Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

066: Lieutenant Reginald Collins of Jamaica

Reginald Emanuel Collins was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 31 May 1894 and had been educated at New College, Jamaica. He was working for the police when war broke out in August 1914. He took ship to England, and in London he joined the 19th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Private Collins trained with his colleagues from 20 August 1915 to April 1916, and then they moved to France on 13 April 1916. His officers held him in high regard, and approved his application to be admitted to an Officer Cadet Unit – that is, to train to be an officer in the wartime British Army.

The forms were completed in May 1916, and on 18 May he left France to train in Oxford. Collins had heard that a third Jamaican contingent was being organised for the British West Indies Regiment, and requested to become an officer of it. This was recommended. The official form asks a question: “Whether of pure European descent” to which Collins wrote “no”. He was able to ride a horse, another question the form asked. His file WO 339/62717 (now at the National Archives in Kew) has a comment: “not suitable to be an officer owing to his colour” dated 11 September 1916. The King’s Regulations did not allow any “aliens, negroes, &c” to become army officers.

Collins had done his training – longer and more realistic than many in the British West Indies Regiment – and was recommended by the officers of the Royal Fusiliers. On 30 March 1917 he was appointed Second Lieutenant with the 6th battalion of the BWIR.  He served with them, probably in Egypt and Palestine, and certainly in Italy. He survived, travelling back to Jamaica via New York City (where he was at the end of April 1919). His file gives his next of kin as Henry Collins of the Republic of Panama, and notes his commission was valid until 11 November 1920.

Despite the King’s Regulations we know of other black officers in 1914-1918: Walter Tull, born in England of a Barbados father (he was killed); the Leicester-born son of an Anglican minister, J. A. Gordon Smyth or Smythe who was a Lieutenant in the 5th Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps from December 1916 (he died in France 29 June 1918) ; the neurologist professor J. S. Risien Russell who was a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps (he was based in London) – and now Lt. Collins of the BWIR. There will be others: keep looking.

My thanks to David Killingray for details of Lt Smyth(e).

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