Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Part 4

Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August 1914, while I was an apprentice at the blacksmith trade. Before going home in the afternoons I must attend the cable board to read the latest bulletin. Here I found myself among many elderly men, with knowledge of previous wars; notably the Boer War, the Spanish American War and the Russo-Japanese War. Sitting among them I drank copiously of their knowledge.

A British West Indies Regiment was formed and a recruiting campaign was all over the country. Young men joined the colours, as it was called then and were sent away in batches.  Recruits were accepted from 18-35 years old.

In November 1916, there was a big recruiting campaign on the parade ground now renamed Independence Square. Up to this time, four batches of 36 to 40 men each had already left for the war zone.  Going home from work, I joined the crowd where there were speeches and soloist with patriotic songs. It was at this time I enlisted my name to a lady who approached me. I was then 17 plus. This information was a shock to my mother and caused her some grief. When I told my boss the next, he did not take it with a smile. In as much as he was on the side of the Allies.

In January 1916, all those who had enlisted their names in November and December were called up for medical examination. I availed myself one Monday morning and was thoroughly examined, medically. The minimum height required was five feet three inches, and a chest of 36 inches. I was one inch above the minimum height and four inches above the chest required. I gained that four inches by doing exercise with a chest expander and the use of the sledge hammer at work did the rest.

All those who passed the medical and qualification examinations, were called into barracks on the 1st of February 1916.  After a good deal of sorting out, I found myself in No.2 platoon with the number 3076 and took the oath of allegiance to the King, his heirs and successors for the duration of the war. My first experience as a soldier was to be acquainted with the bugle calls. The three given were; the regimental, the fall in, and the cook house. All others were learnt in due course of barrack life. Taken to the Quartermaster’s store, I was given a pair of boots, a slouch (felt) hat and was measured by the tailor for my uniform. Training to make me a soldier was about five to six hours a day by drill instructors and the pay was one shilling per day. After about four months in the barracks, six cents were deducted from this shilling as compulsory allotment from pay to add to the amount the authorities were contributing to the soldier’s dependant.

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

Training was steady in all its forms and requirements to be a soldier, including musketry, where at the range, I prove myself to be a first class shot. The comradeship in barracks was great and of course on the street “all the nice girls love a soldier”. In September, I was promoted to lance corporal. I well remember the Commanding Officer‘s remarks to the platoon commander “Mr McFarlane, this boy was here before, maybe you have an old head on a young shoulder, I will not stand in your way, I will make you a lance corporal.” As a company of trained soldiers, we were on a few occasions doing ceremonial parades, such as the opening of the Combined Court; a task which was usually done by the police.

Early in November 1916, we received orders to go overseas. On the 8th of November the company embarked on the ship Mazaruni, one of Messer Sprostons fleet, bound for Trinidad. On the way to the ship, there were cheers mingled with tears from the very large crowds on the streets standing by. We boarded in very high spirits with the Militia Band playing Auld Lang Syne.

After about ten hours at sea the high spirits went very low; sea sickness began to take its toll. The North West Route which the ship had taken was very rough especially when passing the mouth of the Orinoco. After, we disembarked at Port of Spain, Trinidad and were billeted at the Queens Park Savannah to await the arrival of the troop ship. The troop ship, Magdalena, arrived after about four days in Trinidad and we were hurriedly taken on board because of a clash between some soldiers and police at Port of Spain.  After being aboard for about a week, we were taken off as the ship had other orders and left.

We were taken to one of the five islands on the Gulf of Paria and there we remained until the Magdalena returned in March 1917. From the island we were taken in small batches to Port of Spain to spend the day with the Trinidad contingents who were in St. James Barracks. Life on the island was dull; there was not land enough for parades, just physical jerks.

We started to build a road to go around the island, just to keep us fit. And if that road is still in use, I can say that without fear of contradiction it was built by the British Guiana Contingent in 1917. On one occasion, two soldiers committed what may be treated as an act of mutiny and were court marshalled. I was the non commissioned officer who marched them to receive sentence at the promulgation ceremony.

MV Magdalena. Photo courtesy

MV Magdalena. Photo courtesy

The Magdalena returned in March 1917 and troops, the BG contingent and the Trinidad contingent boarded her. Leaving Trinidad, we touched Barbados, Grenada and St Lucia picking up troops, then to Martinique where she loaded sugar. Good Friday was spent in the harbour there. Crossing the Atlantic took 12 days before the lighthouse of Gibraltar became visible, and we entered the harbour during the night.

Three days were spent there loading coals and left for Malta. I may mention we were always under escort. Between Gibraltar and Malta, measles broke on board ship and those affected were taken off and continued to enter the harbour of Alexander after days under quarantine. We disembarked and were taken straight to an isolation camp not far from Mex, the base of the British West India Regiment in Egypt.

Six weeks were spent in isolation in vigorous training. Bayonet training was quite different from that taught us at Eve Leary by some old campaigners from the regular army. Lectures on British Army traditions and campaigning made one feel to get into the combat as soon as possible. Coming out of isolation, we went to Mex Base and were informed that we are units of the 5th reserve battalion of B.W.I. regiment. I was put in F Company and my number 9131. Mex was a work house and as far as I can remember the B.W.I.s were providing guards and protection for the following places; the quays in Alexandra, ammunition dumps and G.I. army prison. About 120 men with two officers left every morning at 8:00 hours on their daily duties.

On June 1917, I was drafted to the 1st battalion which was then in the lines of communication in the Sinai Desert. Before leaving Mex, we were issued with full kit for desert and front line requirements or as they say full marching order kit. The draft left Mex on Sunday morning at about 9:00 hours for a railway station in Alexander, after about six hours de-trained at a point where we crossed the Suez Canal on a swing bridge the other side named Qantara.

Qantara was the main base for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Dinner was served the draft from a British Army mess. It was an unusual West Indian diet, but we made good use of it. We boarded train for the desert about 19:00 hours and drove the whole night, stopping at stations where sometimes there was a B.W.I soldier of 2nd Battalion. The train reached the station where the 1st Battalion could be located; it was near a small Bedouin village named,  Dier El Belah, about 10 miles from the frontlines, in front the city of Gaza, the two armies watching each other. The Turks one day decided to try their long range gun and pumped a few shells, one exploding on the centre of the regiments camping around. Damage done! That was my baptism of fire.

Between July and August, I did two fortnightly periods at the frontline at the sector named Mansura Ridge.  The battle line then was from Gaza to Beersheba, a distance of about 25 miles. On both occasions, the regiment was with two Scottish regiments, the Highland Light Infantry, and the Kings Own Scottish Borderers.  We became units Br the Composite Force when the regiment took front line position at Dunbell Hill.

The composite force comprised two B.W.I. regiments, two battalions of Jews, two Indian regiments; one was a mounted infantry, a French army and Italian army detachments. It was at this period that I was trained, scout and sniper. As a scout, I had to know who is on our left and right, and every inch of the terrain of “No man’s land.” I had to lead patrols reconnoitring or fighting as “No man’s land” at this sector was deep. My friend, Harry Branch was killed while we were at this branch of the frontline. This was an area of redoubt fortifications by both sides because the area was dotted with low hills and out by wadis.

General Allenby’s offence started in October while we were at this front. The enemy was dislodged from their redoubts and their retreat was followed up to a certain point after the regiment was kept on the lines of communication.

1918 was continuous movement from place to place until we were called upon to take up frontline position in the Jordon Valley. From where we were, it took us nine days to get into position. Marching only at nights and include three days rest outside Jerusalem. We were in the Jordon Valley frontline for about three weeks before the push began. A company was in the advancing line along with B and D companies, C Company was reserve.

It was during this advance that Guyanese Sgt. Chan was killed. With the enemy retreating, we were called upon to do a forced march one night to cut off their escape source the Jordon at a bridge named Danieh. This march allowed only one hour’s rest at midnight when we were ordered to lighten up (as we were in full marching order) to fighting order. It was here the diary I had been keeping of my army life was lost.

British West Indian soldiers in camp. Photo courtesy

British West Indian soldiers in camp. Photo courtesy

We barely got into a position among some bushes just before daylight. In this position we were under machine gun fire. After lying for about three hours, C Company was ordered to advance. The advance took us around a stream where we refilled our water bottles, and rested at the brow of a hill. The officer in command was waiting for a signal. The signal came and order from him was charge bayonet. Danieh Bridge was captured intact, and the Turkish army was cut off. They made a brave effort to break through, but failed. This was responsible for the surrender of the whole Turkish army in Palestine.

After Danieh, the battalion had pushed onto Ammon, now the capitol of Jordon, our furthermost point, then began to fall back which after about four weeks settled in a village in Judea named Ram Allah about three miles from Jerusalem. This was a high hill and the Mediterranean Sea was visible in the distance. It was while here on the evening of the 8th of November signal flashes were seen from the sea. The signal was “Armistice, all fighting ceases”.  From Ram Allah we began to move across the country and finally settled at a place called Tulkamani, here, Christmas Day 1918 was spent. Before Old Year’s day, C Company was deployed to Galilee coming to the shore, Golan Heights. Our duty here was guarding two railway bridges crossing the Yamuk River at different points. The Yamuk is a tributary of the Jordon.

One afternoon at about 5:00PM, every body in their tents, some playing cards some “Cutting Slime” as we called it. In other words in any kind of discourse, the flap of my tent was suddenly thrown back and the orderly sergeant’s head popped in “Corporal Browne get six of your men dressed fighting order and you all fall in at the CSM tent in half an hour.

A selection was made after some claimed that they were just off guard duty. The CSM order was that I go and report to the WO at the railway station which was about a quarter of a mile away. I was then section commander of No.7 section of No. 10 platoon. Our duty was to guard the supply train going up the mountain. The climb was so slow that the trains were sitting ducks to Arab raiders hiding in the gorges. I had to do this duty twice and the furthest I reached was at Damascus in Syria. At no time was this train raided while I was on duty. On my first duty spell I saw some men at a distance in the gorges. I gave about four warning shots.

In 1919 the talk was mobilization and from Galilee we went to Immalig a town in Egypt on the bank of the Suez Canal. From there we took a ship at Port Said bound for Taranto in Italy, where after three days took a train for France. This was a six day trip stopping here and there finally de-trained at Le Havre on Wednesday.

I may here mention that we were several hundred men of the 1st Battalion. On the Saturday following our arrival at Le Harve we were ordered to fall in with baggage’s, according to your island destination. We were then informed that the troop ship could not carry the whole batch and 20 men each inland were called out, I among the British Guiana batch. We remained at Le Havre until October; in the meantime we were joined by the rest of the B.W.I. Regiment.

The whole body boarded ship in October and stopping at the various islands discharging men the British Guiana batch was also discharged in Trinidad to await a ship to home. After about three days we boarded a ship which landed us at Garnett’s wharf. The date may have been about the 1st or 3rd November. There was a very large crowd. We were marched straight to a drum dead Thanksgiving service after which were told we were on leave  until the 30th November and discharged. The aftermath is not a pleasant memory, so let sleeping dogs lie.   

*Reproduced with kind permission from Barry Browne.