Serving in the British West Indies Regiment

Caribbean men clamoured to fight for the “mother country” in the First World War – however, the racism of the times held that black soldiers were unfit for combat. None of this mattered to Herbert Morris, a Jamaican teenager determined to “do his bit”. But his life was to end tragically amid the horrors of Passchendaele.

Herbert was just 16 in 1916 when he volunteered, dreaming of a voyage to a new world and a chance to fight for King and country. His parents William and Ophelia wanted him to stay in Riversdale, a lush settlement in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, 30 miles from Kingston. But patriotism for the British Empire ran deep among young men from all over the West Indies. George Blackman, from Barbados, the longest-surviving Caribbean First World War veteran, was three years older than Herbert.

“Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world,” said George a few months before he died aged 105 in 2003. “We wanted to go. Because the King said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us.”

The personal appeal from George V for “men of the colonies” to join up forced the War Office to change its stance on black soldiers. The thinking had been absurd; thousands of Caribbean men had served Britain since 1795 in the West India Regiment.

In 1915 the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was set up and more than 16,000 answered the call. But they were poorly equipped and ill-prepared. In March 1916, when a ship carrying 1,140 Jamaican volunteers sailed north to avoid U-boats, more than 600 men suffered frostbite. Five died and 100 had limbs amputated.

The British West Indies Regiment
West Indian troops stacking shells in Ypres, October 1917. Credit: ©IWM E(AUS)2078

Officially, “men of colour” were not allowed combat roles in France. The BWIR worked as “labourers”, loading ammunition and digging trenches. But thousands are believed to have taken part in the fighting. The BWIR battled Turkish forces in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq but it was considered “wrong” for black men to fight a European enemy in France. Over the war, 178 BWIR men were killed in action, 697 were wounded and 1,071 died of illness.

Private Herbert Morris came to France with the 6th battalion of the BWIR in March 1917. Four months later he was loading ammunition for the eighty-pounders at Essex Farm, Poperinghe, part of a 3,000-gun, two-week bombardment before Passchendaele. 

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of the guns." Herbert Morris

His officers noted that he “behaved well” but constant enemy fire began to take its toll. Suffering shell shock, Herbert fled. Arrested two days later at Boulogne, he got 14 days’ field punishment for desertion. Three weeks into the battle, after seven comrades were badly wounded, he jumped from a lorry taking him to his battery. Again, he was caught at Boulogne and this time it meant a court martial.

Herbert said: “I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of the guns. I reported to the doctor and he gave me no medicine or anything.” The court was told he was “of genial nature, no trouble, a willing worker and of above average intelligence.” But he was sentenced to death and paraded in front of his battalion as an example.

Early on 20 September, Herbert dictated a letter to his parents and was shot at dawn by a firing squad of seven West Indians and three British. It was just a few days after his 17th birthday.

Herbert is buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery. In 2006, 89 years after his death, he was among 306 executed soldiers to receive a pardon. “This is not rewriting history,” said Defence Secretary Des Browne. “I do not want to second-guess decisions made by commanders. It is better to acknowledge that injustices were clearly done and that all these men were victims of war.”

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