When war broke out 100 years ago, the owner of Morden Hall Park, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild, offered the Hall to the War Office for use as a military hospital. This year, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Attic Theatre Company brings the untold stories of the men and women who lived, worked and nursed at Morden Hall Park to life in Fields Unsown, a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

From Jamaica to the Front Line

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Though men from all parts of the Commonwealth of Nations (then known as the British Commonwealth) had been a part of the British army since the seventeenth century, and the West India Regiments (originally recruited from American slaves) had been active since 1795, heated debated continued into the twentieth century in relation to the question of deploying black soldiers in battle. In the early years of the First World War, however, attitudes began to change.

Prior to conscription coming into force in 1916, and upon nearly exhausting the supply of volunteers across Britain and Ireland, King George V opened up an appeal to able-bodied men across the British Empire. Though this seemed to contradict previous assertions and commentary coming from the War Office around the same time, the formation of the British West Indies Regiment (“BWIR”) was announced.  Accordingly, the Monarchy assumed responsibility for the inclusion of non-white soldiers from the Commonwealth to aid in the war effort.

Many writers took on the campaign for equality, offering thoughts on racial equality and peace and citing the common enemy as the reason for shrugging off prejudice.  W.G. Hinchcliffe, a prolific Jamaican writer and an active voice in the recruitment drive for the war wrote in the Daily Gleaner on 27 May 1916:

The time is now on us when brothers will be compelled to know each other as brother without thinking of race, nationality, colour, class or complexion … it is just as well for the European, the middle man and the African, all to join hands and hearts together to strike the necessary death blow to Germanism … ‘United we stand, divided we fall’.

For many, being reminded of this was enough.  As British Colonies, many of the West Indian islands’ social, educational and cultural systems were based on the British way of life, and so many perceived fighting for England as almost the same thing as fighting for their own island. The increase in pay and the chance to see the world also became an incentive for those islanders who made the choice to join up.

By the end of the war over 15,500 West Indians had joined the BWIR and had experienced military service.

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Around two thirds of the BWIR volunteers were men from Jamaica (10,280), with nine other areas represented, including Trinidad and Tobago (1,478), Barbados (831), British Guiana (700) and Grenada (445). The smallest group came from the Leeward Island (229). These men undertook active service across a number of countries and continents. Their efforts, however, were repeatedly constrained by the political and War Office policies of the time.

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