Call for glory for Jamaican war heroes buried in Egypt
Kevin Thomas would go to bed dressed nightly anticipating that he would be on the last flight out of Cairo, Egypt. But little did he know he would have to stay to replay the stories of his dead countrymen.
Stranded in Egypt for seven months as that country closed its borders to lock out COVID-19, Thomas would spend an extra month honouring Jamaica’s fallen soldiers who fought in World War I in 1915.
The teacher from Junction, St Elizabeth, who emigrated 29 years ago, gained access to the graves of 31 of 32 soldiers buried in Alexandria, Cairo, and Ismailia, 10,811 kilometres from Jamaica. The men, aged 21-36, were part of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), fighting on behalf of England against the Germans.
A total of 16,000 soldiers, two-thirds of them Jamaicans, served in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. By 1918, Jamaica had lost more than 2,000 of its countrymen to a war that many say has not repaid their families.
“It really hurts when the service of such courageous ones goes unrecognised, but what hurts even more is when our own country fails in this regard. What shame will be upon on us should we allow their stories to remain buried in their graves?” Thomas questioned.
His latest attempt was to visit the last grave (soldier #32 Private Solomon McKenzie of Salem, Runaway Bay, St Ann) at the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery in Sinai. The trip involved crossing the troublesome Suez Canal, where his safety could not be ensured.
That only served to stir deep emotions Thomas had been enduring since he started the journey of honouring the men on December 4. His greatest regret was not getting a chance to lay flowers at his tomb.
“I can only imagine how tremendously lonely it must be for him in Kantara, as he is the only Jamaican buried there,” a broken Thomas stated in a note he shared with The Gleaner.
“... I’m sure that the others have already whispered to him that they are all extremely happy to have been found at long last.”
For the Jamaican who has taken on this historic pilgrimage, the imagery of the men being torn from their island home, perhaps leaving for the first time in their lives to fight and perish on distant battlefields, will haunt him for years to come.
And although the bravery of soldiers has been well documented, the Jamaican educator, who has taught in Saudi Arabia and China for several years, is saddened that many of the West Indian men who returned from fighting in the Great War came home with a sense of grievance.
“They had answered Britain’s call. They had fought in a war that was not of their own making, played their part in the eventual defeat of Germany and its allies. But they still faced discrimination for their colour,” he stated.
Thomas said he learnt of Jamaicans buried in Egypt at the onset of the COVID-19 travel ban in March, and thought only one Jamaican was there.
Forced to remain in Egypt, he started visiting historic sites such as The Lakes of Fayoum, the pyramids, and temples.
“In Alexandria, there are two memorials with Jamaicans buried there. I was there walking around and had no clue 11 Jamaicans were actually there,” he told The Gleaner.
He has since been to five memorial parks, laying flowers and honouring heroes from St Elizabeth, Clarendon, Kingston, St Andrew, St Mary, St Catherine, Westmoreland, and Thomas.
“Many of their families may not know that they have been buried there.”
Some of the fallen soldiers include:
Private Thomas Adolphus Wint
Private William George Wilson
Private Daniel Clergyman White
Private Alexander Savage
Private Herbert Harris
Private Oscar Seymour Silvera
Private Allan Maurice Foster
Private John Nemiah Douglas
Private Solomon McKenzie
Private Robert Rennie
Lance Corporal Robert Benjamin Wright
Private Clarence George Williams
Private C. Whilby
Private F.W. Small
Private Simeon Ranatus Richards
Private Ivan Northover
Private E. Myers
Private George Linton Banks
Private Simeon Richards
Private Adrian Uriah Aiken
Lance Cpl. Robert Benjamin