In 2002, UK Guardian journalist, Simon Rogers, interviewed the last remaining Caribbean veteran of WWI, George Blackman.
He died the following year in March 2003 and with him went the last living connection to the horrors of the Great War.
Born in Barbados in 1897, Blackman was 105 when Rogers interviewed him. Earlier in 2002, the other remaining veteran of the British West Indies Regiment who had served in the war, Eugent Clarke from Jamaica, had died at the ripe old age of 108.
15,000 men from the Caribbean—and it was just men back then, later in WWII women enlisted too—served in the war in Europe. A war which many people at the time thought, or hoped, would be over by Christmas.
Like so many young men, boys even, Blackman lied about his age—saying he was 18 when he was only 17—so that he could serve England and the British Empire. All of the colonies, from the West Indies to Australia and India, were enthusiastic about the war effort.
Even the black nationalist Marcus Garvey told the men of the Caribbean they should fight.
According to Rogers, between 1914 and 1918 “the islands donated £60m in today’s money to the war effort—cash they could ill afford.”
Speaking at the centenary event on August 4 at Chaguaramas Military Museum, the Australian ambassador to T&T, Ross Tysoe, said his country at the time considered itself “a proud junior partner in the Empire,” and that the attitude of the governors was that they would “support Britain to the last man and the last shilling.” Thirty eight per cent of Australian men aged 18 to 34 enlisted, 416,809 in total. After four years of fighting, 59,000 were dead and 166,000 badly wounded and 4,000 missing in POW camps.
The impact on the Caribbean was less brutal as most of the men were prevented from fighting because of racial politics. But returnees after the war faced similarly challenging circumstances here—many came back suffering from the effects and injuries of the conditions of the trenches in France and Belgium and the swamps and plains of Egypt and Palestine. Many felt let down by the British government in the way they were treated as veterans, as well as the reception that greeted them back home where Caribbean societies were in social turmoil.
“Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world,” Blackman told Rogers.
It was Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener of Ballylongford, County Kerry he was referring to, not Aldwyn Roberts of Arima, Trinidad, who no doubt would have said the same thing.
But despite his public utterances, Kitchener, Secretary of State for War in 1914, had reservations about black soldiers fighting on the front line with whites.
It was only when the staggering losses became apparent that black Caribbean soldiers were sent to fight in 1915. Prior to that, their jobs in the trenches had been tough, menial tasks, like digging the trenches.
“When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘for your tomorrow, we gave our today,’” said Major General Kenrick Maharaj in his speech at the symposium on the war’s effects on the Caribbean.
The words are inscribed at the Allied War Cemetery in Kohima, India. Maharaj said they were particularly relevant today when, “our society needs to engage a new dialogue on national identity, national purpose and national vision.”
He alluded to the social upheaval which met the returning servicemen in 1919 in Trinidad, St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Jamaica and British Guiana, where violent strikes and protests were taking place as a result of severe economic hardship, largely caused by the cost of the war.
He referred to historian Michael Anthony’s History of T&T in the 20th Century Vol 1 in which Anthony asserts that “the biggest direct impact on Trinidad caused by the 1914-1918 war was the return of the five public contingents of soldiers from the front.”
“It has been seen that the soldiers—bitterly disappointed, irate, even enraged—had already been causing serious tension.”
The protests, which soldiers actively participated in, formed the basis of the Labour movement led by Grenadian-born Tubal Uriah Butler in the years between then and the Second World War.
Before Maharaj’s speech, past members of the T&T armed forces stood as the military brass band played a moving rendition of the national anthem.
Dignitaries from the embassies of Britain, Germany, USA, Australia and Venezuela all spoke, before Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall gave an essay on the Navy in WWI.
Linda Kelshall, co-founder of the museum with her husband, retired Lieutenant Commander Gaylord Kelshall, spoke about the respect today’s generation ought to have for the men and women who served in both world wars.
Later, they watched as younger family members acted a drama skit called After The Battle, recreating the conditions in the trenches while the war song, Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag And Smile, Smile, Smile, played out.
Sixteen million people died in the conflict which, though senseless, triggered enormous geo-political changes which shaped the 20th Century.
Master of ceremonies, the actor Nigel Scott, reflected on the futility of war in a quote acrredited to the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.”