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To War with the Westies

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To War with the Westies

In November 1917 my grandfather Houghton, who had served with the West India Regiment in Sierra Leone before the war, was sent to France to take over as 2i/c 7th British West Indies Regiment. He was promoted temporary Major on taking up his duties on 1st December.

A distinction must be drawn. The West India Regiment (WIR), his parent unit, was a regular, professional, pre-war British Army formation principally recruited in Jamaica.

The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was a local formation recruited from all the islands, and, latterly from West Indians living in Britain, as a contribution to the Great War, but a number of its officers were WIR secondees. In both units almost all the officers and most of the NCOs were British [White]. The majority of men of European descent who volunteered for the BWIR but did not receive commissions would at some stage be drafted into "British Units." Following is an extract from a Colonial Office file discussing recruitment: "the white men in question are generally persons who have not got recommendations for Commissions and have enlisted in the hope of getting Commissions once they are here. They often have recommendations of various degrees of informality and value, all of which ignore the fact that the ranks of British regiments are full of better qualified candidates for Commissions. The O.C finds that a nuisance as they are generally made n.c.o’s before starting and are useless in that capacity. G G, 25.11.15"

Rumours of a merger of BWIR detachments with 2WIR in East Africa in April 1918 created great ill-feeling in both, to the point where GOC East Africa successfully appealed to have the merger called off because of risks of 'riot and possible murder'. It would seem that it was the BWIR that most felt itself demeaned. Back in London the official minutes include a soupçon of boredom with the affairs of 'this rather unimportant regiment'.

The 7th Battalion with its alligator shoulder flash had arrived in France in June 1917 and had been employed on dumps, railheads and engineer work close to the enemy lines. When Houghton joined it was recovering from an incident in November in which five of its ORs won Military Medals (one of them a Bar) extinguishing fires that resulted when the Marengo ammunition dump near Beesinghe was hit by an incendiary bomb in the middle of the night.

The winter cold badly affected the West Indians but representations, ultimately by a private letter from Chaplain Harry Brown of 10BWIR to the most senior levels, were pooh-poohed in London. The result was a litany of evacuations from the Front so that the BWIR formations were in endless churn from raw replacements. One does wonder whether winter clothing and kit had been provided for them in the same way as for the British Army.

To minimise West Indian frostbite and pneumonia casualties the BWIR were concentrated at Taranto for the winter, where, listed as Labour troops within the Line of Communication units, they were employed loading and coaling ships, laying railway lines, and carrying out camp fatigues.

Because the German submarine menace had closed the sea route via Gibraltar, all supplies to Salonika, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia were routed overland through France and Italy and shipped through Taranto which was thus an extremely busy major Allied base.

The 7th entrained on 27th December and arrived on 6th January 1918. Off duty BWIR were crack cricketers, winning 27 of their 30 matches. Nevertheless it is clear that it was beset by severe morale problems, shown by the steady dribble of reversions of 7BWIR’s West Indian junior NCOs for unsuitability, inefficiency, drunkenness, misconduct and even 'violence to a superior'.

On May 9th the 7th was sent back to France, arriving at St Leger (see Michelin 1:200,000 sheet 52) on the Authie in the Third Army area on 16th. It was then employed by 4th Army in the Pas de Calais area on the Lys, resupplying ammunition under fire to artillery units and on other duties. It was also similarly employed by 5th Army on the Somme.

Typically one company would shift ammunition, stores and engineer supplies from standard gauge railway to temporary military narrow-gauge, one would supply from the narrow-gauge railhead to the line, and two would operate on the route in between.

Morale problems seem to have eased although there was still a steady drain of evacuations otherwise than of a few casualties sustained, typically from bombing by enemy aircraft. By this stage in the war there was home leave to UK and Houghton had fourteen days’ come up at the end of July. For the ORs with their homes far away in the West Indies we must suppose there was no home leave.

At the end of October as the German front line began to crumble the unit was sent back to Italy. At Chaunes the second half of the battalion (together with the whole of the 6th) just missed by half an hour the explosion of a delayed mine which blew the whole railway station to kingdom come.

Entraining in the battle area at Reducq, it travelled via Rouen, Marseilles, where the main body paused for four days to allow two detached companies to catch up, the Riviera and Ancona and marched into camp at Taranto shortly after the German Armistice. The long spells of work were broken whenever possible by inter-battalion cricket and football matches and by days of drill and route marches.

Houghton briefly had command of A Company until a Captain Donald took this over from him on arrival at Taranto. On 24th December the 7th Battalion team was narrowly beaten by its brothers of the 11th in the final of the BWIR tug-of-war contest.

On 6th December 1918 trouble occurred in the BWIR battalions employed on dock duties at Taranto, apparently concentrated in the 4th, 9th and 10th battalions. Conditions in the camp were 'very severe' and the troops had just been excluded from a pay rise granted to the British Army, because the BWIR was the responsibility of the Colonial Office and not the War Office. There was also an accumulation of recent inferior treatment compared to their British counterparts.

Some of the men of 10BWIR refused to work, stones were thrown at two officers, and a bomb was thrown into the tent of a regimental quartermaster-sergeant, and 9BWIR was described as 'increasingly truculent'. Whether connected or not, in 7BWIR a Private Pinnock was shot dead by A/Sergeant Rickman. There must have been provocation as Rickman was not charged with murder; a charge of 'did wilfully kill and slay' was not proved and Rickman got 6 months hard labour for merely 'causing the death' - and two months of that was remitted.

Houghton will have been happy to go home on another 14 days’ leave the day after Rickman’s Court Martial on 16th January. The main grievance of the men was that 'they had enlisted to fight, but had been continuously employed at bases and, the War being over, they wanted to go home'.

By 10th December armed British troops had been brought in to restore order and two battalions had been disarmed. Some mutineers were lashed to the muzzle of a gun but were released after being given some time to think about what might happen when it was fired. The 9th was broken up, some of its men being drafted to the 7th.

After further mutinous meetings, including one of NCOs, the BWIR were sent home, where the development of their argument into Black Rights was disseminated across their native islands. Curiously, 8BWIR seems to have been entirely unaffected; its War Diary monotonously records working parties as usual while that of 7th continues its saga of evacuations and reversions. Even more curiously, the 7th’s War Diary for December 1918 has been removed from the Public Record.

Houghton remained with 7BWIR until May of 1919. His Colonel, CD Arnold, recommended him for a Mention in Despatches but the 'ration' of these for Lines of Communication units was probably small and it was not awarded.

Six weeks’ Senior Officers’ School at Aldershot in the Spring was followed by an appointment in command of the BWIR depot at Withnoe, a windy cliff-top site a few miles west of Plymouth. By 1st August the BWIR had gone home to demobilise and Houghton lost his temporary Majority. He was then attached to the War Office for 'Repatriation Duties'. Actually he was helping the Russian Embassy recruit officers to fight the Bolsheviks for the 'White' General Yendenitch.

Oddly, Houghton who had already hoovered up French and Italian on his travels, did not add Russian to his linguistic quiver. The recruiting activity was abandoned following the failure of the Whites’ Petrograd offensive. Houghton was sent out to Jamaica to join 2nd Bn WIR in February 1920, then commanded by EJ Pomeroy who had been with the unit in the Cameroons and East Africa.

Houghton retired from the Army as a Major in 1921 and emigrated to Australia where he had purchased some land for fruit farming at Narracoorte, south-east of Adelaide, in a syndicate with two other ex-Officers. The venture failed; he died in Adelaide in 1964.

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