Today was Remembrance Day in the UK (always a Sunday). It’s a weekend when football fans have to momentarily stop their chanting as the Last Post is played on a bugle before every match. Then, after two minutes of echoing silence, the cheering is louder than before. It’s as if the fans are saying: “Well, we’re here. And life goes on!” And the game begins.
Remembering the two World Wars does not resonate as loudly in Jamaica. We may think Remembrance is just another irrelevant European ritual, a piece of history that Jamaica hardly took part in. But, as I learned back in August at the Royal Air Forces Association Jamaica Branch, no less than five thousand Jamaicans went to fight in World War II, and many did not return. In fact, I also learned that the first black pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) – during World War I – was Jamaican. Sergeant William Robinson Clarke was flying over the Western Front in 1917, a few miles over the German lines, when his biplane was attacked. Although badly wounded, he managed to crash-land the plane back safely.
Armistice Day is November 11. It marks the day World War One ended, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, back in 1918. This year, too, is the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme – one of the grimmest battles of the 20th century, in which over a million human beings suffered and died. As the Head of the Somme Departmental Council writes:
The Somme will ever remain the theatre of one of the most deadly battles of the First World War. With the French and British armies calling upon troops from the colonies and the French Foreign Legion, units from 25 nations and 50 countries were involved in the Battle of the Somme. In five months of combat, the total number of men killed, wounded and missing reached over one million and entire nations were sent into mourning. Casualties amounted to 420,000 for the British, 190,000 for the French and 420,000 for the Germans. The landscape of the north-east of the Somme was completely devastated; villages were razed to the ground and fields were turned into lunar-landscapes by shelling.
Back to the warm, balmy evening in August this year, when the Royal Air Forces Association (Jamaica 580 Branch) celebrated its 70th Anniversary at Kingston’s Curphey Place. The Military Band soothed us with smooth Cole Porter classics such as Night and Day, Let’s Fall in Love and the languid When they Begin the Beguine. The ceremony began, MC’d in a wonderfully warm and intimate manner by Major (Ret’d) Johanna Lewin, JP, who chairs the branch. She treated us all like family.
I met a gentleman at Curphey Place named James Luther Ferguson – a Jamaican who served in World War II, volunteering for the RAF in 1944 (and without his poor mother’s knowledge!) at the age of fourteen. His memoirs, Adventures of James Ferguson are published by The Mill Press as a “piece of social history,” publisher Valerie Facey told us. Her husband, Hon. Maurice Facey, was barely eighteen when he signed up for the RAF and although they were married for over sixty years, he hardly mentioned the war – but she certainly realized that Jamaicans who traveled to the UK to serve were not welcomed by the “mother country.” Discrimination was rife. However, she was astonished when, soon after her husband’s death in 2013, she read a letter from James Ferguson in the Gleaner referring to her late husband as the wartime colleague who, young as he himself was, took Mr. Ferguson under his wing during the arduous sea journey to England. She got in touch with him. Mr. Ferguson did have some escapades, both at home and abroad; he is remarkably and cheerfully forthright about his misdemeanors, however, while still holding firm to his belief in friendship, love, fairness and hard work. It’s quite a read, with some of Mr. Ferguson’s rather wistful, philosophical poems enhancing the narrative. In an interview, Mr. Ferguson described his “disgust” for war. Well, it’s humanity’s self-inflicted wound.
My father, too, was very young when he joined the British Army and served overseas (in Sicily). I have his war diaries, in which his mood veers quickly from excited anticipation of some “action” to boredom – to a different kind of mood when he sees a boat floating by with a dead body in it. Then there are large sections of the diary that are blank, and I can only imagine what he was going through. Like Mr. Facey, my father never spoke about his experiences during the war. I remember him sitting in bed in the hospice, on a fine English summer’s day in 2004, watching the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings on television and fighting back tears. I remember handing him a handkerchief, and wondering what memories he had that he just could not express.
So, just a few days ago, the United States elected a man whom many of us considered a clown, a buffoon, and not a serious contender for political office. And now there he is, Commander in Chief, with no experience or understanding of governance, only his own ego; ready to be manipulated by extreme right-wing politicians. Neo-nazis across Europe are celebrating – in particular, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement, Nigel Farage. And to his discredit, the BBC’s Andrew Marr chose to interview France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on his television show – on Remembrance Day. In the interview, Ms. Le Pen described Trump’s victory as “an additional stone in the building of a new world, destined to replace the old one.” British MP Angela Rayner tweeted: Why not interview our veterans who fought fascists, and lost so many comrades? So wrong BBC!
Because history has a way of turning back on itself. Sometimes, it is tapping you on the arm, as if to say: “You see! I told you! Bet you never saw that coming!” No, back then they didn’t see it coming either – the war and rumors of war Emperor Haile Selassie I spoke of. Ms. Le Pen’s “new world” sounds terrifyingly like the old one, to me.
Although we humans don’t seem to learn from history, we must strive to do better, rising on the shoulders of those who sacrificed so much. We must, at least, remember. As we were asked to do at the RAF celebration in August: “Remember. Acknowledge. Inform.”
Let’s be brave, now, for our ancestors’ sakes. And please, everyone – know your history, and be vigilant.
The Royal Air Forces Association Jamaica 580 Branch works with the Jamaica Legion to maintain the Curphey Home in Kingston. The residents of the home are ex-servicemen and women who have served their country with pride and dignity. There are 40 or 50 Jamaican war veterans still living. The Jamaica Legion is affiliated to the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League. You may contact them at Curphey Place, Swallowfield, South Avenue, Kingston 5. Tel: (876) 926-2381/2. Email: email@example.com
“Non Nobis Sed Vobis” (Not for Ourselves Alone). Or in literal translation, “Not for Us, but for You.”