Forgotten fighters of World War One
Suffolk playwright Juliet Gilkes-Romero is returning to Ipswich to stage her first play At the Gates of Gaza which unveils a forgotten part of the First World War.
Suffolk playwright Juliet Gilkes-Romero has returned to Ipswich to stage her first play At the Gates of Gaza which unveils a forgotten part of the First World War. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about her journey of discovery.
We live in such well-documented times that it sometimes seems that there is no historical fact from our recent past which remains hidden.
Yet Suffolk-raised journalist and playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero discovered a whole aspect to the First World War that has been largely forgotten.
She was amazed to discover that hundreds of Jamaican and West Indian men volunteered for service during the First World War and served in Palestine fighting the Turks. A journalist with BBC Worldwide - the television arm of the world service - she was staggered to discover that there was a whole part of the conflict that no-one knew anything about.
“Being a journalist, I was amazed that I had never heard of this aspect of the war. I thought how on earth did this escape me? I went to The Imperial War Museum, started researching it and uncovered quite a story.”
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She said that she became so captivated by the stories that she discovered that she felt compelled to share it with a wider audience. Despite being a journalist, she felt that the stories were so personal that they would have much greater impact as a piece of drama on a stage rather than a television documentary.
She said: “In a way it was my own ignorance that drove me to write this piece. Also there was a certain amount of anger in there, if I am honest. This is important history; why is it not known? I wasn't taught this at school. I learnt about the slave trade at school but no-one addressed the fact that many Caribbean men volunteered to fight in the First World War and were very proud to be fighting for The King and the Empire, as it was then.”
She said that the British West Indies Regiment served under General Allenby, who has Suffolk links and has a park in Felixstowe named after him, and were fully committed to the war, won many medals for bravery but after the war were completely sidelined.
Juliet has many links with Suffolk, having been raised in Trimley St Martin, and is delighted that her play is being premiered at the New Wolsey Theatre, a venue where she saw her first piece of live theatre.
“My family and I moved to Suffolk from London when I was ten and it was quite an experience - a real culture shock. London was a big multi-cultural city and Ipswich, at that time, seemed to be a small provincial town. My dad (John) worked for British Telecom and played a lot of cricket, so he fitted in right away.
“Mum (Joyce) was a teacher first at Tower Ramparts and then at Stoke Park. My love of theatre and literature comes from my parents who took me to the theatre here at The Wolsey and to things in London.
“Also they took us all over Suffolk, so we knew a lot about the county we had moved to. Sutton Hoo, Aldeburgh, Framlingham Castle - we went all over. And when Dad went off to play cricket we went along too and Mum took us out to explore all these little villages and small towns that he went to play against. So we didn't feel like outsiders or strangers for very long.
“In fact I remember when we arrived and we were unloading the removal van in Trimley, the local kids came up and were fascinated by us. There were about ten kids on their bikes and we just hanging about watching the van being unloaded and one of the kids came up and said: 'Do you want to come and play?' Mum said: 'OK' we unloaded our bikes and off we went. I'll never forget that. That was our introduction to Suffolk and I really fell in love with the county.”
She said that it's a wonderful homecoming having her first play produced by the New Wolsey - particularly as her parents still live in Trimley. “This is still the family home - even though I left as a young woman to make my own way in the world. This is where we come back to at Christmas and when we need a rest from the madness of London.”
The play, At the Gates of Gaza, was a huge labour of love as well a tremendous learning experience for Juliet, who had to learn a new way of writing when tackling the play.
Although the writing process involved a lot of research, she had to force herself to not write the play as a straightforward narrative. Fortunately the Imperial War Museum allowed her access to the diaries of the ordinary soldiers which changed how she looked at the piece.
This was what brought the subject alive for her. It wasn't the strategy, or the lives of the generals in charge, the battles or the political importance of the region - although fascinating in itself - it was the tales of these ordinary people from the West Indies, who volunteered to fight for an English King, their King, in a war thousands of miles away from their homes, that really touched her.
She said that working in a news environment she knew one and a half minutes- the length of an average news item - was not enough time to get the story across and she felt that the documentary approach would be expensive and not necessarily right for the story she wanted to tell. So she opted to tell the story as a play.
“I took a year out of the newsroom to do an MA in writing for performance and I chose this period as a way to really get down and write this play. The Imperial War Museum was brilliant. I had my own desk there after a week and they allowed me to read the diaries of soldiers who had died. I was absolutely fascinated by the details of the various battles and what went on during the three battles for Gaza.”
She said that she can trace much of the modern troubles in the region to the way that the area was carved up at the end of the war.
“I also see a lot of parallels between ideological young men going off to war for a cause that they believe in and what is happening today in the region.
“In many ways it was like an open casting call for Hollywood. It was a war that everyone wanted to be involved in. It was going to be a war to end all wars. It was going to glorious. It was going to glamorous and it was going to be over before Christmas and you didn't want to miss out.
“They didn't understand the visceral nature of the fighting but they didn't have television - they didn't really have movies. It was difficult to visualise the reality of conflict, particularly as it was being sold to them as a patriotic and glorious undertaking. I saw recruiting posters at the Imperial War Museum that were aimed specifically at recruiting soldiers from the Caribbean.”
She said that shockingly many of the volunteers died of exposure on the journey to England. Having left their home on a troopship they were routed via Halifax, off the coast of Canada, and skirted the Arctic. They were not issued with the appropriate clothing meaning that many died of hypothermia or suffered frostbite and amputations before they arrived in Britain for their basic training.
She said that even before the British West Indies Regiment was raised men from the Caribbean were stowing away to come over to fight. She said that the King was well-loved in the Caribbean and there was a lot of pride in being part of the British Empire. It was seen as a way not only to do their bit in preserving the British way of life and the values that it stood for but also a way of improving their lot in life.
“The British Empire covered a third of the world and they were very proud to be a part of it. Their greatest honour would have been to serve their King and their country as they saw it.”
She said that one of her biggest challenges in these rather more jaded times was managing to convincingly portray this patriotic feeling among the volunteers before the grim horrors of war hit home.
The play is told from the point of view of a young lad from Liverpool who has a Caribbean father and an Irish mother and, despite being British, is drafted into the British West Indies Regiment because of his racial background. He finds that he neither at home in a traditional British regiment nor among the volunteers from the Caribbean.
“It's a highly-charged story and I find theatre a brilliant medium to tell stories like this. It allows the audience to get close to the people involved. For me theatre is far more engaging than watching the television news.”
She said that the play went through several drafts before settling on the final version. “The first version came out like a documentary which isn't theatre. We had reading with actors and that's when it really first started coming to life. So I had to bin that first draft and start again. I had close down that journalistic side of my brain and concentrate on the journey and character motivation.”
She said that the production will dramatically recreate the feeling of life on the front lines. Rehearsals will involve close collaboration between director Steven Luckie, set designer Helen Davies and lighting designer Crin Claxton to establish the proper atmosphere while the battle scenes will be choreographed by Shaun Cope and will feature a complex sound track by Colin Thorpe which will include 1914 calypso music, a classical sound track and the ambience of the First World War.