by Larry Smith
One hundred years ago (on June 28 1914 to be exact), the heir to the throne of the long-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist struggling for independence.
Germany, then the new rising power of Europe, supported its neighbour Austria-Hungary against Serbia and its patron, Russia; with war declared at the end of July 1914. The British, French and Turks joined in the following month, and by Christmas the various armies had suffered more than three million casualties.
By the time the war ended in November 1918, over 16 million had died and 20 million had been wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. It was known thereafter as the Great War - replacing the Napoleonic Wars for pride of place in European memory.
A hundred years ago, the British Empire encompassed nine million square miles and 348 million people. And about a third of the troops that Britain raised during the war came from the colonies— a million Indians, half a million Canadians, half a million Australians and New Zealanders, 250,000 Africans, and 16,000 West Indians.
The British government has committed over £50 million to this year's centenary commemoration of the First World War. The money is paying for a major refurbishment of London's Imperial War Museum, as well as a national series of commemorative events and lectures which launches in August.
No special events were planned here, except for the usual Remembrance Day service in November. But although no veterans from this great conflict survive today - the last died in England two years ago at the age of 110 - the fact is that some 700 Bahamians were posted overseas during the war.
The last of these Bahamian veterans was Tribune publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch, who died at his home in Nassau in 1991 at the age of 92. His autobiography (Salute to Friend and Foe) provides the only first-hand account of what it was like to be a Bahamian soldier in Europe during the war.
The British formed a West India Regiment in 1795 to provide black troops for imperial garrisons around the Caribbean and in Africa. For most of the 19th century some were stationed in Nassau - until they were replaced by the new Bahamian police force.
This regular West India Regiment saw action in Africa and the Middle East during the First World War, and was disbanded in 1927. But the unit for which Bahamians and other Caribbean nationals volunteered in their thousands was known as the British West Indies Regiment. It was formed in 1915 and disbanded in 1921.
Jamaica contributed two thirds of these volunteers. Others came from Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, Belize, the Eastern Caribbean islands and the Bahamas. They served in the Middle East and Europe, winning 86 medals for bravery on the battlefield.
The first group of Bahamian volunteers turned out on the Eastern Parade, where the governor's wife presented them with a flag bearing the colony's Coat of Arms. In September 1915 this first contingent (known as the 'Gallant Thirty’) sailed for Jamaica, from where they transhipped to Alexandria, Egypt.
They were followed by other contingents - Sir Etienne Dupuch being in the fifth draft. And other Bahamians joined the regular British, Canadian or American forces, making a grand total of about 700 men in all. They joined volunteers “drawn from every island and hamlet in the West Indies”, Dupuch wrote in his 1987 autobiography.
Initially, the War Office in London had rejected black troops, but following massive battlefield losses the British West Indies Regiment was formed in mid-1915. This regiment served on all major battle fronts, but was used only for manual labour in Europe to avoid black troops fighting whites. As a result, West Indians were engaged in combat mainly in Palestine and Iraq.
“At the age of 17, as an orphan and still a child, I went overseas with the British West Indies Regiment and served on both the eastern and western fronts for three years,” Etienne Dupuch recalled. “I saw men fall at the right and left and all around me. But it has been truthfully said that ‘a miss is as good as a mile.’”
The first battalions of the BWIR were stationed on the Suez Canal, and later formed part of General Edmund Allenby’s force, which drove the Turks out of Palestine and contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Additional battalions were sent to the western front, in France and Belgium. Dupuch himself was deployed in both Egypt and Europe - ending up in Belgium near Passchendaele Ridge - site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
"We were taken there to expedite the delivery of shells to the heavy artillery,” he wrote. "Our location was a real danger spot. We lost a lot of men there. The Germans laid down a barrage that covered a wide area.”
After Armistice Day, on November 11 1918, the eight BWIR battalions in Europe were concentrated at Taranto in Italy to prepare for demobilisation. They were subsequently joined by battalions from Egypt and Mesopotamia. But growing resentment over unfair labour practices, pay and promotion issues led some men to attack their officers in early December.
According to Glenford Howe of the University of the West Indies, "During the mutiny, which lasted about four days, a black NCO shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence and there was also a bombing...The BWIR men were all subsequently disarmed and about 60 soldiers were court-martialled. One man was executed by firing squad."
This unrest led to meetings that discussed issues of black rights, self-determination and closer union in the West Indies. An organisation called the Caribbean League was formed to further these objectives, and the soldiers decided to strike for higher wages on their return home.
"When the disgruntled BWIR soldiers began arriving back in the West Indies they quickly joined a wave of worker protests resulting from a severe economic crisis produced by the war, and the influence of black nationalist ideology espoused by Marcus Garvey and others,” Howe wrote. "Disenchanted soldiers and angry workers unleashed a series of protest actions and riots in a number of territories.”
The war had stimulated profound changes and laid the foundation for the social upheavals of the 1930s in the British Caribbean, in which veterans played a big role. As Sir Etienne noted, "the reputation that the riot in Taranto gave the BWIR pursued us on the way back home."
And, he added: "Like millions of young men drawn from Britain’s far-flung empire, I was a changed man when I returned to my island home at the age of 20 after having seen the peoples of Europe wallowing in a cesspit of human degradation. I was a very bitter man."
According to the late Jamaican historian and labour leader Richard Hart, "The principal causes of working class unrest and dissatisfaction were the same throughout the region: low wages; high unemployment and under-employment; arrogant racist attitudes of the colonial administrators and employers in their relations with black workers; lack of adequate or in most cases any representation; and no established structure for the resolution of industrial disputes by collective bargaining."
This widespread unrest led to the appointment of the West India Royal Commission, which reported in December 1939, although the report was suppressed until after the Second World War. In the Bahamas our labour riots occurred in 1942, when workers marched from Burma Road to Bay Street demanding higher pay and better conditions. The regional revolt convinced the British of the need to reform labour laws throughout the colonies.
First World War veterans had an enormous impact on social and political development in the Caribbean. For example, Norman Manley became active in the trade union movement in 1938 and went on to form the People’s National Party, which paved the way to independence from Britain in 1962.