Sergeant William Robinson Clarke flew and fought above the trenches of the western front during the First World War. He received the Silver War Badge and later became Life President of the Association’s Jamaica Branch. He was also Britain’s first black pilot.
Born in 1895 in Kingston, Jamaica, Clarke received a good education before training as a mechanic; making him one of the first men on the island to drive. He was then employed as a chauffeur, but in 1915 decided to travel to Britain to play his part in the war.
At the outset of war the British Armed Forces maintained a ‘colour bar’, and very few Afro-Caribbean or Asian volunteers were accepted into the ranks. Officer commissions were also denied to anyone not ‘of pure European descent’. As the forces expanded and casualties rose this restriction was relaxed, and an unknown number of black personnel joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
A total of 15,600 black volunteers joined the British West Indies Regiment and, like young men all over the Empire, some enlisted for economic or personal reasons or to seek adventure. There were those, however, who had a deeper understanding of what was at stake.