Revolt at Taranto

Inscribed “Yours very faithfully, Walter Alves.” This c. 1918 real photo postcard provides us with an outstanding portrait of a member of the British West Indies Regiment.

Walter Alves Front

Above: Private Walter Alves of the 3rd Battalion, the British West Indies Regiment photographed while in southern Italy at the end of World War One. The only uniform concession to the warm Mediterranean climate is the quilted tropical service helmet that Alves wears. The rest of his uniform is of the heavy wool pattern issued for wear in France and Belgium. His cuff band indicates that Alves was a member of the regimental military police. c. 1918 Source: Edward T. Garcia/ collection.

Often confused with the long establish West India Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment (B.W.I.R.) was raised specifically for duty during World War One and was made up of black volunteers from the British West Indies as well as British Honduras and British Guiana. With the regiment eventually increasing to ten battalions in strength the B.W.I.R. saw its 1st and 2nd Battalions serve in Egypt and Palestine against the Ottoman Empire with the other battalions seeing service in France, Flanders, and Italy.

While often relegated to secondary roles, the B.W.I.R. drew a mention from Field Marshal Douglas Haig in France who said: “[Their] work has been very arduous and has been carried out almost continuously under shell-fire. In spite of casualties the men have always shown themselves willing and cheerful workers, and the assistance they have rendered has been much appreciated by the units to which they have been attached and for whom they have been working. The physique of the men is exceptional, their discipline excellent and their morale high”.

Equally, General Edmund Allenby, commander of British forces in Palestine lauded members of the B.W.I.R. who served under his command: “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”.

By war’s end the regiment had been recognized with the award of five Distinguished Service Orders, nineteen Military Crosses, eleven Military Crosses with Bar, eighteen Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as 49 Mentions in Despatches.

The end of the war found the entire regiment concentrated at Taranto in southern Italy for demobilization. Discontent began to arise with the B.W.I.R. when a post-war pay raise being granted other British troops was denied them. Also contributing to the rising ill-feeling was the endless fatigue duties that were assigned to the regiment. These included the loading and unloading of cargo ships in Taranto’s harbor to the cleaning of latrines for the Italian Army. Resentment finally boiled over when members of the B.W.I.R.s 9th and 10th Battalions refused to do any additional work until their grievances were addressed. These points were put forward in a letter signed by some 180 sergeants of the regiment. Violence broke out which lasted three days before being put down by elements of the Worcestershire Regiment which were also in Taranto at the time. One white British officer – the very one who had ordered his men to clean the Italian latrines – was attacked and one black sergeant shot and killed a private of the B.W.I.R. in self-defense before what became known as the Taranto Revolt was suppressed.

In the wake of the revolt, some 60 members of the regiment were court-martialed and received prison terms ranging from three to twenty years. One man faced a firing squad.

The animosities and resentments that brought about the Taranto Revolt and the circumstances of its aftermath would centrally figure in the Caribbean independence and self-rule movements that began to spring up not long after the end of the war.

Above: A short but outstanding documentary commemorating the Caribbean’s contribution to the Allied cause in the Great War. Produced by the West India Committee.

Not much has come to light concerning the soldier in our photograph. His regimental number being 2443, Private Walter Alves was a member of the B.W.I.R.s 3rd Battalion which did not take part in the revolt. As a member of the 3rd Battalion Alves would have served in France and Flanders prior to the end of the war and being transferred to southern Italy. Alves’ service records have not been found (possibly destroyed during WWII) but his medal index card, as well as his entry in the British War and Victory Medal Roll, have. These two sources confirm his service number and battalion and state that he was entitled to both of these medals. Interestingly both of these official sources show Alves’ medals going unclaimed and being returned to the War Office. Of the twenty members of the B.W.I.R. listed on the same page of the medal roll, seven show their medals going unclaimed. Is it possible that there may have been a statement being made by these men?

Alves himself cut quite a soldierly – and very young – appearance in his photograph. He wears the regulation uniform of the British Army at the time a sports a quilted tropical helmet on his head which reflects the warm and sunny Mediterranean climate of southern Italy. On the cuff of his left sleeve is an armband which shows he had been appointed to the regimental military police. In his hand, he holds the ubiquitous “walking out stick”. Often called a swagger stick and associated with officers, these were in fact carried by all ranks with the main purpose being to keep a soldier’s hands busy – nothing was considered more unsoldierly as a soldier with his hands in his pockets.

Walter Alves Reverse

Above: The reverse side of the postcard, Alves dedicated it to “Mrs. Pennington, with compliments.” The said Mrs. Pennington has not been identified. The postcard’s label is in Italian which coincides with the B.W.I.R.s station at the end of the war. C. 1918, Source: Edward T. Garcia/ collection.

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