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The Great War and a small island- Jamaica and World War I

Published:Sunday | August 3, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dalea Bean
The Howitzer, a long-barrelled field gun used by the British Army in World War I, seen here at the Jamaica Defence Force Museum. Howitzers were used undercover or against hidden targets. By the end of the war, the Howitzer could fire shells weighing 900kg over 18km.-Photo by Amitabh Sharma


A double homicide more than 100 years ago sparked the most intense international conflict the world had ever seen up to that time. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Bosnia by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. This act in support of Serbian separatism from Austria-Hungary precipitated the sudden eruption of a conflict involving major European powers.

The Great War, or First World War, as it eventually came to be known, began 100 years ago on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Fought mainly by soldiers in trenches, World War I, which began with the death of two, claimed the lives of more than 10 million soldiers and a similar number of civilians from famine, disease, and genocide. It was dubbed 'the war to end all wars', but it set the stage for others, not the least of these being World War II (1939-1945).

Overview of the war: Causes and Consequences

The war was fought between the Allied Forces (primarily France, the United Kingdom, Russia and later the United States and Japan) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China and the coasts of South and North America. Shortly after Austria-Hungary declared war, their ally, Germany, attacked France by going through neutral Belgium. Since Britain had a treaty with Belgium, the attack officially brought Britain into the war on August 4, 1914.

The conflict was characterised by trench warfare. Troops from both sides dug into the earth and camped out in these sunken areas, firing missiles at the enemy. However, when full military attacks were ordered, the soldiers had to leave these trenches and cross the open spaces, leaving themselves exposed to firepower of the opposing forces. As a result, millions of soldiers were slaughtered in the battles of World War I, and by 1917, the Allies were experiencing a shortage of recruits.

They looked to the United States for help, who initially clung to the idea of isolationism from a geographically and ideologically distant war. However, the United States was pulled into the war in April 1917 by various events, including the sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania (which carried over 150 American passengers) in 1915 by a German submarine, and the revelation of the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico promising portions of US land in return for Mexico joining World War I against the US.

The entry of the US on the side of the Allies has been seen by many historians as a turning point in the war. Though fighting continued for another year and millions more lives were lost, the Central Powers were staring defeat in the face towards the close of 1918. An armistice was agreed upon and the Great War came to an official close at 11 o'clock on the morning of November 11, 1918.

Jamaica's Contribution to Allied War Efforts

The primarily European constituents of the Great War have led some writers to refer to it as a European civil war rather than a world war. While it is undeniable that the war was caused by internal European pressures and it perhaps had the greatest consequences for Europe, the effect on the rest of the world cannot be underestimated. The conflict had ripple effects on nearly every corner of the globe because many of the warring nations were colonial powers. Their territories were pulled, both willingly or unwillingly, into the trenches as well.

The war mobilised more than 70 million military personnel. To populate its military, the belligerent nations had to tap their dominions, departments and colonies in Canada, Australia, Africa, India and the Caribbean for man- and womanpower, money for equipment, and multiple shipments of comforts for suffering soldiers and civilians.

Jamaica was not to be left out of the call of the British Empire. Leading newspapers of the time, particularly The Gleaner, kept Jamaicans informed about the course of the war and assisted greatly in mobilising the island's response. In many instances, Jamaica was the leading British colony in the region to supply the Allied forces with goods and services. Many Jamaicans of the day were proud of the overwhelming contribution this small island made to the Great War effort. A sum of £10,000 was voted for defence purposes and a gift of 1,300 tons or £50,000 worth of sugar was shipped to England in 1915. Jamaica also supplied England with cash to purchase airplanes and motor ambulances.

Through the work of Jamaican women, gifts of cash and kind were shipped to England throughout the war, including more than £80,000 in cash, walking sticks, cigarettes, cases of homemade woollen clothing and bedding and non-perishable food items. The island also supplied the Allied powers with 24 Red Cross nurses, and nine contingents of soldiers were dispatched between November 8, 1915 and October 2, 1917, totalling 250 officers and 11,042 rank and file members. Of this number, 1,000 men lost their lives in service and many more returned home maimed and wounded.

Jamaica was the first Caribbean colony to pass a conscription law and the only country in the British Empire to do so apart from New Zealand. However, the need for conscription never arose, and all those who went to war in the British West India Regiment (BWIR) volunteered their service, largely through the activism and recruitment effort of Jamaican women. In 1919, Jamaica also became the first Caribbean country to enfranchise women as a reward for their outstanding war work, though this carried with it age and tax restrictions.

Economic Hardship and Labour Protests

Despite its distance from active combat, Jamaica was not spared the economic hardships of the Great War. Jamaica reeled from shortages of food, petrol, manufactured goods and sharp increases in food prices. Wheat, which was mainly produced by the warring nations, was particularly hard to obtain, and led to shortages in flour, bread and other basic food items. Imports were curtailed and difficulties being experienced by the local agricultural sector were exacerbated by hurricanes in 1915, 1916 and 1917.

Economic challenges were faced by a majority of the population, but it was the returning soldiers of the BWIR that would highlight these most effectively. Promises of land and jobs used to lure them during the recruitment drive often did not materialise. Little was done to secure returning soldiers' welfare, and, as a consequence, in the post-war years, many were to be found at the asylums and poorhouses. This was coupled with racism and general disillusionment they experienced during service.

Though some experienced active combat, particularly in the Middle East, for the most part, the men of the BWIR were relegated to carrying out hard labour, digging trenches, hauling supplies and even cleaning toilets for white troops. Their anger not only sparked a violent mutiny in December 1918 in the British War Office at a camp in Taranto, Italy, but on their return, they organised meetings, marches and protests to highlight their destitution and the dissatisfaction with their lives after service to 'king and country'. Many trade unions that sprang up in the inter-war years were also as a direct result of the organisation of ex-servicemen. The widespread West Indian labour protests of the 1930s can also largely be accredited to their continued agitation for economic, social and political reform.

Lest We Forget

As the world gears up to celebrate the centenary of World War I, it is fitting for us as Jamaicans to reflect on our part in the conflict and to celebrate the men and women who sacrificed much for the war effort. Jamaicans stood up for justice and played our part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race. We should also use this occasion to commemorate the memory of the men and women who took real steps towards social reform, who protested against oppressive colonial rule and who contributed to the development of Jamaican nationalism in the aftermath of the Great War.

Dalea Bean, PhD, is a lecturer/graduate coordinator of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies. Email feedback to and