Jacob Sam-La Rose
The King Said All Englishmen Must Go To Join The War
And Gershom lives
to see the century out, and reminisce
on how it was to be a soldier,
on a frontline.
Creating the Centena
I was dimly aware of the possibility that I’d focus on the story of a Caribbean serviceman or woman from the moment I became involved in the project, but the inclination didn’t coalesce into anything solid until I began studying some of the life stories hosted by the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website. In the course of an evening, I found Isaac Hall, born 1879, who suffered for his status as a conscientious objector; imprisoned, beaten, and described thus: “In time this giant Negro … became wasted to a shadow.” Herbert Morris, who reported to a doctor for shell shock, pleaded to a court “I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns” and nonetheless was executed for desertion at the age of 17. Private Lionel Fitzherbert Turpin, with his impassioned national pride for all things British, though born the Guyanese descendent of slaves taken from West Africa…
In the end, it was this colonially derived patriotism that hooked me. I studied documents and articles about the British West Indies Regiment and whatever it was that drove them voluntarily from their homes to lay down their lives in service of king and colonial motherland through a war effort that, on many fronts, didn’t respect them (and perhaps feared the idea of them) as soldiers. And it was Gershom Browne who became my focus. Gershom: last known Guyanese veteran, who survived just long enough to see the turn of the millennium before he passed in December, 2000. As a member of the Guyanese diaspora myself, I was drawn to his story— a man who seemingly refused to succumb to the bitterness that welled in so many of his fellow servicemen in light of the treatment they received during and after their service. “Glad to go”— Gershom’s words, rendered at the heart of the poem.
In the same article from which that quote was drawn, Gershom makes mention of Eustace Phillips, a brother-in-arms. Dr Richard Smith, the article’s author, made unsuccessful efforts to find some record of Eustace, acknowledging both the necessity and complications of depending on veteran’s memories in place of official records. The idea that Eustace’s life, service and death might now only be recorded in that one account struck me deeply. Yes, this is a poem for Gershom, but Eustace is a part of Gershom’s story. The phrasing that describes his ending— the way he “meets” with a shell— is drawn from Gershom’s own account. The lines in which I reference Eustace are a small attempt to contribute to his remembrance.
Though I drew upon a range of sources and resources while authoring the poem, I’d particularly underline the importance of Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War by Stephen Bourne; and Untold: Mutiny, produced by Illuminations Productions in association with Sweet Patootee/Channel 4— the opportunity to see Gershom (albeit through a screen), to hear his voice, was invaluable.
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