Croydon’s Vignalë Brothers

Vignalë Family Portrait, Arima, Trinidad (Courtesy of Joan Leggett)

Title: Vignalë Family Portrait, Arima, Trinidad (Courtesy of Joan Leggett)
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vRalph and Otho Vignalë were brothers from Trinidad who were living in Croydon when WW1 broke out. Ralph was married to Henrietta and had two young daughters, Beryl Adelaide and Mary Gwendoline. Ralph and his wife had just lost a son soon after birth in 1913. Ralph and Otho both enlisted in Croydon to the British Army, Ralph joining The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and Otho signing up to the Territorial Force to be trained in artillery.

The policy of the British War Office, influenced by racial politics and theories, was to restrict use of non-white soldiers against white enemies. High casualties and internal government negotiation lead to a relaxation of this policy and a British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was established in October 1916. Of the 15,204 men recruited from the Caribbean colonies for the BWIR, 66% came from Jamaica.

In 1917, Ralph Vignalë was transferred to the British West Indies Regiment and sent to the Western Front in France. The Caribbean men were largely restricted to providing labour services, such as loading ammunition and digging trenches. Battalions sent to Palestine and Egypt experienced more frontline combat. The BWIR men faced other discriminatory treatment including lesser medical care, being barred from certain promotions and being excluded from Army Order No. 1 of 1918 that granted a pay increase to British soldiers in the final year of the war.

Within months serving on the Western Front, Ralph had experienced acute nephritis of the kidneys and was sent back to the UK for treatment and was then discharged. Illness was the cause of the majority of deaths in the Regiment (1,071). The Vignalës lost a brother, Raymond Vignalë, who served with the Canadian Field Artillery. He died days before the armistice, aged 23 years. Another brother, Percy, served with Army Service Corps and survived.

Ralph returned to his family in Croydon, which had had a new addition with the birth of Joan Vignalë in 1916. His brother, Otho, trained as a dentist and Ralph as a barrister. Ralph left the UK to return to Trinidad and went on to write stories and newspaper columns and to serve as Mayor of Arima. Ralph Vignalë is thought to have died in the early 1960s.

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