Remembering the Taranto Mutiny, 1918

“Stripped to the waist and sweated chest,

Midday’s reprieve brings much needed rest,

From trenches deep towards the sky,

Non-fighting troops and yet we die”

‘The Black Soldier’s Lament’, author unknown

Yesterday marked the 102nd anniversary of the mutiny of the 9th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment in the industrial town on Taranto, Italy in the aftermath of the ceasefire of WWI.

The White British establishment tends not to educate its masses on the significant contribution that people of colour from the many outposts of the Empire made during WWI. Thousands of Caribbean men for example volunteered their services to fight for the King George V and ‘the Mother Country’ in the mistaken belief that to do so would show a trait of loyalty that would ensure they would be treated as equals by the white British. Initially, some resistance was encountered. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State, believed that Black men should not be allowed to join the forces, but the King himself overruled Kitchener’s bigoted opinion, and in any case, a pressing need at the front meant that the British Army was desperate to swell its ranks.

Answering the call involved a long and perilous journey to England for the Caribbean volunteers, hundreds of whom never made their final destination as extreme cases of severe frostbite ensured discharge without compensation in Halifax, Canada. Those who did make it to England in 1915 found that they were to form the British West Indies Regiment (the BWIR), a non-combatant force made up of twelve battalions who were assigned dangerous and dirty, menial work such as digging trenches, laying telephone wires and loading ammunition for their white comrades. Of the 15,600 men served in the regiment, two thirds of that number hailed Jamaica, whilst the rest called Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras (now Belize), Grenada, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent their home.The officers in charge of the BWIR were all white, as the British Army rule-book decreed that no black officer could occupy a position higher than sergeant. Just one black soldier would come to defy the rule-book and that was the promising Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town footballer, Walter Tull. The fact that Tull was clearly not, as the rule-book stipulated, of ‘pure European stock’ would later come to hamper his recommendation for the Military Cross. Despite his superior officer’s assessment that he had shown “gallantry and coolness” under fire, the British Army refused to award him the MC because to do so would publicise the fact that they had broken their own rules in promoting him in the first place. Tull was killed in action at the Second Battle of the Somme on 25th March, 1918, aged twenty-nine. In 2008, fifty-one of the six-hundred-and-fifty MP’s sitting in the House of Commons signed an early day motion requesting that Tull be posthumously awarded the Military Cross. Twelve years on, this has still not happened.

The rule-book was also overlooked when the BWIR saw action against the Turkish army in Palestine, Jordan and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and in France, Italy and Egypt where the men served mainly in auxiliary roles. Evidence is also found that a series of armed skirmishes occurred with German troops in France. The conditions the Caribbean men faced were execrable and they faced little reward and received even less respect.  “We are treated neither as Christians nor as British citizens, but as West Indian ‘n***ers” without anybody to be interested in nor look after us”. wrote one Trinidadian soldier stationed in Egypt.

Following the armistice on 11th November, 1918 eight BWIR battalions formerly located in France and Italy, three from Egypt and men from Mesopotamia were delivered to Taranto to prepare for demobilisation. Severe labour shortages in the Mediterranean town soon meant that the West Indian soldiers were once again tasked with physically arduous duties, such as the loading and unloading of ships, as well as degrading, menial work like cleaning toilets for white soldiers. A tinderbox atmosphere of tensions and resentment developed and the slightest spark could conceivably and understandably cause an eruption. That spark came when the black soldiers discovered that their white counterparts had received a pay rise whilst they did not. On December 6th, 180 black sergeants forwarded a petition to Lord Kitchener regarding the unfair pay issue. As they drafted their petition, the grievances of the last three years service came to a head; they made official their disappointment in the Army’s failure to increase their separation allowance, and the discrimination they felt at being overlooked for promotions based purely on the colour of their skin. Elsewhere that day, protestations of a less official though arguably more impactful nature took place when rank and file soldiers of the 9th Battalion refused their labour, revolted and attacked those same black NCO’s. Dissatisfaction quickly spread and, although the mutiny itself lasted only four days, it culminated in the “increasingly truculant” 10th Battalion also joining in the strike and refusing to work on the 9th December. Lieutenant Colonel Willis, having given the order to clean the latrines of the Italian Labour Corps, found himself assaulted by the rebels. Violence further escalated when a black NCO shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence, whilst there is even evidence of some bombing having taken place during the uprising.

Outnumbered by the rebellion, the commanding officers at Taranto launched an SOS to their superiors who sent the machine-gun company and a battalion from Worcestershire Regiment to restore order at the barrel of a gun. Threatened into submission, the perceived ringleaders of this four day uprising were rounded up and the 9th Battalion were disbanded (ahead of the entire regiment of BWIR being formally disbanded three years later), their men distributed to other battalions and subsequently disarmed and demobilised. Some sixty West Indian soldiers were eventually tried on the charge of mutiny. Custodial sentences for this charge ranged from three to five years and the majority would go on to serve such numbers, however one soldier got twenty years in gaol whilst another was executed by firing squad.

Though the mutiny was defeated, resentment continued to spread through the ranks. On 17th December, a little over a month after the incident at Taranto, around sixty NCO’s met to form the Caribbean League, an organisation whose aim was Black rights and an opposition to colonial rule. At a follow-up meeting held just three days later, Sergeant Baxter of the 3rd Battalion BWIR, voiced the league’s intentions thus; “the Black man should have freedom and govern himself in the West Indies and that if necessary, force and bloodshed should be used to attain that object”. With no objections raised, the league set out to organise on their return home to the West Indies and hold a general strike for better pay. True to their word, many protests, strikes and riots were indeed held against the economic crisis in the Caribbean that had been shaped by the aftermath of the war. Acutely, painfully aware of the winds of change that the wake of these actions presented,, a colonial memo from the British government in 1919 recorded that; “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the Black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.”

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