In October 1914, three months into World War I and with thousands of soldiers and civilians already killed on European battlefields, Trinidadian Andrew Arthur Cipriani penned a letter to a British military officer in Port of Spain, making an appeal that proves Trinidad was a different place 100 years ago.
Responding to a newspaper notice asking the colonials to sign up and join the battle, Cipriani’s letter stated, in part, “There are many men of good physique and education in the Colony, and throughout the West Indies, who are eager and who will be proud to enlist... The population throughout is very mixed: white, black and all shades, from the weakest cafe-au-lait to the strongest black, East Indians, Chinese, etc. Those willing to enlist are of the better class and educated. The cables and papers are read with avidity by them, and so far as West Indians are concerned, the addresses of Lord Kitchener, Messrs Asquith, Churchill and Lloyd George will not be in vain if their respective local legislatures will but vote the pittance needed to get the men to the Old Country... We are 4,000 and some odd miles from the Old Country and the lowest fare is £17.10...
West Indians have realised that it is a fight to a finish, that not only is the existence of the Mother Country at stake, but the very Empire, of which we are all proud to be a part. We should feel not only isolated, but slighted, if our services are declined when men are still wanted to keep the flag flying. In this Colony, at least 500 men between the ages of 20 and 40 can be mustered within a few days; men of education and good physique, and I have no doubt 4,000 similar men can be mustered throughout the West Indies in a short time. All we need is just the consent ‘Come along.’... Our men are of no earthly use in these parts, as invasion is most improbable.
Transatlantic Zeppelin flight has not yet been dreamt of and the enemy has no available transport, as their nearest possession is in Africa. We are bottled up here, but we are eager to get out to assist the Mother Country.
If you would use your influence in getting our little lot taken into service, this Colony, and the West Indies, will be deeply grateful.”
In the end, hundreds of citizens went to the front lines, to fight and some to die, in a war that would last for four years and launch Cipriani’s (who was made a captain in the West Indies Regiment) future roles as labour leader and politician, until his death in 1945, ironically, while World War II raged.
Forty-one Trinidadian women are listed as being involved in the war effort, among those a dozen nurses who worked in the hospitals caring for, and easing the suffering of, war-wounded coming back from the European battlegrounds to die.
Alice May Brodie was one of those women, and through the letters she wrote and the record she kept from the time (researched by her granddaughter Jennifer de Verteuil) it has given us a chance to look back and see it through her eyes.
It is not difficult to imagine what Charlotte Cambridge and Dora Brodie must have made of a letter which arrived from their elder sister, Alice May, posted in France and written on a French shipping company’s letterhead:
Compagnie Générale Transatlantique — à bord de France (on board the ship, The France). The letter is dated October 9, 1914. World War I had recently been declared and their sister is leaving the relative safety of New York, where she has been working as a nurse, and heading into the chaos that is unfolding across Europe. Her sister Charlotte is affectionately known as “Diddie”; May begins:
My dear Diddie and Dora,
We have been out since the morning of the 7th (October) and hope to get to Le Havre on 15th. This is a beautiful boat–really magnificent and we are enjoying ourselves a great deal–there are only about 25 first class passengers, among them we 10 nurses–the line has allowed us 1st Class in everything though only 2nd class fares were paid... Of course everything is French though there is quite a lot of English spoken. ...The cabins are very comfortable with wardrobes, long mirrors, and everything a well-appointed bedroom would have. The sheets are linen and we have luxury as well as comfort.
There are lots of reservists going back to France; in fact most of the husbands on board are going back to France to fight... I hear we ten were chosen from about 200 so we are very proud. Didn’t we have a hurried preparation! It was not till Monday afternoon that we knew we were really going on Wednesday at 10 a.m. and that meant not only packing, but clearing up all our belongings, shopping, seeing about passport etc... Some day I may be in England, in fact, I shall go there if I leave Paris.
Now do not worry about me as we shall be well cared for and this is a grand opportunity in every way.
I have been three days at sea, and one week ago this business had never entered my head. Isn’t it wonderful how things happen? We have with us only suitcases–2 apiece, as trunks are such a nuisance abroad, so you can imagine the difficulty we had in cramming our belongings in.
...This is my birthday: I had almost forgotten it. While I think of it, letters from me may be very irregular as there is no depending on mails these days, so you must not worry when you don’t hear. All the men on this boat are going to the war, that is officers, stewards etc. so the “La France” will make no more trips; it seems a shame as she is such a beautiful boat.
Tuesday October 13th: We get into Le Havre tomorrow morning and there will be so much excitement that we are mailing our letters on board tonight. We had a great time this morning going through the line of British war-ships which are guarding the seas. Our boat was stopped till she showed her colours. I shall write to you as soon as I get to the hospital, if only a card... We are going to our counsels or ambassadors in Paris so that if trouble comes we shall have at least some protection. We get messages every day and today we hear that 20 bombs have been dropped on Paris. I do hope these Germans will soon be settled.
With much love to all–hoping to hear from you soon; I expect to have lots of letters forwarded.
Your loving sister,
A follow-up letter was written on Friday, October 16, 1914. May gives her address as Neuilly, Paris, c/o Dr Joseph Blake, American Ambulance Corps. Here are some extracts:
My Dear Diddie and Dora,
Well here we are in this beautiful, big building — I had no idea it would be so huge. It is still unfinished and we are “roughing it” to a great extent.
I begin to realise what we have sacrificed but still would not have missed it for the world —really New York does spoil one for the premier life...
There are about ten to 15 ambulances and the wounded come in 25 or more at a time. Some days they bring in more than a 100.
I am writing in a sort of unsettled way as I expect to be called at any time... I am leaning on my bed as I have no table. I can’t collect myself to write properly as every now and again someone comes in to talk.
We landed at Le Harvre at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday 14th on a darkening evening. Found we could not go to any of the good hotels as they were all taken up by the Belgian government who had been chased out of Belgium — the Queen is there too, though the King is at the front — so we had to go to a café and have some dinner about 8 p.m. sitting there till 11.30 when the train left for Paris. Such a train! It must have been a mile long! Troops etc on board. This trip is usually a three-hour-long one but took up till 10.30 a.m. the next day — 11 hours — so that when we got to the hospital at 1 p.m. we had had nothing to eat since our dinner the evening before, except a few dates which we had with us. We slept in short naps, fully dressed, and felt such wrecks by the time we got here. However this is nothing compared to the poor soldiers who come in here after having lain four or five days in trenches with awful wounds. No one can realise their suffering.
I forgot to say that Le Harvre was filled with khaki as there are crowds of British soldiers as well as French. Everyone was courtesy itself. We met with the greatest kindness from all of them. They the French think it a wonderful thing for us to come and nurse in their hospitals for nothing.
French women are doing lots of the work that they usually do — even at the customs, the women inspected baggage.
We of course have our passports without which we go nowhere — Paris, to those who knew it formally, is a deserted town — so many beautiful buildings shut up and things seem so quiet. Have driven out to Neuilly in taxis. It took us about half an hour from the city. It is lunch time so I shall close this and post so that if a mail does go I shall have something there. I know it is a miserable scrap but hope to write more later.
Much love from May
It seems something of a miracle that letters did get through to Trinidad from France. The ones that have survived are at times difficult to read, some are written on paper that has not weathered the hundred or so years of existence. Here are a few extracts from a letter written the following day (October 17):
My Dear Diddie and Dora,
...This place gets funnier than ever. You never saw such a funny crowd of nurses, orderlies etc. We feel as if we would like to get rid of most of the “auxiliaries” ...Some of them are Mrs Vanderbuilt with a long string of pearls, some other rich man’s wife with platinum diamond decorations.
The countess of somebody whose husband went to war and who cut her hair off like a boy to save having a maid etc, is chauffeur.
...besides carrying identification cards, everyone has to be vaccinated too...Paris is dead... Every store and café closes at 8 or 8.30 and the city is kept in comparative darkness... we have to be thankful we have food. Till lately, the people here did not see butter. I don’t know how much I should write on these days of letters being censored...
With much love from your loving sister
Letter written on October 31, 1914:
My Dear Diddie and Dora,
On Monday I am going to start French lessons. The teacher seems to think I know quite a good deal which is cheerful — even in the weeks I have been here I have got a great deal and I speak to patients all the time for practice. ...don’t worry about me at all because I am perfectly safe.
I don’t think anyone expects the Germans to get into Paris — they are too busy at the seaports.
This place is very interesting. We can hear so much about the war at first hand. The men tell us all sorts of stories about their nights in the trenches and of the excitement at the firing line. One man showed me today the little penknife with which he cut off his shattered leg. (This was the subject of a newspaper article and there is a photograph of the soldier to go with it that May sent to her sisters.) They, the British, are a very jolly crowd and don’t seem to mind much going back minus arms and legs...
Letter written on November 12, 1914:
(She begins with an acknowledgement of mail received “direct from home”).
My Dear Diddie and Dora,
3 a.m. Just had two admissions. One arm and one leg case. The poor wretches were covered with dirt and blood but look somewhat better now. One private died yesterday and another today. The former hardly could rest at night imagining he was in the midst of the Germans. I wonder they don’t go insane after what they have gone through. One of those boys who was brought in tonight has two brothers also in the war.
Dr Grey was taken out to Soisson yesterday to help identify some titled Englishman’s son. His father could not be sure the body was that of his son so Dr G had to make an incision and find out about some bone setting that Sir F Travis in London had done...
We have so many awful stories come every day but what is the good of repeating. Miss Lewis wants me to write an account but I get too sick of it all to bother about that; I am afraid I am too lacking in ambition along these lines. I could not be bothered. I only wish for the end of it all; I am saturated with it although I wouldn’t wish to be away from it while it is going on.
Much love May
Extracts from a letter dated November 29, 1914:
My Dear Diddie and Dora,
...The whole world seems to be suffering. No I do not wear the flapping headpieces, for Americans wear our usual caps but most of the English and French people deck out in those kerchief arrangements.
...We went over to the Latin Quarter — the third time I had been. The Luxembourg Gardens are of course wonderful but so neglected. The same story everywhere. No men at home to do the work. It is pathetic. We went into numbers of old churches (of course lots of priests are at war too. I think 8,000 went). We have some wounded here. Paris has been speaking of opening up the theatres but I don’t believe they will be going for some time yet. ...There are no actors now and nearly everybody has lost someone so there won’t be any who care to go. The black dresses on the streets ...Any touch of colour seems conspicuous...Everything is at a standstill...the sales people are glad to work...and landlords do not charge them rent.
...The prince of Monacco (the Monte Carlo man) was through here the other day and before him the Prince and Princess George of Greece. The Princess in Royalty’s patronising way spoke to one of our British soldiers, a regular “tough”, the kind I should imagine haunting saloon corners. She said, “How are you?” “Oh! I’m quite well, thank you. And ‘ow are you?” said Tetanus as we call him among ourselves (he had Tetanus). One of the nurses said afterwards to him, that was the Princess George of Greece. “Waas she?” drawled Tetanus, “I thought she was another woman like yourself.”
Extracts from a letter dated December 3, 1914:
...at present we are rather quiet. There is not much fighting going on near.
December 4th — It is the most glorious night I have ever seen. Wonderful moonlight and the softest coolest breeze blowing the building — looks wonderful, like fairyland from the terrace. It is impossible to imagine Paris so near. It is more like a cool summer evening.
I think I told you they are going to begin to pay us $20 per month and rather than accept this money I would like to go feeling what I had given had been solely, wholly voluntary — two months service. The auxiliaries are dear to me and I hate to leave them as well as the patients but then I always loath changes. If I had not broken away from the Hudson (hospital) I should still be mouldering there.”
May was awarded a medal referred to in the family as The Mons Star. Soldiers who fought at the battle of Mons became eligible for a campaign medal, called “The 1914 Star” honouring troops who had fought in Belgium or France during the period August 5 to November 22, 1914. May, who served during this time, was deemed eligible to receive this award.
In late 1919 she made her first trip back to Trinidad after a ten-year absence from home. Her romance with Bertie Thomson was rekindled and they became engaged. She rushed back to New York, packed up her belongings and returned to Trinidad for good.
May died on 14th March 1947 in Broome Street, Port of Spain, where they had bought a house after her husband had been forced to retire due to ill health. Philip writes: "Due to my father's illness we left 'Coora' in 1944. Our living conditions had not changed and I do not think my parents would
have had it otherwise. The estate was now owned by an oil company and a quarter of a mile up the road the oilfield camp had all the modern conveniences - and their cocktail parties." May is buried in the Layperouse cemetery alongside her two sisters Diddie and Dora. Bertie passed away a
little over a year afterwards on 8th of June 1948, in England, where he had gone to visit his brother and two sisters.
"The Warahoons" as they were known visited the estate from time to time.
Betty writes that "they were a tribe of South American Indians who lived in
the forests of Venezuela. The strip of sea between Venezuela and our beach
was only 6-7 miles wide and easily sailed by small boats or dugouts. They
were fairly short and well-muscled - their main clothing was a loin cloth
with additions such as shirts, felt hats - my mother always gave them what
she could of my father's which was always received with great delight - my
mother tells the story of how she discovered one of them handing bedclothes
and other useful things through the bedroom window to a receiver in the
garden - not stealing, just helping themselves. They were very mystified
when they saw my nurse holding me - could not understand a black woman with
a white baby." Photographs taken of one of the Warahoon visits to the
estate were sent by May to her nursing colleague, Miss Lewis, in New York.
These have now been returned to the family along with May's description:
"They paid us this first visit - about 30 of them in number about ten in the
morning; they just walked into the yard (they amble along just like parrots)
gave me a look as uncompromising as possible and squatted about in groups
chiefly on the stairs and doorways of the house. Philip was quite
interested and squatted in their midst - they were quite taken by his fair
hair. . . . We had quite a time getting the snaps as they were afraid of the
camera . . . When they left us they had acquired two vests of Bertie's, a
shirt, a jacket, a pair of riding trousers and a part of a pyjama suit so
they were more completely dressed than they were in the pictures. They
asked for clothes in their language but I understand that in their houses
they use them for 'bedding'. . . . Their skin is reddish brown, their hair
straight and the men's faces are all free of beard or moustaches."
NOTE: Comprehensive research on the involvement of Trinidadians in WWI has been done by Gerard Besson and can be found at www.caribbeanhistoryarchives.blogspot.com