Bajan soldiers and the Poppy
ON NOVEMBER 11, 2018, the world marked 100 years after World War I.
Around that time, in response to the activities of the Poppy League in its efforts, inter alia, to give some assistance to families of veterans of wars in which Barbadians had taken part and died, a letter appeared in the press, criticising them, particularly in relation to World War I.
It cited the shoddy and humiliating treatment meted out to many of those Barbadians and other West Indians who had sailed to Europe to help defend the empire that was our reality at the time.
Not all of them were consigned to digging latrines for imperial troops, standing guard in miserable conditions, or serving as mail couriers. Some from the West Indian contingent did see action in Palestine. Others (who were white) joined the British army and Royal Navy directly and saw action in Europe.
The names of several of those who did not return are engraved on the clock tower at Harrison College, where they had gone to school. A former deputy headmaster of that school, a Mr Medford (white), survived the war. The father of the late Ambassador
Val Mccomie (black) also survived.
My maternal grandmother used to sit under the (wall-mounted) Rediffusion set on November 11 every year and listen quietly to the commemorative broadcast, remembering those of her friends who had left these shores, eager to fight the Kaiser and never returned.
Circa 1915 or 1916, a unit of West Indians, as far as I recall not identified by island of origin, but which may have included several Barbadians, together with a unit of Palestinian Jews, were attacked by a superior force of Turkish soldiers. The Jewish contingent fled, exposing the flank of the West Indians.
They, however, filled the breach, stopped the Turkish advance and counter-attacked, causing them to retreat, with considerable losses.
In his dispatch to London, giving his account of the battle, their Australian officer excoriated the Jewish contingent, but was high in praise for the West Indians and recommended that they be transferred to the Western Front, where he thought they would give a good account of themselves against the Germans. His request was ignored.
Years ago, as a young Jaycee, I was part of a small team which was engaged in a project to number the houses in Belleville. We easily got permission from the residents. I remember three elderly ladies who, as the sun was hot, invited us in for a glass of cold water.
I noticed some photos of men wearing what was recognisably WWI uniforms and asked about them. In each case, they were thrilled that a young person showed an interest in what their families considered “useless old photos”, the subjects of which were long dead.
One hundred years after the end of World War I and almost 74 years after World War II, we need to let go of the pain and humiliation of the past, embrace the entirety of our overall story, and give credit to the Poppy League and the good job it is doing, or we will remain locked in a perpetual, emotional loop.