Ingrained social and racial tensions from decades before the war meant that upon joining the troops fighting for King and Country, many black West Indians were subjected to limitations which would outrage us, 100 years later. In the early 1900s, however, the actions of the War Office were perceived by the majority as perfectly reasonable.
The War Office formed an official policy that dictated that black colonial troops could not fight against Europeans, suggesting that black soldiers would be ‘too visible’ on the battlefield – though others privately feared that the West Indian troops would ‘show up’ the Europeans, given the differences in their physicalities.
Instead of being permitted to take their place on the front line, those BWIR soldiers deployed in France and the rest of Western Europe served as labour units. As part of the self-titled ‘King George Steam Engine’, the soldiers spent their time working hard to maintain the artillery supplies and organise new shipments. This did not make their work significantly less dangerous: the ‘Steam Engine’ troops were often under fire, because moving shells and supplies along the front line to where they were needed involved working witin range of enemy guns and shells. Some war diaries survive which document the situations in which men were instructed to undertake work in dangerous areas without weaponry or shelter, unable to retaliate should they be fired upon.
This discriminatory treatment continued throughout the war, and permeated many aspects of combat, promotion, treatment and pay. A black soldier was not allowed to rise above the rank of NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), and those who were already part of a regiment prior to the publication of the War Office policies were often immediately transferred to the BWIR or discharged from battalions such as the Coldstream Guards and the Army Service Corps.
Though the European Allies’ sentiment was often one of suspicion and distrust when faced with the West Indian soldier, Jamaicans, among other island nations, were generous often far beyond their means. In 1914, when the average Jamaican labourer received around 1s 6d for a day’s work, a Jamaican – signing himself “A Loyal Subject of the West Indies Island (Jamaica)” sent a donation of $5 (or £1 pre decimal) to Lord Kitchener for “my brothers black and Indian troop who are at the front fighting to defend our Majesty’s empire”. At the time, the War and Colonial Offices had not yet created a support framework for black and Indian soldiers, but in early October 1914, an Indian Soldiers Fund was established to provide medical aid and comforts for those troops stationed in Europe.