On 25th August 2021 it will be exactly 100 years since the death of Wendell Valentyne Byer. Who was Wendell you may ask? A famous cricketer? A politician perhaps?
No, he was none of these, Wendell was once a trainee schoolteacher in St George. He was strong and fit – 5 feet 11 and a half inches tall. His seven younger siblings all idolised him. His potential was unlimited. Then, in 1917 as soon as he reached the age of eighteen, he joined the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) so he could go to Europe and fight for the ‘Mother Country’ in World War I. He returned to Barbados in June 1918, a broken man, suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) which in those days meant almost certain death. Despite this the Medical Board that examined him contrived to judge that he had no disability. He died, of TB, three years later. He was the last member of the BWIR to be buried in a World War I Commonwealth War Grave on Barbados. His grave can be found in St. Barnabas Churchyard in St Michael.
There are twelve World War I Commonwealth War Graves in Barbados containing the bodies of brave young Barbadians who gave their lives for the Mother Country. All but one served with the BWIR. The exception, Cecil Yard, who is buried at St. Matthew Churchyard, St. Michael, was with the Royal Engineers.
In researching the lives of these twelve young men I found bravery, patriotism, tragedy and blatant racism particularly on the part of Army Medical Boards, but no story was sadder than that of Wendell.
I have visited each of the graves which are spread across eight cemeteries in Barbados. As you might expect, five of them are in Westbury Cemetery in Bridgetown. The Westbury five are David Roachford, Martin Luther Taitt, Richard Lopez, Laurie Greaves and Fitz Grandison.
Percy Archer is buried at St Philip the Less in Boscobel, St. Peter while Clarence Bascom rests in St John’s Parish Cemetery. Clarence Gittens occupies the sole War Grave at St Philip Parish Church.
The most challenging to find was the memorial to Siebert Raper at St James. Siebert has no grave but is commemorated by a headstone placed in a building within St James’ cemetery. The building is kept locked but I was able to gain access at the third or fourth attempt.
Generally speaking the graves are well maintained and shown appropriate respect. The glaring exception is that of Fitz Griffith at St Lucy Churchyard. For some time now his resting place has been flooded, making access almost impossible. Approaches to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have proved ineffective and it is frankly shameful that no action has been taken to address the situation.
Over 15,000 West Indian troops fought in World War I, 831 of them from Barbados. Approximately 1,250 West Indians perished. The main causes of death were disease and illness and whereas many were buried abroad, for example in England, Europe, the Far East and Africa, some, like our twelve Barbadian heroes, made it home before succumbing to injuries or disease suffered during the conflict.
It should be remembered that there was no conscription for any of the West Indians who enlisted to fight World War I. Every single one of them joined up voluntarily. Indeed many Barbadians were clamouring to join the War effort long before the formal creation of the BWIR in October 1915.
The most famous and valiant example is of the nine men who came across to England on the Steam Ship Danube as stowaways. Their aim was to enlist in the British Army. Apprehended during the journey they were hauled before the magistrates as soon as they landed in London.
In May 1915 they appeared at West Ham Court charged with being stowaways. Their names are worthy of listing here; they were Thomas Bayley, Sidney Redmond, Alan Thornhill, Leo Yarwood, George Cousins, Eric Blakely, Albert Goppy, Arthur Ford and George Walker. True heroes.
When it became known that the nine were ‘desirous of enlisting in the army’ the local police made enquiries at the recruitment office and were told that black people could not be taken on. The magistrate, a Mr Gillespie, then mocked the brave men before ordering that they be detained for one week. Exactly what became of each of the nine is not known but it is right that their bravery and loyalty, no matter how misguided it might now appear, is remembered.
Following the formation of the BWIR the first West Indian troops were sent to Seaford in Sussex for training. Conditions were not good and nineteen West Indian soldiers died there and are buried in Commonwealth War Graves in England.
To qualify for a World War I Commonwealth War Grave, service personnel need to have died in service or, if they were no longer serving, died before 1st September 1921 with the cause of death being attributable to their service. Consequently twelve young Bajans are buried in War Graves on Barbados. They made it home but died soon after as a result of their service.
In 2017 I decided to visit each of the War Graves. This was partly to pay my respects but I also wanted to write about the lives of the twelve so they would not be forgotten. None of them were married, they were all young men, Wendell Byer at barely 18 years of age was little more than a child. They have no children or grandchildren to remember them and of course their parents, uncles and aunts died long ago. Like all history, if we do not write it down it is soon forgotten and the bravery of these men needs to be documented, celebrated and cherished.
Perhaps surprisingly I am not the only person to have visited each Grave. In 2018 I found that each War Grave had a poppy affixed to it. I later learned that an ex-serviceman, feeling that too little respect was paid to these fallen heroes, travelled around the island every November and placed a poppy on each of the Graves. What a marvellous gesture and one for which he seeks no thanks or recognition.
The links below take you to the stories of each of the twelve young men. Very little has changed since these accounts were written. The pandemic has put paid to some of the modes of transport I quote and the minimum bus fare has increased.
What has NOT changed is the story of each of the brave young men. Their lives had all ended by 1921 and no new chapters have been written.
If you live near any of the graveyards or are a visiting tourist why not take time to find a War Grave and pay your respects to the brave young men who gave their lives for others over 100 years ago?
Additional information and background reading
Details of where the twelve Bajan World War I Commonwealth War Graves are located together with Bill Hern’s individual profile on each of the twelve Bajan World War I soldiers published on historycalroots.com are detailed below:
- historycalroots.com profile on: Clarence Gittens (British West Indies Regiment: 11174)
- profile on: Martin Luther Taitt (British West Indies Regiment: 704) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Fitz Grandison (British West Indies Regiment: 15373) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Laurie Greaves (British West Indies Regiment: 15043) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: David Roachford (British West Indies Regiment: 11578) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Richard Lopez (British West Indies Regiment: 15120) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Cecil Yard (Royal Engineers, Pioneer Corps: 199705) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Wendell Valentyne Byer (British West Indies Regiment: 10905) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Clarence Bascom (British West Indies Regiment: 10906) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Siebert Raper (British West Indies Regiment: 5635) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Percy Archer (British West Indies Regiment: 13829) on historycalroots.com
- profile on: Fitz Griffith (British West Indies Regiment: 15048) on historycalroots.com