWIR.

Some of the Black servicemen made the ultimate sacrifice but, with the passage of time, with the exception of Walter Tull, the contributions of black servicemen have been forgotten. It is hoped that the centenary of the First World War will change that.

Stephen Bourne’s Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community and the Great War is published by The History Press in August 2014.


Gone but not forgotten. I am conducting a One Place Study of Wembury, near Plymouth, England. We have a war grave in the Old Yard of St Werburgh’s Churchyard. It is for Private Jeremiah Siyabi, and that may not even have been his real name.

We will remember him.

Birth: 1873, South Africa
Death: Mar. 30, 1918
South Hams District
Devon, England [Edit Dates]

Very little is known about Private Jeremiah Siyabi of the South African Native Labour Contingent SANLC). Records give no mention of his family and merely say that he died in an accident, aged 45. SANLC was a regiment set up in 1916 at the request, and cost, of the British Government. It was disbanded in 1918. The men of the regiment were employed as labourers and paid just £3 a month. They were kept in conditions worse than those of prisoners of war and were separated from Europeans by high fences, topped with barbed wire. At all costs, they were to be kept away from white women, they were not allowed out of the camps without an escort, were not allowed in shops or bars and were not to be entertained in the homes of Europeans. No medals were awarded to the men of the force, even though the British Government had provided one for all who had served with SANLC. There are very few war graves in Britain of soldiers from the SANLC, just three in Devon. About one third of the names on the Hollybrook Memorial in Hampshire, were members of SANLC, many of whom died when the troop carrier ship, the Mendi, sank in 1917. It is amazing and wonderful that Private Jeremiah Siyabi is buried in a white British Churchyard in a beautiful position overlooking the sea, and has been given a memorial stone as good as any given to any soldier who died serving Britain in World War 1.

After the War, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did. This was South African decision. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals.
[Edit Bio]
[Link family members]

Inscription: [Edit]
Plain white Forces headstone with South African Army badge at head. (Springbok surrounded by lettering in English and Afrikaans “Union is strength”) 18830 Private J. Siyabi/ S.A. Native Labour Corps/ 30th March 1918.

[Add Note]

Burial: [Edit]
St Werburgh’s Churchyard
South Hams District
Devon, England
Plot: 1 (Old Burial Ground) [Edit Plot]

Edit Virtual Cemetery info [?]

Created by: SkippySue
Record added: Jan 20, 2016
Find A Grave Memorial# 157272881

Hello there!
Sue, please help me with records of war veterans over there as I am writing about those men who left their home to go fight in the two wars. Some of them died paupers despite their contibution to the war effort.
Peter Lebopa
+27 0739463711

How many English died in world war one and two not British per say.How many Africans ,Asians ,South Americans and others died in the British Army

I feel this is offensive even though I am African-American and White-English living in the USA. Why would the english do such a thing where the blacks fought in the war and they only talk about the whites risking there lives in it.

England show no respect for the Black Gis

[…] “How Black Soldiers Helped Britain in First World War” […]

On 30th March 2018, we are holding a memorial Service at the graveside of Jeremiah Siyabi, a member of SANLC, who worked at Renney Camp in Devon during WW1 and died in an accident on 30th March 1918. We do appreciate the service of these men to our country and Jeremiah for one will be remembered. We will also lay a wreath. The Rememberance Service on 11th November this year at St Werburgh’s Church, Wembury, Devon, will focus on the life of Jeremiah and the men who came with him to build the defences at Renney Camp that would protect Plymouth and the naval dockyard from attack. Jeremiah was buried with full military honours and has the same war memorial that any British Soldier or Officer would have had. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has paid 5 shillings a year since the installment of the memorial towards its upkeep. We will remember them, Jeremiah is listed as one of our war dead.

I wanted to leave a comment in rememberamce of my great great grandfather, Lance Corporal Joseph Alexander Peterson. He was born in 1873 on St Croix in the West Indies and worked as a taught steward where he found himself in Portsmouth around 1899. He joined the 15th Hampshire Regiment and served until the end of the war, returning home to his wife Letty (a white divorcee – their marriage caused a scandal enough to make the papers). He died 18th Oct 1920 from injuries inflicted during the war. I’ve been trying to find out if there were many other black soldiers in his Regiment so if anyone has any information I’d be glad of it!

Whilst I respect what black soldiers did during the First World War, most soldiers killed in the British army were White. As that is the case I feel that to remove the mural of white soldiers from the University who volunteered to fight would never be right. I know that segregation was rife then, and we shouldn’t forget that the black soldiers also volunteered to fight in WW1. Their contribution was as valid as the white soldiers, but unfortunately, racism was
rife then from all classes in our society. We should honour what they did at this time, and a more practical solution to this would be to raise a memorial in honour of these men of colour, wherever they came from


May you please help my family to try and claim grandfather’s heritage .
My grandfather was one of those first black solders recruited to fight on the
first world war South Africa ( Zulu land).

I have done some investigation with our SANDF unfortunately the records are
not true reflection , according to their records he was only the for the second world war ,
whilst the true fact is that they did not come back
after the second WW1 stayed in France till the second world war .

We just want justice and recognition on his contribution.

Thanks Sue for this information regarding Jeremiah Siyaba. I found this single war grave in the Wembury church graveyard when I visited Britain in 2014 and I could not understand how he had ended up there. Your information makes it much clearer. I felt very sad to seem him alone in a foreign (to him) country and also sad for his family for whom the presence of ancestors is so important.

I was very impressed by the way the grave had been looked after and I could see that his death had been commemorated every year.

Liam Hart, I understand why you would hold this perception, the popular telling of history in the two world wars, certainly as memory has dimmed since the conflicts, skates over the contribution of the Caribbean and Africa. There are number of very authoritative academic sources that really do justice to the contribution of the Commonwealth as a whole and Africa and the Caribbean in particular.

For instance, between 1921 and 1926 Sir Charles Lucas wrote an official and inclusive history of World War One, including the minutest contributions, down to a detachment of South Sea Islanders whose expertise in boats helped with an amphibious operation. Lucas’ work does skip over the Empires own tendencies of militarism and self-aggrandisement, but it demonstrates how at the time it was understood that winning the war was very much a collective effort.

Try Professor Ashley Jackson and Jonathon Fennell both who have written extensively around the subject of the Commonwealth contribution to the Allied War effort in both world wars. Jackson particularly concentrates on Africa and the Caribbean.

In terms of recognition of incredible black contributions to the British Military history have a look at James Africanus Beale Horton, Mary Seacole, William Hall VC, Samuel Hodge VC, Sgt William Gordon VC and Sgt Beharry VC. Also look at the Kings African Rifles and the Gold Coast Regiment in World War One. In World War two look at the 11th East African Division and 81 and 82 West African Divisions all of whom fought in Burma and played key roles. In fact, by 1945 the majority of the 14th Army was made up of Commonwealth soldiers – predominately from India but also Africa, Burma and beyond. The last months of the War in Burma saw hard fighting against the Japanese.

There is a complex interrelationship between the British Empire and its soldiers especially those from Africa, India and the Caribbean. Some of it very powerful and positive some of it desperately sad and reprehensible.

Please don’t think that the British Army doesn’t know many brave and inspirational black men and women have fought and continue to fight in our ranks, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Nor that the wars were won by soldiers alone but by the contribution of the Labour Corps and people in factories and farms all over what is now the Commonwealth

Post a comment