By Dennis Nichols
Today, November 11th, Guyana, (and indeed the world) remembers – the courage, the carnage, and the folly of the first Great War of the 20th century that ended 100 years ago. Many have valorized and romanticized what one journalist described as a savage imperial bloodbath. Harsh, but maybe an apt postscript to the 1914-1918 ‘hostilities’. Truth is sometimes unattractive, yet worthy of tribute.
As a Queen’s College student in the mid-1960s, I was a regular visitor to the Guyana Legion on Kelly Dam, just a few hundred yards away from our school. It was a getaway for a few of us QC boys who went there during the lunch recess to play table tennis. War memories were then as distant as the front lines’ No Man’s land.
Still, we had a hazy notion of the organization’s history and its significance from speaking with one WWII veteran, Mr. ‘Dash’ Defreitas, who made the tennis area available to us, and who occasionally hinted at the honour in which war veterans, including some QC old boys, were held, having fought in the two world wars earlier that century.
That vagueness would come into sharper focus every year on the eleventh of November, or the school-day closest to it, when Queen’s College held its annual Remembrance or Armistice Day Ceremony. It became one of the most poignant memories there for me in five years of otherwise unflattering retrospection.
On that day, the entire school, appropriately ‘poppied’ would gather in the auditorium where, if my memory serves me rightly, we would have a special assembly that included short talks, and speechifying, on the deeds of our boys who had fought in the two world wars; the first being preeminent. Under the critical gaze of headmaster Doodnauth Hetram, we listened and learnt of the fighters, including a handful of Q.C. men, who for country and king fell in battle, as their names were solemnly intoned.
Time has misted some memories, but I clearly recall two aspects of the ceremony that stood out for me. The first was the laying of a wreath/wreaths of poppies atop plaques bearing the names of those who had died. This distinction fell on the youngest boy in the school, and in 1963 ,at just 10 years and 8 months, I missed out on that signal honour by being a mere day or two older than the chosen one.
The other was the minute’s silence observed as a military bugler sounded The Reveille and The Last Post. In absolute stillness, the occasion’s solemnity and the instrument’s haunting air blended into an almost spiritual experience. It wasn’t difficult to imagine such an aura at a thousand similar ceremonies around the world.
Today, in dozens of countries including European and Commonwealth nations, and the United States, millions of people will gather at various sites to remember and honour the two world wars, the fallen soldiers, and the civilian casualties – about 40 million souls. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, there are no known veterans of WW l still alive. The last, Florence Green, a member of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force, died in 2012 at the age of 104.
Our own Gershom Browne, Guyana’s last surviving WW l veteran, died in 2000 at the age of 102. He had served in the British West Indies Regiment, and was part of a group that triumphed over Turkish and German forces in capturing a bridge in Turkey, later officially acknowledged as one of the most crucial battles in that war zone, according to the late U.K. journalist, Peter Lennon, who interviewed Browne in 1999.
Lennon says BWIR troops were however dishonoured, victimized, and kept from the front so the Germans wouldn’t think the empire needed the help of ‘savages’. But, he adds, they were happily allocated their traditional role as servants, carrying ammunition and water (among other duties) under heavy fire, to the troops on the front line. Commanding officers were all white, and black officers could rise no higher than sergeant
This account has been corroborated by other writers. Reviewing diplomat Cedric Joseph’s book ‘The British West Indies Regiment’ in 2009, he called it ‘a tragic tale of deception and discrimination by an arrogant caste of military officers and colonial officials.’
Disaffection subsequently led to a four-day revolt by BWIR soldiers at an Italian camp shortly after the war ended, followed by the clandestine establishment of the Caribbean League, aimed at fostering closer post-war union of West Indians. The organization was short-lived, but it lent its energies to working class solidarity that was to later influence the development of trade unions and the demand for representative government in the region.
In British Guiana, veterans began meeting regularly from the 1920s, often at private homes. (One of these was the home of Samuel Rangaswamy, former president of the Guyana Legion, whom I remember as my neighbour on South Road in the late sixties, and who was occasionally visited by Prime Minister Burnham when the latter came to the Guyana Labour Union, two houses away, on official business)
Mainly due the efforts of one Capt. John Coghlan, a WWII veteran and former judge advocate of the BWIR, the British Guiana Legion was established in the late 1940s, and by the early fifties was headquartered on Kelly Dam, now Carifesta Avenue. Its participation in the annual Remembrance Day Service on behalf of the more than 1000 Guyanese soldiers, is testimony to its motto ‘Lest we forget’.
On Friday, my alma mater, Queen’s College, held its annual Remembrance Day Service. It included the traditional wreath-laying ceremony and the Last Post/Reveille on either side of two-minute’s silence. Poppy wreaths were hung by the youngest boy, for the WWI dead’ and for the WWII heroes by the school’s youngest girl.
Today, across Europe and several other countries, thousands of events are scheduled to mark the end of WWII. In the U.K. more than 3000 bells will emit a solemn, muffled peal (for the dead) after which the mufflers will be removed as ‘the national mood swings … to gratitude and thanks’ according to the National Council of Church Bell Ringers. The aim is that bells should ring across the world. The British and German governments are encouraging other countries to do the same simultaneously.
Here in Guyana, the government in collaboration with the Guyana Legion, will hold its annual wreath-laying ceremony at The Cenotaph on Main Street. This year, it will be followed by two other similar ceremonies. The first is one at the Commonwealth War Graves memorial, Eve Leary Police Compound, organized by the British High Commission, where wreaths will be placed by the British, Indian, and Canadian High Commissioners, the army Chief-of-staff, and the president of the Guyana Legion.
There will also be a second ceremony at the Cenotaph where at 11 a.m. the Guyana Legion will have an ‘active remembrance’ service. It is expected that wreaths will be laid by WWII veterans, among whom will be the two oldest surviving veterans of that war. They are Gerald Stewart who turned 97 on Thursday, and our oldest veteran, Benjamin Durant who will be 100 years old in four days’ time.
There are 15 WWII veterans still alive in Guyana. How much longer they will be around is anyone’s guess, but while they are, let’s continue to honour them.
Guyana’s role in the two Great Wars may not have been seen as significant, but we should not forget it was a meaningful one, despite the shabby treatment of BWIR soldiers.
I close with this thought-provoking reminder from historical notes: ‘Approximately two-thirds of all Allied aircraft built during WWII used aluminum fashioned from high-grade Guyanese bauxite!’ That’s far from insignificant– lest we forget.
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