Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of a National Consciousness
Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004, ISBN: 0719069858; Price: £45.00
University of Leeds
Date accessed: 9 February, 2023
One of the strengths of the recent historiography of the First World War has been the shift in focus away from the Western Front towards a broader understanding of the conflict as a world war. From Hew Strachan's majestic analysis of the war as a whole, including discussions of campaigns in Africa, the Eastern Front and the Middle East, to the increasing interest in the wartime experiences of nations such as Serbia and Romania, this trend has served to broaden as well as deepen our understanding of this far-reaching conflict. One strand in this trend has been fuller explorations of the role of British imperial forces in the war, focusing less on the white dominions and more on the role and experiences of troops from India, Africa and, in the case of Richard Smith's Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War, the Caribbean.
Smith's book falls firmly into the category of a cultural history of the First World War. Although two chapters discuss the training and deployment of the two primary Caribbean regiments, the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) and the older, more established West Indian Regiment (WIR), Smith analyses material relating to the experiences of men who enlisted, or attempted to enlist, to explore the ways in which the war shaped attitudes in Britain and Jamaica towards the three themes of his subtitle: race, masculinity and national identity. His sources include personal accounts, newspaper articles and editorials as well as War Office and Commonwealth Office documents.
While neither of the two regiments discussed was exclusively Jamaican, Smith uses Jamaican experiences as a case study to argue that Caribbean soldiers experienced extensive racism arising out of imperial fears about the strength of black men in relation to the weakness and emasculation of shell-shocked white men. Experiences of racism both during the war and in its immediate aftermath led in turn to the strengthening of black Jamaican national consciousness, culminating in the 1938 riots led in part by the 'the illustriously named and flamboyantly attired, St William Wellington Wellwood Grant, a veteran of the First World War who had served in the eleventh battalion of the British West Indies Regiment' (p. 1). Smith's book is thus as much a history of Caribbean nationalism as it is a history of the First World War.
The issue of racism experienced by Jamaican soldiers is central to Smith's argument and forms the focus of much of his discussion, serving as a unifying theme for a roughly chronological discussion that covers Jamaica and the outbreak of war, the recruitment of volunteers, deployment in Europe and the Middle East, the place of the black soldier in the white imagination and mutiny. The examples of such racism range from the rejection of early Jamaican volunteers by the armed forces and official refusal to allow black West Indians to hold commissions, through the on-going reluctance to deploy the Jamaican regiments in front-line positions and the objectification of the black soldier as a over-sexualised and childlike, to the harsh treatment of mutineers striking over pay and conditions in Taranto in 1918. Smith presents some compelling evidence of discriminatory attitudes on the part of the British government and military towards the enlistment and service of black men, including the unequal pay that led to the Taranto mutiny and social exclusion from facilities such as estaminets. Such behaviour on the part of the authorities undoubtedly served to undermine the identities of the Caribbean regiments as equal elements of the British imperial army that volunteers had been led to believe themselves to be upon enlistment. Smith's analysis of Caribbean attitudes towards Field Punishment No. 1 as an experience reminiscent of slavery and therefore provoking 'particularly strong feelings among black soldiers, who had enlisted in a war regularly portrayed in the West Indies as a struggle against slavery' (p. 128) clearly shows how racial identity inflected on experiences of war service.
The problem with the emphasis that Smith places on the issue of race in this context is the lack of comparison that he provides with the experiences of other British servicemen, raising questions as to how exceptional the experiences of Jamaican servicemen actually were. Gary Sheffield has shown, for instance, that Field Punishment No. 1 was disliked by many volunteers, being seen as a humiliating indignity. (1) Many other indignities faced by Jamaican servicemen were experienced also by their white counterparts. The experiences of labouring rather than fighting (p. 81), of being reduced to an impersonal element of a machine, lacking individual autonomy (p. 93) and the failure to diagnose psychological disorders in favour of discourses of weakness and childishness (p. 85) were experiences common throughout the British army and Smith provides little evidence that West Indian servicemen suffered more than any other group. There is little direct mention of race in many of the examples that he provides, with the exception of some of the material relating to the objectification of the black body. Indeed, in one example of a man hospitalised after attempting to murder a white Company Sergeant Major, Smith notes that 'There are not explicit references to race and colour in Shaw's medical reports.' (p. 85). Except for his repatriation on a ship which provided only segregated accommodation, Shaw's case reads remarkably like the experiences of many British psychological casualties throughout the war who were deemed by the medical establishment to be suffering from irrationality and lack of self-control, a point made by Smith in his first chapter.
Perhaps Smith's most extensive and successful example of discrimination toward Jamaican servicemen was the British military hierarchy's reluctance to use either West Indian regiment in front line service in Europe. The WIR served briefly in Cameroon before being returned to Jamaica for the duration to guard against civil unrest. While the BWIR did serve in Africa and the Middle East, men from the regiment stationed in France, Belgium and Italy were designated as labour battalions. Smith argues convincingly that these deployments were based on racial stereotypes of the lack of martial ability, and consequently masculinity, of the soldiers involved. 'Incorporation into the brotherhood-in-arms of the Empire was,' he notes, 'conditional on the place each man occupied in the hierarchies of race and class' (p. 96).
This interpretation of men's service allows Smith to read Jamaican experiences of war as a discourse of gender as well as race. 'Being disarmed, or denied the opportunity to bear arms in the first place, signalled a man had failed to meet his ultimate public duty and symbolically removed the status and rights linked to discourses of armsbearing.' (p. 87) Smith is able to demonstrate how armed service was clearly linked to a discourse of mature masculinity in the recruitment of Jamaican volunteers, while lack of front line service reduced men to a lesser status of unreliability that segued into the racist imperialist discourse of black men as immature and uncontrolled. Smith pushes the reading of a gendered imperial discourse further, however. He argues that the juxtaposition of the healthy black male recruit with the unhealthy white troops who were increasingly being emasculated by shell shock was an image that undermined imperial control. 'As white men returned from the war mentally and physically emasculated, the black body served as "a reminder of what the body can do, its vitality, its strength, its sensuousness".' (p. 102) Only through the imagining of black men as over-sexualised could order be restored by emphasising their immaturity and lack of self-control. In addition, black masculinity was degraded through black soldiers' status as a source of entertainment, 'portrayed as playthings or at play to reflect their childlike status within discourses of race and Empire' (p. 109).
This reading of gender discourse, while convincing in terms of race, has, however, a tendency to oversimplify the question of the war's impact on understandings of masculinity. In focusing on men's bodies as the source of male identity, it ignores the extent to which understandings of martial masculinity were readjusted during the course of the war to reflect the challenges posed by experiences of war. While physique undoubtedly remained important to British middle-class conceptions of the masculine ideal, less physical manifestations of masculinity, such as the ability to endure, became increasingly important. By the end of the war, the ability to suffer had become a key mark of masculinity. This can be seen a section from Alfred Horner's diaries that Smith quotes which can be read not simply as a depiction of the 'wretched state of white manhood', but rather as a celebration of 'the heroism of the poor wounded lads ... [whose] matted hair, clotted blood, pale blue and here and there the silence of the Great Sacrifice' become symbols of their Christ-like suffering (p. 102). Sight of this suffering could, according to Horner, still edify, despite the evidence of physical failure that it provided. Given Horner's background of muscular Christianity, this evocation of a masculinity ennobled by suffering presents a rather more complex picture than Smith's simple juxtaposition of black health and white weakness suggests.
Smith also relies on a discussion of the number of British servicemen suffering from psychological disorders to illustrate the extent of the damage to the ideal of a healthy self-controlled masculinity inflicted by the war. It was the existence and extent of these casualties, Smith argues in his first chapter on the wartime crisis of masculinity, that supported contemporary concerns of male emasculation by the experiences of war. Again, this is something of an oversimplification. Psychological disorders were equated with a loss of self-control but that did not necessarily equate with emasculation in contemporary discourses. Indeed, a number of doctors expressed concerns about the hyper-sexuality and potential for violence of shell-shocked men in language that might bear fruitful comparisons to the imaginings of black men as uncontrolled sexual beings. Similarly, the language of regression and childishness used by some doctors in relation to their white patients would be worth comparing to the status of black men as childlike that Smith notes.
While these comparisons might serve to reinforce some of the official concerns that Smith identifies about the impact of war in undermining the imperial order, the raising of gender as a discourse does add an element of complexity that Smith never fully addresses. By relying on the gendered interpretation of shell shock presented by Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert, he fails to engage with recent re-evaluations of these arguments, such as the critiques made by Laurinda Stryker, who argues that Showalter's reading of shell shock as a gendered condition is 'only at the price of some misrepresentation' (2) and Gail Braybon, who notes the limited and literary nature of the sources used to support interpretations of gender relations in wartime. (3) Smith exhibits something of the latter problem himself in his reliance on the works of Vera Brittain and Robert Graves to support his reading of white emasculation. The extent to which the juxtaposition of black and white masculinities affected understandings of gender within the broader context of the war as a whole is somewhat less central than Smith presents it as being, given the complexity of the social understandings of martial masculinities that are increasingly being exposed.
Where Smith's racial and gender analyses are far more successful, however, is in relation to his discussion of the uses of martial masculinities as a tool of mobilisation both for the army and for nationalist causes. In his chapters on 'The recruitment of Jamaican volunteers' and 'Nationalism and pan-Africanism', Smith marshals and impressive array of primary material, much of it from Jamaican newspapers, to demonstrate how the associations between soldiering, masculinity and citizenship were deployed to encourage men to fight first for the Empire and then for national independence. By tracing the links between patriotism, wartime experiences of discrimination and post-war experiences of economic hardship, Smith makes important links between racial and national identities, arguing that it was not only the fact that hopes of equality through service proved false in practice which radicalised ex-servicemen, but also the failure of the colonial authorities to appropriately reintegrated them into post-war society. The treatment of veterans in the post-war political and economic climate, discussed in the final chapter, is particularly interesting, showing how 'veterans' struggles to gain recognition for their wartime sacrifices took place against a backdrop of increasing nationalists activity and a heightened consciousness of Jamaican identity' (pp. 157–8). Veterans' demands for political recognition sought to define the their role as a symbol of national manhood within the framework of imperial allegiance that had led to veteran status in the first place, a process that, as Smith shows, influenced movements ranging from the Jamaica League to the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
As in his discussion of race, placing the Jamaican nationalist experiences within a broader context would enhance Smith's argument. The politicisation of veterans and their relation to nationalist movements in a colonial context raises questions in relation to both the politicisation of European veterans, as discussed by Deborah Cohen for example, (4) and the development of national consciousness in other parts of the British Empire. Such comparisons might usefully draw out the effects of the particularity of the Jamaican economy that Smith notes (p. 153), while at the same time indicating some of the broader issues raised by the numerous problems of re-integrating ex-servicemen into civil society that were experienced by many of the nations involved in the First World War.
Despite these reservations, this book does the field of First World War studies a service in presenting the history of Jamaican First World War servicemen by opening up a previously under-examined geographical area. The manner in which it does so is ambitious and not always successful in making its case. Oversimplification undermines some of the assertions about gender while lack of a comparative element left this reader with questions about the particularity of the Jamaican case in terms of racism and the development of a national consciousness. It is to be hoped that, in the future, historians of the Caribbean will investigate further the important relationship between wartime experiences of racism and post-war developments in national identity that this book identifies, placing the history of the region more fully in the context of the comparative history of the war.
However, in examining Jamaican experiences of the war, this book does make its own contribution to First World War historiography. It not only provides an important reminder that the British army of the First World War was a colonial army, influenced by the assumptions of its imperial traditions, a fact which inflected the experiences of a significant portion of the men who fought in the name of King and Empire. It also demonstrates the important cultural links between military service and national identity in a context where issues of race place a central role. In doing so, it makes an interesting addition to the growing literature on the war as both a cultural and global conflict.
- G. Sheffield, Leadership in the Trenches: Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in the Era of the First World War (Basingstoke, 2000), p. 64. Back to (1)
- L. Stryker, 'Mental cases: British shellshock – politics of interpretation' in Back to (2)
- G. Braybon, 'Winners or losers: women's symbolic role in the war story' in Back to (3)
- D. Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939 (Berkeley, Calif., 2001). Back to (4)
I would like to thank Jessica Meyer for her measured, rigorous and constructive review. Particularly valuable is her suggestion that more comparative work on the Imperial dimension of the war would provide greater insight into postwar nationalism and national identity. However, as I suggested in my introduction, given that the impact of the war in the Imperial context has received relatively little attention, we should perhaps be cautious about undertaking comparative work until a more substantial body of case studies has emerged (p. 5). Nevertheless, I feel that the comparisons I did offer – particularly the impact of the war on Australian national identity – were useful (pp. 5–6, 14, 138–9).
Jessica raises a number of issues which I would like to discuss further. Firstly, she suggests I have rather uncritically accepted the work of Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert (1) to substantiate my contention that representations of white masculine superiority were eroded in relation to black masculine identities. In relation to this issue, Jessica also argues that I have given excessive weight to literary accounts of the war, such as those of Robert Graves and Vera Brittain. She accepts that my reading of gender discourse is successful in relation to competing masculinities in the British Empire but is too simplistic in relation to gender relations on the home front. Obviously, there is a relationship between the two, but I feel greater discussion of gender relations at home would have shifted the focus away from the discussion of race and masculinity that I was endeavouring to rescue from the margins.
Laurinda Stryker's and Jessica's own work (2) do provide some very important new insights into the experience and treatment of shell shock with implications for our understanding of wartime masculinity. While Stryker has not uncovered new sources, she nevertheless provides some important new interpretations that do indeed persuade us to re-examine some of Showalter's findings.
However, Stryker draws on a relatively small and selective literature and too readily and uncritically rehearses the self-perceptions of wartime psychiatrists, particularly in relation to the efficacy and validity of their treatment methods. It is slightly disturbing to find a contemporary historian explaining away electric shock treatment as a valid form of suggestive therapy, while doubting the strongly disciplinarian element much of this kind of treatment embodied. (3) Stryker seems to imply that because wartime psychiatrists did not refer to a crisis of masculinity then perhaps there was not one. This of course overlooks the possibility of a broader politics of representation, either in the context of gender on the home front or empire.
Jessica Meyer's work on wartime psychiatry underlines a widespread perception among practitioners that many soldiers had lost a sense of self-control, a pivotal ideal of white masculinity, especially in the Imperial context. She offers compelling evidence that white masculinity was redefined, particularly in terms of comradeship and the ability to endure suffering, qualities that did not depend on a bodily perfection or complete self-control, nor entirely on masculine expectations set by the military hierarchy. However, I did not find evidence that these new articulations of masculinity favourably influenced Imperial subjects keen to emphasise their potential for self-government. This is highlighted by one of my comparative examples which showed how Dominion troops believed it was they, rather than the British Tommy, who carried many of the decisive engagements on the Western Front, claiming they possessed the superior character and physique of frontiersmen (pp. 14–5).
In this context, Jessica has suggested that by focusing on masculine bodily performance I present a simple 'juxtaposition of black health and white weakness'. She provides a useful alternative reading of the quote by Alfred Horner (p. 102) but one which is not dissimilar to some of the literary representations of crucified or martyred youth of which she appears quite critical. (4) Furthermore, Jessica appears to have overlooked my next paragraph in which I clearly state that black soldiers were not automatically imbued with power by the sight of failing white masculinity (p. 103). Many were clearly traumatised by their wartime encounters as my own case studies indicate (see, for example, p. 84–5).
Nevertheless, the symbolic enhancing of black masculinity remained, even if this often rested on existing caricatures of the black subject and alongside more negative stereotypes. The physique of exercising black soldiers could be a source for reverie and admiration, for example, while a purported lack of discipline would simultaneously used to deride. If there is a tendency to emphasise bodily performance in my study, this reflects the over-representation of the black body in Imperial discourse, which tended, but not exclusively so, to set the terms in which competing masculinities were framed. My discussions around the impact of mental dysfunction during the war show that Imperial discourse was also as preoccupied as ever to assert white rationality over purported black irrationality. While my analysis of the black intellectuals Frederick Tomlinson and J. Edmestone Barnes indicates how the assumptions of Imperial thought, around both body and mind, were challenged when visions of black rationality were cast against the irrationality and wartime barbarism of white civilisation (pp. 45–7)
While briefly citing Showalter, I have presented clear evidence from my own research of the deep concerns held by the military establishment around the general morale and psychological temperament of many British soldiers. These examples provide both concrete and symbolic examples of how wartime experiences eroded white masculine ideals (pp. 13–28). More significantly, I argued that the 'crisis of masculinity' during WW1 was linked to earlier disquiet around white masculinity evident during the Crimean War, Indian Mutiny and Morant Bay Rebellion (p. 8). This was not only linked to psychological interpretations, but also to racial degeneration associated with urban development and industrialisation, as well as the effects of affluence on the moral fibre of the middle classes (pp. 15–6). In other words, the experiences of WWI need to be placed in the broader context of gender identities, both in the imperial and metropolitan context – an implicit recognition that masculinity is always in a state of flux and renegotiation, heightened in this case by the testing circumstances presented by war (p. 8–9).
I therefore showed how the wartime crisis of masculinity was represented in my case study colony, Jamaica, using sources that could hardly be described as literary. Newspapers and official documents provide many examples of colonial officials and military officers who displayed symptoms similar to shell shock due to wartime Imperial pressures well away from the front line (pp. 25–8). Many soldiers also presented shell shock symptoms before they even left for the front. Significantly, both Laurinda Stryker's and Jessica Meyer's studies leave one with the impression shell shock was a condition restricted to frontline troops. (5) Had this been the case, military psychiatrists would have had a more straightforward task presenting shell shock as a condition of the emotionally fragile man to modern warfare, rather than a series of complex response to masculine expectation.
The biggest indication of the heightened anxiety around white masculine identity and performance was to be found in the increasing antagonism towards the small black British population and black servicemen. This routinely revolved around sexualised anxiety and competition and was evident in the outbreaks of racial unrest from 1917 until the early 1920s (pp. 116–17, 141). It was also present in official reports concerning the containment of rebellious and disaffected black troops (pp. 132, 144). Of course this had very real implications for gender relations in the metropole, which, while not the main focus of this study, were clearly implicated in the racial unrest during and after the war.
To return to the issue of literary sources, I should point out that Graves was not cited in relation to the shortcomings of white masculinity, but rather in relation to racial attitudes in the British Army. I cited one short passage from Brittain to illustrate the sense of despair at time of the 1918 German Spring Offensive of 1918, noting how this was coloured by her fragile state of mind brought about by nursing mutilated and traumatised British soldiers. This can hardly be considered to over reply on literary sources.
Jessica has elsewhere acknowledged the usefulness of fictional accounts of the war in reconstructing feminine and masculine identities during the war. (5) This can only be successful if the literature of the war is considered in the broadest terms, without privileging what James Campbell has described as the 'trench lyric'; the canon that has provided the dominant images of a liminal and doomed male generation, which until relatively recently dominated academic investigation. (7) Furthermore, in my own work l have endeavoured not to impose what I see as an arbitrary line between literary and non-literary sources. I have drawn on a published memoirs and novels, unpublished accounts, and letters and poems in Jamaican newspapers and very brief soldiers' testimonies – sources that capture a diversity of views, perceptions and experiences across the spectrum of race, class, gender and sexuality.
A further issue Jessica Meyer raises is that I did not convincingly demonstrate black troops were treated any differently from their white counterparts in some circumstances. She disputes, for example, my claim that the notorious Field Punishment No. 1 was particularly repugnant to black soldiers due to its very obvious links to punishments meted out during slavery. I did in fact point out that FP No. 1 was universally loathed in the British Army and referred to the apologist defence of the practice by Lloyd George (pp. 127–8).
In terms of the mental health experience of black soldiers, I openly conceded that there was not always an indication of discriminatory treatment in case notes, but I also showed how mental health provision was used to suppress threats to military order presented by black soldiers. In Marseilles, black soldiers were imprisoned under mental health regulations, even though a noted practitioner, Henry Yellowlees claimed they showed no signs of morbidity. Significantly, they were only regarded as irrational in their opposition to white authority (pp. 123–4). Of course, there was an overlap in the discursive designations applied to the white working-class and black colonial subjects, a point I make in both the context of mental health (p. 28) and more generally (pp. 103–4), but there are also significant differences once weighed against the broader pattern of racial discrimination that I detail at length. Indeed, the military authorities deployed a specific discursive category; the designation 'native troops', historically applied to the West India Regiment, was subsequently informally applied to the British West Indies Regiment for much of the war (p. 82, 123, 135).
This designation ensured the exclusion of black troops from the same medical and social facilities granted to white troops, resulted in lower pay and in the terms of punishment for black troops which often exceeded those permitted by the army's own regulations. Black troops were automatically seen as unfit for frontline service, whereas among white troops this was seen as either a punishment or marker of inferior physique and mental constitution. Black troops were also barred from commissioned rank.
Even without taking this litany into account, it is important to remember the perceptions of the black troops themselves. There is ample evidence that they felt discriminated against in terms of pay, service conditions and discipline, sufficiently so for this to have a lasting impact on Jamaican political life. Time and again we are reminded that their sacrifices had not sufficiently been recognised at demobilisation or thereafter, unlike, for example, members of the Australian contingents whose sacrifices became enshrined in emerging nationhood (p. 5–6, 14). This was manifested in the 1938 labour unrest in which former soldiers such as St. William Grant were so prominent (p. 1–2, 152,168).
Ultimately, it is about how imperial subjects viewed the situation, rather than what more abstract notions of masculinity we might latterly discern, that are more significant in this context. As Sergeant Charles Johnson complained to the Moyne Commission in 1939, white middle- and upper-class Jamaicans remained at home while black Jamaicans volunteered for the front, 'we the lower class ... do their share ... for they would not go they afraid to die (p. 169).
- Sandra M. Gilbert 'Soldier's Heart: Literary men, literary women and the Great War' in Behind the Lines: Gender and Two World Wars, ed. M. R. Higonnet and Jane Jenson (New Haven: New Haven, Conn., 1987); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1800–1980 (1987). Back to (1)
- L. Stryker, 'Mental cases: British shellshock – politics of interpretation' in Back to (2)
- Stryker, pp. 161–2 (and see my pp. 23–4 regarding the use of ether and cigarette burns). Back to (3)
- For examples see James Campbell, 'Combat gnosticism: the ideology of First World War poetry criticism', New Literary History, 30 (1999), 212. Back to (4)
- See Meyer, 'Gladder to be going out than afraid', pp. 203, 207. Stryker states, for example 'the trenches ... contrasted starkly with the masculinist expectations of recruits, and faced with the material realities of the front, men broke down in record numbers' (Stryker, p. 155). Back to (5)
- '"Not Septimus Now": wives of disabled veterans and cultural memory of the First World War in Britain', Women's History Review, 13.1 (2004), 120. Back to (6)
- Campbell, 204. Back to (7)