The Great War and sacrifices of Jamaicans
As a child, every November, the little red poppies were sold to aid the veterans of the two world wars, the men at the Jamaica Legion's Curphey Home. I had always heard that the poppies represented the blood of the soldiers who fought and were wounded or died on the battlefields of Flanders during the Great War. I knew that many Jamaicans had volunteered to fight with the British Imperial Army.
I saw the memorials at the Wolmers' Boys School and at Munroe College with the list of the students who had made the ultimate sacrifice for God, king and country.
I read that Roy Manley, brother of Norman, had died in 1917 in the Ypres Salient. I have studied the history of the war; read the novels of Earnest Hemingway and the poems of Wilfred Owen; and seen the films and television documentaries about the feats of the British, Americans, Canadians and Australians.
There was, however, not much information about the 15,600 men and boys, average age about 20, who served in the British West India Regiment (BWIR). The majority were from Jamaica. A few books have now been written about them and their experiences, but still no films or documentaries.
With an interest in the war, I have always wanted to visit the battlefields, particularly, the fields of Flanders in Belgium. Some of WWI's most intense battles were fought in those fields. In May 2007, I got the opportunity to visit the town of Ypres (eepa) in Flanders.
On arrival in Ypres, we headed directly to the museum in the restored Cloth Hall to
see the exhibition entitled In Flanders' Fields', taken from the poem by the Canadian soldier, Dr John McCrae. As we wandered through the museum, my attention was drawn to one particular exhibit about the multinational nature of the war. There, I found the Jamaicans.
In the narrative, quoting from the diary of Pastor Achiel Van Wallenghem, it stated, "The locals had their favourites. In May of 1917, some Jamaicans of the British West India Regiment arrived, they were well mannered and spoke softly." I felt very proud. The Jamaicans were among the favourites with the local people, and they had acquitted themselves well.
After that thrilling find, we went in search of the Menin Gate, the memorial to thousands of missing men. Their bodies had not been found. They could not be buried. They were names on the gate's walls maintained by a grateful town.
At the Menin Gate, we looked for the Jamaicans among the listings of men from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, other parts of Asia, and Africa. After a long search, in a secluded corner, we found the names of six men, Sully, Clarke, Dacres, Forbes, Gooden and Howell, of the BWIR - another exciting moment. I was not sure that these men were all from Jamaica. The BWIR included men from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana (Guyana), and other territories. It did not matter; we had found West Indians.
From the gate, we went to find the recently uncovered trenches, which were outside the town. WWI was notorious for its trench warfare. The entire Flanders countryside was criss-crossed with deep trenches in which soldiers spent months, if not years, as they tried desperately to capture or retain a few yards of land from the control of the Germans. The men in these trenches were always cold, wet, muddy, hungry, tired, fearful, and sick.
Death was always just a bullet away over the top of the trenches. I now know that the men of the BWIR were among those who dug these trenches. As black men in the British Imperial Army, they were subject to racial prejudice.
They were often assigned the menial tasks of trench and latrine digging. In Europe, they were mainly support staff. The British continued to doubt that black men should be allowed to fight on the front lines. They feared the consequences for maintaining their power and authority in the colonies. This persistent discrimination in Europe led members of the BWIR to revolt at Taranto in Italy in 1918.
My desire for self-determination at home burnt brighter. On arrival at the trenches, we encountered the man, a digger, who had actually uncovered this sector. He told us that just a few weeks before, the bodies of soldiers of the Royal Yorkshire Regiment had been found nearby. He said that he and his team regularly found masses of ammunition and other artefacts from the war. I later read that indeed, it is not uncommon for sections of trenches to be uncovered intact with bodies still inside. They remained preserved for over 90 years as they were the day the war ended.
I walked through the narrow, gloomy trench piled high with sandbags and saw the dugouts that had served as quarters for the officers. They were full of water. I was informed that it was a daily task for the soldiers to pump water out of the trenches. Now I could understand how miserable the conditions were; how cramped and claustrophobic. Rats were constant companions. I understood why the men suffered infections and diseases. War, indeed, is hell.
As we were about to leave, I saw something red in the grass and looked down to see a small, red poppy. My visit to Flanders was complete. I had always associated the artificial red poppies with the armistice, the Flanders fields, and the old veterans. Now, here I was, picking a real poppy on a Flanders field. I kept this poppy as a memento of the visit and of the Jamaicans and other men of the BWIR who volunteered and served with dignity and honour in the face of adversity.
Perhaps the red poppy also symbolises hope that one day, mankind will finally realise that it is better to use peaceful means to resolve conflicts both at home and abroad, and generations of young men and young women will not have to experience war and violence. We certainly need this hope in Jamaica today.