WWI Bahamas Vintage Recruiting Poster
This scarce, historically significant World War l recruitment poster issued by the British government is represented in both the Imperial War Museum in London and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., with the latter institution referring to it as being “rarely seen” in contemporary times. Relying entirely on voluntary enlistment for the first two exceedingly destructive years of the “Great War,” the Crown reached out to young men from all over the British Caribbean for desperately needed help, with the call to “come forward to fight” being answered in high numbers: nearly 16,000 volunteers from the West Indies came forth, assigned to the newly created British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), which included over 500 men from the Bahamas, the first thirty of whom to be accepted for service earning the now famous designation, “The Gallant Thirty” (an estimated 200 additional Bahamians signed up and were attached to other Allied forces). By all accounts the BWIR distinguished itself in the war effort, serving in front-line combat operations against the Turkish Army in Palestine and Jordan; following the Allies’ victory in this crucial theatre of war (resulting in Britain’s control of the Holy Land for the first time since the Crusades), Palestine Campaign General Edmund Allenby sent the following telegram to various colonial governors in the West Indies: "I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations.” By war’s end 81 medals for bravery were handed out to members of the BWIR, with many more bestowed (often posthumously) in the last several decades, particularly by the government of France. But the history of the BWIR is also shadowed by the specter of racial inequity: Induced by the words of the government to take part in what was heralded as a collaborative effort to rid the empire of an “unscrupulous and well prepared foe,” the men of the BWIR found themselves primarily relegated to a critical but supporting role in the conduct of the war, tasked with assignments such as loading ammunition and digging trenches, often unarmed and fully exposed to enemy fire. Moreover, no black serviceman could be promoted above the rank of sergeant, and issues such as unequal (and often nonexistent) pay raises and separation allowances were major points of contention following the cessation of hostilities, leaving many Caribbean soldiers feeling alienated and disrespected upon their return home. Still, out of this demoralizing atmosphere emerged veterans who used their wartime experience as a hard-earned tool in furtherance of the burgeoning protest movements sweeping across the Caribbean: men like the Bahamas’ own Sir Etienne Dupuch, who became editor of the Nassau Tribune newspaper and served in the Bahamian House of Assembly, where he introduced the first comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in the colony’s history; as well as Norman Manley of Jamaica, who fought for universal suffrage and became that island’s first premier. And in a war marked by its inhumanity, one of its all-too-rare humane moments came at the hands of a Bahamian sergeant, Gershom Browne, who prevented the men under his supervision from shooting in cold blood 30 Turkish soldiers who were trying to surrender, telling his troops, “You can’t shoot a man when he’s lying down,” an act highlighting how one beleaguered West Indian soldier was able to rise above the atrocities with which he was surrounded.
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