The aim of CACOEU’s Heritage Lottery Funded project was to explore the contributions made by the peoples of the West Indies to World War One (WWI) and to discover their untold stories. We found people who shared the stories that had been passed down as part of their family history and documented those stories for future generations. This website and video archives together with our downloadable booklet (see the link below) tells those stories:
Downloadable PDF: Contributions of West Indians to WW1
Family of Rupert Arthurs
Family of Andrew Pierre
Patrick Vernon OBE
Nephew of Samuel Ruby
Family of Rupert Arthurs
Family of Andrew Pierre
Gloria Bailey MBE
Talks about her Father
Family of Rupert Arthurs
Grandson of Aubrey Newman
Granddaughter of Stanley Stair
How it all began: A word from Petronella Breinburg
“The idea for this project resulted from one of our monthly meetings, where we discuss the business of the day and, in addition, we “eat and talk”, in general, thus creating a sociable and informal setting that is conducive to a “learn and share” environment. Ideas from those “eat and talk” sessions have in the past resulted in some highly successful projects, such as the Quadrille Dance event which was held a few years ago.
Any member is free to suggest a topic for discussion, providing it fits in with CACOEU’s remit. If the topic generates enough interest and is held to be viable, we may then look at developing it further.
It was at one of those “eat and talk” sessions that one of CACOEU’s long standing members, Cynthia Gaynor-Bailey, raised the subject of the West Indian peoples’ contribution to the First World War, of which little was being said during the present series of memorial events taking place throughout the UK.
We wondered about the number of Caribbean descendants, living in the UK, who may have information that had been passed on, through their community, about the participation of their relatives in the Great War. A discussion followed about possible ways of tracking down a few of those descendants and bringing together any piecemeal information for sharing, at the same time being mindful of the limitation of such a small group as CACOEU.”
Mr Andrew Pierre – Corporal 13512 BWIR
Andrew Pierre’s daughter, Theresa Wyse (née Pierre) and granddaughter Gloria, came to Goldsmiths, University of London and were filmed talking about their father and grandfather’s contribution to WWI.
Theresa told us that her father Andrew Pierre’s decision to enlist was two-fold: one because of the shortage of men signing up for the war and two, despite his training in carpentry, the promise of money and security was persuasive. So Andrew left Grenada for Jamaica where he enlisted and was trained. From there he went to France.
Andrew Pierre was a chef during the war but he also served in the trenches. He spoke about the coldness; how he got frostbite but, even more seriously, how he lost his leg in battle. It was amputated below the knee at Bethnal Green Hospital in London. Back home in Grenada after the war, he would be sent a new leg and a pair of boots every five years, but suffered with excruciating phantom pain in his leg for the rest of his life.
Theresa says that her father was very proud of having served for his mother country, England, and took the opportunity of wearing his two medals, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal frequently, particularly when taking part in parades. He even got the opportunity of meeting and shaking the hand of King George when he visited the island. However, he would tell his sons not to sign up for the British army as, apart from a small pension and some medical assistance, the British didn’t fulfil their promises of looking after the soldiers when they returned home and Andrew Pierre had to go back to work as a carpenter in order to take care of his family. Sometime later though, aid from the government was given and officials did help veterans to find work and Mr Pierre found work at the Cable and Wireless network where he remained until retirement.
Rupert Charles Meredith Arthurs – Sergeant BWIR 1562
Born in 1894, Rupert Arthurs was the seventh child of a fairly well off, Belize land-owning family and worked as a teacher from the age of 14.
We visited the Arthurs family Terry and Lily Arthurs, and their daughter Caroline ArthursCooke at their Streatham home where they told us three stories about Sergeant Arthurs their father, father-in-law and grandfather.
Eager to help the “motherland”, Rupert Arthurs was one of the earliest to enlist into the British West Indies Regiment and quickly made his way up to the rank of Sergeant. However, as his granddaughter Caroline recalls, this was not without his having to face racism whilst doing so. Despite his rank, Sergeant Arthurs was not allowed inside the Sergeants Mess because of his skin colour. However, a Major visiting the regiment came across the issue and ensured he was treated with the respect he deserved, including the use of the Sergeants Mess.
Caroline, while doing research on her grandfather, found that regiments such as Rupert Arthurs’ were often posted outside Europe as it was believed that those from the West Indies, due to the colour of their skin, would be able to withstand the heat of North Africa and the Middle East far better than Caucasian soldiers, thus Rupert Arthurs served in Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq).
A brilliant violinist, singer and dancer, Rupert Arthurs was a part of the Entertainment troop during the war whose job it was to lift the spirits of the soldiers.
Caroline tells us how her grandfather was a people’s man, and fitted in comfortably wherever he went. After the war Rupert Arthurs was asked to be the British Honduras’s representative of the League of Coloured Peoples. At the first meeting, chaired by Lord Mountbatten, Arthurs found he was the only black representative. Rather than feeling uncomfortable in a room full of white men, he simply smiled and said, “Gentlemen, I feel like a beetle in a glass of milk”, effectively breaking the ice.
After the war Rupert Arthurs was asked to be the British Honduras’s representative of the League of Coloured Peoples. At the first meeting, chaired by Lord Mountbatten, Arthurs found he was the only black representative. Rather than feeling uncomfortable in a room full of white men, he simply smiled and said, “Gentlemen, I feel like a beetle in a glass of milk”, effectively breaking the ice. After the war, Rupert Arthurs became a master tailor and ultimately married and settled in Brixton, South London. He continued to entertain by singing and playing the violin and Caroline remembers him as the life and soul of many a party. He was often called upon to recite a crowd favourite, ‘Gunga Din’, at family gatherings, well into his nineties.
Samuel Ruby – Private
Patrick Vernon OBE talked to us about the research he has done so far into his uncle, Samuel Ruby, and other Caribbean and African soldiers who took part in WWI.
Whilst attempting to find information on his uncle, Samuel Ruby, Patrick discovered that almost nothing was written about, and very little honour was given to, the contributions of West Indian and particularly African soldiers post-war. However, what Patrick did find out during his research was that his Jamaican uncle enlisted and served his enlistment in North Africa. At the end of the war Samuel Ruby did not go back to Jamaica but moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Patrick was gifted a copy of a rare photograph from the National Archives for work he did in reviewing images of the Caribbean from 1900 to 1950s which included images of the British West Indies Regiment based in North Africa. Patrick is still trying to find out if Samuel Ruby was one of the soldiers in this picture.
Arthur Campbell – Private 14758 BWIR
Gloria Bailey MBE talked about her father Arthur Campbell.
Arthur Campbell joined the British West Indies Regiment and served his enlistment in the trenches in France. Gloria’s father returned to Jamaica after the war and met his wife who he fondly described as “the most beautiful black woman he’d ever seen”.
Gloria’s father was an active member of his community upon his return and would make a monthly visit to his local police station as a Special Consultant and he would collect twelve men to train. Using his knowledge from the war and his training as a soldier, he would teach men as he was taught, a preemptive measure in case another war broke out.
Aubrey Newman – Private BWIR 10411
Lennox Salmon, talked to us about his grandfather and his great uncles.
Lennox became interested in his maternal grandfather Aubrey Newman’s war stories in his youth, often wondering how the “little old man could possibly have been a soldier running around the trenches” in the war. Lennox recalls how on his first visit to his grandfather in Jamaica, he found out that Aubrey had in fact emigrated to Cuba after the war ended. Lennox tells us that during and after the war there was a lot of turbulence in Jamaica and returning soldiers were not encouraged to go back to their original homes, but to settle in Cuba and South America where there was work. So his grandfather went to Cuba, worked in a restaurant and learned to speak fluent Spanish. Ultimately though Newman did return to his homeland of Jamaica where he married and had eleven children.
During Lennox’s second visit to his grandfather’s home, Newman brought out a shoebox of photographs including one of himself as a young man as well as his two war medals, and also recounted his experiences in the war.
Newman told how he enlisted in Jamaica and went on a journey across Europe for his service. It is believed that he travelled to Southampton, England to complete his training, including, according to Lennox’s mother, bayonet training. After this he was sent first to France and then to Italy. Lennox believes that he then went back to France and possibly Belgium, only to be sent back again to Italy, this time to Taranto, where he remained until the end of the war.
Newman told his grandson of the horrors and desperation of the war. This included the terrible starvation the men were forced to endure which led on one occasion to him and others with him eating the remains of a rotting dead horse in order to survive. He also told his grandson of occasions when soldiers were forced to urinate on stale, hard bread to make it edible.
When first looking into his grandfather’s history Lennox visited the National Archives, where he found not only that his grandfather listed as a medallist, but also his great uncle, Aubrey’s brother, Veral Newman listed too. Lennox contacted Veral’s daughter, Earline, who lives in Canada, who told him that her father had not served in Europe, but had been posted to Palestine. The two brothers did return from the war but unlike Aubrey who sustained no injuries, Veral’s daughter told Lennox that he suffered from shell shock, or what is now known as PTSD, and would often have angry outbursts.
Lennox was also delighted to find that further down the National Archives list, his great uncle on his father’s side, Claudius Salmon, listed as a medallist as he had also served in the war. Lennox is yet to research Claudius’s contribution to the war.
Stanley Stair (October 1900 – April 2008) was the eldest surviving British West Indies Regiment veteran when he died. At the end of the war he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He died in Animal Hill, Lucea, Jamaica, in April 2008 at the age of 107.
Nola Stair talked to us about her grandfather.
Nola told us how as a child she would sit on her grandfather’s front porch listening to his stories of his time at war and on the front lines. However, because she was only very young, she regrets not asking him more about his time in WWI as she feels that he had many more stories which could have been told and passed on.
As an adult, Nola decided to undertake some of her own research, and she found that her grandfather initially tried to enlist in 1915, but was unsuccessful as he was underage. He tried again and was successful in March 1916, although he was still only 15 and his 16th birthday wasn’t until October. He enlisted with his friends. While he returned healthy, many didn’t make it back.
Nola is looking to do more research into her grandfather’s contribution to the War and, ultimately, hopes to use her findings to write a children’s book.
A former teaching colleague of Donald’s told a story of how after enlisting he was sent to a particularly cold part of the island, Newcastle, in the hills of Jamaica, to train. As part of their training the soldiers were thrown a limited number of blankets to fight over, resulting in only the toughest of them getting one. Donald wondered if this was a lesson in testing their attitude to adversity and the tough life they would be enduring as soldiers.
In conversation with a former soldier he met whilst visiting the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, this soldier, who was serving in the Middle East, did not talk of the fighting but told Donald instead of a particularly moving moment where he took the opportunity to swoop down and drink from the River Jordan – a remarkable moment for the religious man.
A World War Two veteran himself, James fondly remembers a time when a man in his district would go and sit atop a hill, play his bamboo flute and sing an old war song, “Soldiers going to war, soldiers going to war, some will never return” – in relation to his time in World War One and just before the outbreak of World War Two.
There was a certain sense of pride with the men in going to war. James retells the story of Norman Washington Manley, the first Prime Minister of Jamaica, who left Oxford University, where he was studying Law to serve in the Royal Field Artillery.
CACOEU supporter Elsa Pascal, compiled a paper on The Dominican Contribution to the WWI effort. Elsa travelled far and wide and conducted extensive research, going as far as travelling to the Dominican Republic to get first hand information. Click on this link to download her findings.
CACOEU member Carol Pierre conducted research into the history and participation of the British West Indian Regiment in WWI as part of her History Masters degree. Click here to download her research:
Thanks to the following organisations for their support in delivering this project:
Goldsmiths, University of London
With thanks to the following volunteers:
Sum Yee Fong
Jia Hui Zhou
Fang Lan Ye