Eight West India Regiments were commissioned between 24 April and 1 September 1795. In addition to incorporating into the 1st West India Regiment the Carolina Corps that had been in existence since 1779, the original intention was both to recruit free blacks from the West Indian population and to purchase slaves from the West Indian plantations. The eighth of the newly raised regiments (Skerrett's) was disbanded the following year but the quality of the new corps led to a further five West India Regiments being raised in 1798.
In 1807 all serving black soldiers recruited as slaves in the West India Regiments of the British Army were freed under the Mutiny Act passed by the British parliament that same year. In 1808 the Abolition Act caused all trading in slaves to be "utterly abolished, prohibited and decleared to be unlawful". In 1812 a West African recruiting depot was established on Bance Island in Sierre Leone to train West African volunteers for the West India Regiments. By 1816 the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the reduction of the West India regiments to six led to the closure of this depot. Thereafter all recruitment for the various West Indian regiments that fought in World War I and World War II were West Indian volunteers, with officers and some senior NCOs coming from Britain.
The WIR soldiers became a valued part of the British forces garrisoning the West Indies, where losses from disease and climate were heavy amongst white troops. The black Caribbean soldiers by contrast proved better adapted to tropical service. They served against locally recruited French units that had been formed for the same reasons. Free black Caribbeans soldiers played a prominent and often distinguished role in the military history of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The new West India Regiments saw considerable service during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1800 there were 12 battalion-sized regiments which were seen as valuable also for dealing with slave revolt in the West Indies colonies.
Three companies of the First WIR repulsed a French attempt to recapture the island of Marie-Galante in August–September 1808, together with members of the first Corps of Colonial Marines recruited from local refugees from slavery.
The Regiments were later involved in the War of 1812, both on the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, taking part in the British attack on New Orleans. In 1800 there were 12 battalion-sized regiments which were seen as valuable also for dealing with slave revolt in the West Indies colonies. After the Slave Trade Act of 1807, there was a shortfall of around five thousand members at the start of the War of 1812, and the war offered hope of new recruitment from slaves fleeing the United States. However, only eight joined the regiments from the Chesapeake Bay area in 1814, and a further thirteen on the coast of Georgia early in 1815, the great majority of refugees who offered military service preferring the newly formed Corps of Colonial Marines, who later rejected British government orders for transfer to the Regiments.
Following the end of the War of 1812, numbers were progressively reduced. Members of two of the disbanded regiments were settled in the eastern part of Trinidad, the 6th in 1817 and the 3rd in 1819, forming the main Muslim population in Trinidad before the first arrival of indentured Indian immigrants in 1845. During most of the remainder of the nineteenth century there were never less than two West India Regiments. The 1st West India Regiment from Jamaica went to the Gold Coast of Africa to fight in the Ashanti War of 1873-4.
In 1888 the 1st and 2nd West India Regiments were merged into a single regiment comprising two battalions. A third battalion was raised in 1897, but was disbanded in 1904. Enlistment for the West India Regiment during this period involved a commitment for twelve years of full-time service. This was in contrast with most other infantry regiments of the British regular army, where recruitment was for seven years "with the colours" followed by five years with the reserves.
The regiment served in West Africa throughout the 19th century. In the early part of the twentieth century one battalion was stationed in Sierra Leone and the other was in Jamaica recruiting and training, the battalions exchanging every three years. The regiment fought in the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and the Yoni Expedition (1887).
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the 1st Battalion of the WIR was stationed in Freetown where it had been based for two and a half years. A detachment of the Regiment's signalers saw service in the German Cameroons, where Private L. Jordon earned a DCM and several other men were mentioned in despatches. The 1st Battalion returned to the West Indies in 1916.
The 2nd Battalion was sent from Kingston to West Africa in the second half of 1915. They took part in the capture of Yaoundé in January 1916. The Regiment was subsequently awarded the battle honour "Cameroons 1914-16". The 2nd Battalion, which had been divided into detachments, was brought together in Freetown in April 1916 and sent to Mombassa in Kenya, to take part in the East African campaign against German colonial forces based in German East Africa.
The five hundred and fifteen officers and men of the 2nd Battalion formed part of a column that took Dar es Salaam on 4 September 1916. After garrison duty, the battalion subsequently played a distinguished part in the Battle of Nyangao (German East Africa) in October 1917. For their service in East Africa the WIR earned eight Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as the battle honour "East Africa 1914-18".
Following their active service in German Africa the 2nd Battalion of the West India Regiment was shipped to Suez in September 1918. It was then transferred to Lydda in Palestine where it spent the two remaining months of the War. Two battalions of a newly raised regiment also recruited from black Caribbean soldiers: the similarly named British West Indies Regiment (see below), saw front line service against the Turkish Army during the Palestine Campaign. General Allenby sent the following telegram to the Governor of Jamaica: "I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations".
After the war, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the West India Regiment were amalgamated into a single 1st Battalion in 1920. This was disbanded in 1927. The reasons for disbandment were primarily economic. The West Indies had long been a peaceful military backwater with limited defence requirements and the substitute role under which the WIR had provided a single battalion as part of the garrison in Britain's West African possessions had become redundant as local forces were raised and expanded there.
As the push for a federation of the British West Indies gathered steam in the 1950s, the question of defence was among the issues debated and it was decided to raise the West India Regiment (WIR) once again as the British Caribbean's single significant military unit.
The recreated regiment would take on the traditions of not only the previous regular army units (including the military band which had continued to exist when the WIR had been stood down in 1927) but also of the islands' local units. It would wear the old cap-badge and play the regimental march and its officers would dine using the old mess silver.
In preparation for the formation of the revived WIR, the West Indian federal government began to maintain the local units of the various islands from April 1, 1958, including the Jamaica Regiment which was intended to be the nucleus of the new WIR. On December 15, 1958, the federal legislature passed the Defence Act, 1958 which gave the legal basis for the formation of the new WIR and detailed its structure and mandate.
The West India Regiment then came into existence again on January 1, 1959, absorbing the greater part of the Jamaica Regiment (which simultaneously ceased to exist) with the officers and men of the Jamaica Regiment being transferred to the new WIR. The new WIR was headquartered in Jamaica at Harman Barracks in Kingston. In September 1960, plans were announced to raise two full battalions for the WIR, the 1st Battalion to be based in Jamaica and the 2nd Battalion in Trinidad and Tobago. The total strength of the regiment was to be 1,640, giving a total of 730 soldiers for each battalion.
The WIR was intended (like other regional institutions) to promote a sense of common pride and shared heritage and would be recruited from the various islands and serve throughout the region. It would be a means of introducing the troops to islands other than their own and to build friendships between the Caribbean public and their soldiers. The recruiting for the Regiment, which was the main fighting component of the Federal Defence Force, had been carried out on a federal basis with men from all the islands being recruited on a percentage basis related to the population of each territory. By September 1961, some 200 Trinidadians were serving in the Regiment. A total of 14 Antiguans and 12 Kittitians served, though none emerged as officers.
In 1960, the 1st Battalion of the WIR was organized into four companies, one of which was a Headquarters Company, and had a depot with administrative staff. Its strength was about 500 men, half of whom were Jamaican, and about 40 seconded British officers and men. The proportion of non-Jamaicans in the battalion increased to two-thirds during 1960 and 1961 although the majority of the officers remained Jamaicans. The 2nd Battalion was formed as planned in 1960 as was a 3rd Battalion. In preparation for eventual West Indian independence, some bases previously used only by the British army were transferred to the WIR, including Newcastle which in 1959 became the Federal Defence Force Training Depot, training recruits from all over the newly formed Federation of the West Indies.
The presence of a federal military force in Jamaica presented the Jamaican government with constitutional difficulties regarding the use of WIR troops for internal security operations. As a result, a territorial auxiliary called the Jamaica Territorial Regiment was set up alongside the 1st Battalion WIR in February 1961 (the Jamaica Territorial Regiment would be renamed the Jamaican National Reserve in January 1962 and would later become a component of the Jamaica Defence Force). The 1st Battalion WIR was used in a variety of internal security roles prior to the enacting of Federal legislation (in May 1960) and Jamaican legislation (in December 1960) to resolve these difficulties. It was also used for internal security purposes between April 1960 and mid-1962. Ironically, one such operation was to supervise the referendum in Jamaica that resulted in the dissolution of the West Indies Federation and the WIR along with it and in the creation of the Jamaica Defence Force.
The collapse of the federation resulted in the West India Regiment again being disbanded, on July 30, 1962, the constituent battalions becoming the infantry regiments of the two largest islands:1st Battalion — 1st Battalion, Jamaica Regiment
2nd Battalion — 1st Battalion, Trinidad and Tobago Regiment
3rd Battalion — disbanded.
Overall the WIR had a good record for discipline and effectiveness, although there were three mutinies between 1802 and 1837. A factor in these (and a weakness in the WIR during its earlier history) was that it did not always attract a high calibre of British officer. Prevailing social attitudes meant that service with "black infantry" was not a popular option during much of the nineteenth century and many of the more capable officers saw their time with the WIR as simply a stepping stone to more sought after staff or other assignments. The attraction of colonial service was a matter of extra monetary allowances and sometimes better promotion prospects. Prior to 1914 officers had been commissioned into the WIR (as part of the British regular army) on a permanent basis. This was in contrast to colonial units such as the King's African Rifles where attachments for fixed terms were made from other regiments. However, by the end of World War I long serving British officers and non-commissioned officers, who had built up ties of mutual respect with their men, had mostly dispersed or retired and in its final years of service the WIR was also led by officers seconded from other British regiments for relatively short assignments.Dominica, Martinique 1809, Guadeloupe 1810, Ashantee 1873–74, West Africa 1887, West Africa 1892–93 & 94, Sierra Leone 1898
The Great War (2 battalions): Palestine 1917–18, E. Africa 1916–18, Cameroons 1915–16.
Private Samuel Hodge of the 2nd WIR was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1866 for courage shown during the capture of Tubab Kolon in the Gambia. Private Hodge was the second black recipient of this decoration—the first being Able Seaman William Hall of the Royal Navy.
In 1891, Lance Corporal William Gordon of the 1st Battalion WIR received a VC for gallantry during a further campaign in the Gambia. Promoted to sergeant, Jamaican-born William Gordon remained in employment at regimental headquarters in Kingston until his death in 1922.
Colonels of the regiment were: 1st West India Regiment (1795–1888)
1795–1804: Gen. John Whyte
1804–1830: Gen. Lord Charles Henry Somerset
1830–1834: Gen. Sir Peregrine Maitland, GCB
1834–1839: Lt-Gen. Hon. Sir Henry King, KCB
1839–1842: Lt-Gen. Sir William Nicolay, KCH
1842–1843: Lt-Gen. Sir Henry Frederick Bouverie, GCB, GCMG
1843–1844: Lt-Gen. Sir Gregory Holman Bromley Way
1844–1855: Gen. Sir George Thomas Napier, KCB
1855–1876: Gen. Sir George Bowles, GCB
1876–1888: Gen. Sir Arthur Borton, GCB, GCMG
1888: Regiment amalgamated with 2nd West India Regiment to form the West India Regiment
2nd West India Regiment (1795-1888)
1795–1805: Lt-Gen. Sir William Myers, 1st Baronet
1805–1808: Gen. Richard Lambart, 7th Earl of Cavan, KC
1808: Lt-Gen. Eyre Power Trench
1808–1809: Gen. Sir Brent Spencer
1809–1818: Gen. Sir George Beckwith, GCB
1818–1822: Maj-Gen. Sir Henry Torrens, KCB
1822–1828: F.M. Sir John Byng, 1st Earl of Strafford, GCB, GCH
1828–1841: Gen. Francis Fuller
1841–1843: Gen. John Maister
1843–1848: Lt-Gen. Effingham Lindsay
1848–1860: Gen. Sir Robert John Harvey, CB
1860–1863: Lt-Gen. John Wharton Frith
1863–1864: Maj-Gen. Botet Trydell
1864–1870: Lt-Gen. Robert Law, KH
1870–1881: Gen. Brooke John Taylor
1881–1888: Gen. Sir Patrick Leonard Macdougall, KCMG (continued in West India Regiment)
1888: Regiment amalgamated with 1st West India Regiment to form the West India Regiment
The West India Regiment (1888)
1888–1891: Lt-Gen. Sir Patrick Leonard MacDougall, KCMG
1891–1910: Gen. William John Chamberlayne
1910–1927: Maj-Gen. Henry Jardine Hallowes
1927: Regiment disbanded
1959: Regiment re-formed
1959–1962: Gen. Sir Gerald William Lathbury, GCB, DSO, MBE, KStJ (to Jamaica Regiment)
1962: Regiment disbanded
For the first half century of its existence the WIR wore the standard uniform (shako, red coat and dark coloured or white trousers) of the English line infantry of the period. The various units were distinguished by differing facing colours. One unusual feature was the use of slippers rather than heavy boots. In 1856 a very striking uniform was adopted for the regiments, modeled on that of the French Zouaves (see illustration above). It comprised a red fez wound about by a white turban, scarlet sleeveless jacket with elaborate yellow braiding worn over a long-sleeved white waistcoat, and dark blue voluminous breeches piped in yellow. This distinctive uniform was retained for full dress throughout the regiment until 1914 and by the band until disbandment in 1927. It survives as the full dress of the band of the modern Barbados Defence Force.Henry Hadley, Said to be, as a civilian, the first British casualty of World War I.
Surprisingly limited use was made of the long serving regulars of the West India Regiment during World War I. However, in 1915 a second West Indies regiment was formed from Caribbean volunteers who had made their way to Britain. Initially, these volunteers were drafted into a variety of units within the British Army, but in 1915 it was decided to group them together into a single regiment, named the British West Indies Regiment. The similarity of titles has sometimes led to confusion between this war-time unit and the long established West India Regiment. Both were recruited from black Caribbean recruits and a number of officers from the WIR were transferred to the BWIR.
The regiment played a significant role in the First World War, especially in Palestine and Jordan where they were employed in military operations against the Turkish Army. A total of 15,600 men of the British West Indies Regiment served with the Allied forces. Jamaica contributed two-thirds of these volunteers, while others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras, Grenada, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent. Nearly 5,000 more subsequently volunteered.
Another West Indies regiment was formed in 1944, this time called the Caribbean Regiment. This consisted of members of the local militia forces, as well as direct recruits. The regiment conducted brief training in Trinidad and the United States, before being sent to Italy. Once there, the regiment performed a number of general duties behind the front lines—these included the escort of 4,000 prisoners of war from Italy to Egypt. Subsequently, the regiment undertook mine clearance around the Suez Canal. The regiment returned to the Caribbean in 1946 to be disbanded, having not seen front line action—this was due to inadequate training and partly because of the political impact in the British West Indies if it had incurred heavy casualties.
As noted above, the West India Regiment provided detachments for service in West Africa for over a hundred years. This began when the 2nd WIR was sent to Sierra Leone to quell a rebellion of 'settlers' (freed slaves) in 1819. Upon completion of their service, some soldiers of this and subsequent WIR regiments remained in West Africa and intermarried with other Sierra Leone Creole Settlers, whose descendants today are the Sierra Leone Creole people.