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West Indian Troops
Remembrance Day is a time to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by many young men and women on the battlefield. Kurt Barling reports on those who made their contribution, but whose stories are often forgotten at this time of year.
By BBC London's Special Correspondent, Kurt Barling
Timothea James came to Britain as a young girl from St Lucia in the 1960s. She had followed her mother here after being cared for by her grandmother.
One of her grandmother's favourite stories was of the two St Lucian cousins, one her brother-in-law who had travelled across the Atlantic generations before to fight for King and country in the 1914-18 war against the Kaiser.
Fighting for the mother country
Nelson and Dennis Fevrier were part of the Creole community of St Lucia that took their duty to support the mother country very seriously. So did tens of thousand of others across the Caribbean who formed the West Indies Regiment.
They in turn joined Commonwealth soldiers from across the Empire who'd never set foot on English soil but were prepared to pay with their blood to protect it.
The two cousins joined up one on the same day in September 1915 and after training joined a troop ship destined for England. They came to the Seaford North Camp in Sussex just a few miles along the coast from Newhaven. In mid-winter it would have been bleak and perishing cold.
Newhaven was a major port for embarkation of battle ready troops and the return of weary or injured troops. There was a key Canadian troop Hospital in between Lewes and Brighton. Some of the West Indian troops would have acted as auxiliaries in the locality rather than being sent to the front. There was still ambivalence in the British Army for sending West Indians armed into the combat zone.
The families of the Fevrier cousins were informed in 1916 that the two had died but there was no family recollection as to what they died from. Some family stories said it was friendly fire, others said it was at the front as a hero, some thought it might have been from the flu.
All the family in London and St Lucia knows is that they never returned from England at the end of the war. This has become central to the Fevrier family folklore.
In July this year the Timothea discovered that amongst the headstones at the Commonwealth War Grave cemetery in Seaford there were two Fevrier’s with very similar army numbers. This tied in with their knowledge that the cousins signed up on the same day. In fact they had consecutive army numbers.
So the day before Remembrance Day BBC London offered to accompany Timothea and her cousin Nicolas Jean Baptiste who’d come all the way from St Lucia for the occasion, to Seaford Cemetery. As soon as we arrived in Seaford it was if the graves had a magnetic pull on the two of them.
Extraordinary as it seems 90 years after learning of their forebears’ death as British soldiers the family came face to face with Dennis and Nelson’s personal memorials. Timothea’s instinct was to reach out and put her arms around the memorial as if embracing a long lost relative.
It was so overwhelming an experience for Timothea that she was left practically speechless. The family had kept the spirit of the cousins alive all these years. Now there is a place they can come and pay their respects.
Nicolas summed up the moment by saying that, “the trip has been made, the respect has been paid, the history has been understood and the story has been told”.
The local Seaford Museum and Heritage Society which is located in a Napoleonic gun emplacement (one of the remaining Martello Towers) on the sea also had a record of why West Indian soldiers perished in that Winter of 1915-1916. Ill-equipped and with clothing inappropriate to the tropical man, many died of the cold and flu.
The fact that the graves had remained there undiscovered by the families is symbolic of how many Commonwealth soldiers and their descendants feel about how Britain has forgotten their particular contribution to supporting the mother country in its time of need.
Lost in the public consciousness
Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done the right thing in terms of maintaining the memorials and thereby the memory of these men, Britain has been slow to remember them in the public consciousness. Even young people of African descent are surprised to learn that Commonwealth soldiers from Africa and the West Indies served in the first war.
As Remembrance marks the sacrifice of those soldiers whether or not at the front, so the nation should recognise that it is also a reminder that our diverse present is a consequence of our cosmopolitan past.
last updated: 25/03/2009 at 17:41