Ba­jan sol­diers and the Poppy

Daily Nation (Barbados) - - Voice -

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.

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