Sunday, November 11, 2012

7. Colony Troops, WWI and WII

Today, we remember the lives lost in the terrible global conflicts of the twentieth century. Every life sacrificed in those wars was precious and valuable: every loss deserves to be remembered and mourned. 

I sometimes suspect, though, that some are remembered more fully than others.

Let me ask you to imagine this. Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. “Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman – refined, mannerly and cultured.” Your daddy tells you, “Mother thinks of you like her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar.” There are many valorous stories told of her, which enthral grown men as well as children. Her photographs are cherished, pinned in your own family album to be admired over and over. Your finest, your best, everything you have that is worthy is sent to Mother as gifts. And on her birthday you sing-song and party.

Then one day you hear Mother calling – she is troubled, she need your help. Your mummy, your daddy say go. Leave home, leave familiar, leave love. Travel seas with waves that swell about you as substantial as concrete buildings. Shiver, tire, hunger – for no sacrifice is too much to see you at Mother’s needy side. This surely is adventure. After all you have heard, all you believe, soon, soon you will meet Mother?

The filthy tramp that eventually greets you is she. Ragged, old and dusty as the long dead. Mother has a blackened eye, bad breath and one lone tooth that waves in her head when she speaks. Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of? This twisted-crooked weary woman. This stinking cantankerous hag. She offers you no comfort after your journey. No smile. No welcome. Yet she looks down at you through lordly eyes and says, “Who the bloody hell are you?”

See me now — a small boy, dressed in a uniform of navy blue, a white shirt, a tie, short trousers and long white socks. I am standing up in my classroom; the bright sunlight through the shutters draws lines across the room. My classmates, my teacher all look to me, waiting. My chest is puffed like a major on parade, chin high, arms low. Hear me now — a loud clear voice that pronounces every p and q and all the letters in between. I begin to recite the canals of England: the Bridgewater canal, the Manchester-to-Liverpool canal, the Grand Trunk canal used by the china firms of Stoke-on-Trent. I could have been telling you of the railways, the roadways, the ports or the docks. I might have been exclaiming on the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster — her two chambers, the Commons and the Lords. If I was given a date I could stand even taller to tell you some of the greatest laws that were debated and passed there. And not just me. Ask any of us West Indian RAF volunteers — ask any of us colony troops where in Britain are ships built, where is cotton woven, steel forged, cars made, jam boiled, cups shaped, lace knotted, glass blown, tin mined, whisky distilled? Ask. Then sit back and learn your lesson.

Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins. Skin as pale as soap, hair slicked with oil and shinier than his boots. See him sitting in a pub sipping a glass of warming rum and rolling a cigarette from a tin. Ask him, ‘Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?’

And hear him reply, ‘Well, dunno. Africa, ain’t it?’

See that woman in a green cotton frock standing by her kitchen table with two children looking up at her with lip-licking anticipation. Look how carefully she spoons the rationed sugar into the cups of chocolate drink. Ask her what she knows of Jamaica. ‘Jam — where? What did you say it was called again. Jam — what?’.

And here is Lady Havealot, living in her big house with her ancestors’ pictures crowding the walls. See her having a coffee morning with her friends. Ask her to tell you about the people of Jamaica. Does she see that small boy standing tall in a classroom where sunlight draws lines across the room, speaking of England — of canals, of Parliament and the greatest laws ever passed? Or might she, with some authority, from a friend she knew or a book she’d read, tell you of savages, jungles and swinging through trees?

It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British Empire, would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was threat. But, tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any sergeant who would have been able to find that dear island?

Give me a map, let me see if Tommy Atkins or Lady Havealot can point to Jamaica. Let us watch them turning the page round, screwing up their eyes to look, turning it over to see if perhaps the region was lost on the back, before shrugging defeat. But give me that map, blindfold me, spin me round three times and I, dizzy and dazed, would still place my finger squarely on the Mother Country. 

From Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004). 

Images are, in order: 

1. and 2. Empire Day celebrations in Australia, early 20thC (1) and Jamaica, 24 May 1944 (2). Image 2. from

3. Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects Sikh troops. From

4. Injured West African soldier is carried from an aircraft, Kantha, Burma, 1945. From

5. Sgt LO Lynch from Jamaica, winner of the Air Gunner’s Trophy for 1944, standing by the rear gun turret of a Lancaster bomber. From

6. Nieue Islander soldiers, New Zealand, 1916. From

7. Unknown merchant seaman standing by the sign for West Indies House, a sailors’ hostel in Newcastle Upon Tyne during World War Two. From

8. Sikh despatch riders with their bicycles at the cross roads of Fricourt and Mametz Road during the Battle of the Somme in France in July 1916. From

9. Group of Australian troops, including Sgt. Reginald Saunders, a Gunditjmara man from Western Victoria, awaiting transport to Europe in 1943. From here:

10. Bermudan soldiers, officers and NCOs in France, World War I. From

11. WWII propaganda poster, c.1941. From


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