Remembrance Day: “The Forgotten Soldiers”

369th Infantry Regiment_formerly the 15th New York National Guard Regiment_During WW1 known as The Harlem Hellfighters_1919 photograph with their Croix de Guerre medals

Simon Rogers (U.K. journalist)
“The Forgotten Soldiers” – originally published in The Guardian (U.K.), November 6th, 2002:
More than four million men and women from Britain’s colonies volunteered for service during the first and second World Wars. Thousands died, and many more were wounded or spent years as POWs. Yet throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, their sacrifices were largely ignored…
. . .
There was a time when George Blackman would have done anything for the mother country. In 1914, in a flush of youth and patriotism, he told the recruiting officer he was 18 – he was actually 17 – and joined the British West Indies Regiment.
“Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world,” Blackman recalls. “We sang songs: ‘Run Kaiser William, run for your life, boy’.” He closes his eyes as he sings, and keeps them closed for the rest of our interview. “We wanted to go. The island government told us the king said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us.”
Enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals. The islands donated £60m in today’s money to the war effort – cash they could ill afford.
While Kitchener’s private attitude was that black soldiers should never be allowed at the front alongside white soldiers, the enormous losses – and the interference of George V – made it inevitable. Although Indian soldiers had been briefly in the trenches in 1914 and 1915, Caribbean troops did not arrive until 1915.
When they arrived, they often found that fighting was to be done by white soldiers only – black soldiers were assigned the dirty, dangerous jobs of loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Conditions were appalling. Blackman rolls up his sleeve to show me his armpit: “It was cold. And everywhere there were white lice. We had to shave the hair there because the lice grow there. All our socks were full of white lice.”
A poem written by an anonymous trooper, entitled The Black Soldier’s Lament, showed how bitter the disappointment was:
Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest
From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.
Yet there is evidence that some Caribbean soldiers were involved in actual combat in France. Photographs from the time show black soldiers armed with British Lee Enfield rifles, and there are reports of West Indies Regiment soldiers fighting off counter-attacks – one account tells how a group fought off a German assault armed only with knives they had brought from home. Blackman still remembers trench fights he fought in, alongside white soldiers.
“They called us darkies,” he says, recalling the casual racism of the time. “But when the battle starts, it didn’t make a difference. We were all the same. When you’re there, you don’t care about anything. Every man there is under the rifle.”
He remembers one attack with particular clarity. “The Tommies said: ‘Darkie, let them have it.’ I made the order: ‘Bayonets, fix’ and then ‘B company, fire’. You know what it is to go and fight somebody hand to hand? You need plenty nerves. You push that bayonet in there and hit with the butt of the gun – if he is dead he is dead, if he live he live.”
The West Indies Regiment experienced racism from the Germans as well as the British. “The Tommies, they brought up some German prisoners and these prisoners were spitting on their hands and wiping on their faces, to say we were painted black,” says Blackman.
He didn’t make friends. “Don’t have no friend. A soldier don’t got friends. Know why? You believe that you are dead now. Your friend is this: the gun. That is your friend.”
. . .
Notice from the West Indian Contingent Committee (1915):
Directions regarding gifts – this is a list of articles which experience has shown to be useful to our soldiers…
Handkerchiefs, boot laces
Cocoa (prepared)
Spices (prepared)
Chocolate, peppermints and sweets
Dried fruits
Ginger (prepared)
Guava jelly and preserves
Hot sauces for salmagundi etc.
Briar pipes and tobacco pouches
Tobacco (in thick tinfoil if possible)
Cigarettes, cigarette papers and cigarette tobacco
Automatic lighters (not containing oil, spirit or similar substances)
Safety matches (in sealed tins)
Antiseptic powder
Boracic ointment or borated vaseline for sore feet (in small tins)
Brompton cough lozenges
Notepaper, envelopes and pencils
. . . . .

A poem for Remembrance Day: “What our dead can do” (translation from the Polish)

Zbigniew Herbert (Poland, 1924-1998)
What our dead can do
Jan came this morning
—I dreamt of my father
he says

he was riding in an oak coffin
I walked next to the hearse
and father turned to me:

you dressed me nicely
and the funeral is very beautiful
at this time of year so many flowers
it must have cost a lot

don’t worry about it father
—I say—let people see
we loved you
that we spared nothing

       six men in black livery
walk nicely at our sides

father thought for a while
and said—the key to the desk
is in the silver inkwell
there is still some money
in the second drawer on the left

with this money—I say—
we will buy you a gravestone
a large one of black marble

it isn’t necessary—says father—
better give it to the poor

       six men in black livery
walk nicely at our sides
they carry burning lanterns

again he seemed to be thinking
—take care of the flowers in the garden
cover them for the winter
I don’t want them to be wasted

you are the oldest—he says—
from a little felt bag behind the painting
take out the cuff links with real pearls
let them bring you luck
my mother gave them to me
when I finished high school
then he didn’t say anything
he must have entered a deeper sleep

this is how our dead
look after us
they warn us through dreams
bring back lost money
hunt for jobs
whisper the numbers of lottery tickets
or when they can’t do this
knock with their fingers on the windows

and out of gratitude
we imagine immortality for them
snug as the burrow of a mouse.
. . .
from the collection Elegia na odejście (Elegy for the Departure), published in 1990

Translation from Polish into English © 1999, John and Bogdana Carpenter

. . . . .

Zbigniew Herbert: Report from the Besieged City / Raport z oblężonego Miasta

Near Krakow Poland_a boxcar at the former Auschwitz site_photo from 2013

Zbigniew Herbert (Poland, 1924-1998)
Report from the Besieged City

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others –

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record – I don’t know for whom – the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don’t know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our messengers
we don’t know where they are held that is the place of torture
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can’t move anyone

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the city
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom.
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colours of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird’s yellow in spring through green through red to winter’s black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think
about distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are grateful
they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defence continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated.
. . .
from Raport z oblężonego Miasta i inne wiersze (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems), published in 1982, English translation © 1983, John and Bogdana Carpenter
. . .
Here is the poem in its original Polish:

Raport z oblężonego Miasta

Zbyt stary żeby nosić broń i walczyć jak inni –

wyznaczono mi z łaski poślednią rolę kronikarza
zapisuję – nie wiadomo dla kogo – dzieje oblężenia

mam być dokładny lecz nie wiem kiedy zaczął się najazd
przed dwustu laty w grudniu wrześniu może wczoraj o świcie
wszyscy chorują tutaj na zanik poczucia czasu

pozostało nam tylko miejsce przywiązanie do miejsca
jeszcze dzierżymy ruiny świątyń widma ogrodów i domów
jeśli stracimy ruiny nie pozostanie nic

piszę tak jak potrafię w rytmie nieskończonych tygodni
poniedziałek: magazyny puste jednostką obiegową stał się szczur
wtorek: burmistrz zamordowany przez niewiadomych sprawców
środa: rozmowy o zawieszeniu broni nieprzyjaciel internował posłów
nie znamy ich miejsca pobytu to znaczy miejsca kaźni
czwartek: po burzliwym zebraniu odrzucono większością głosów
wniosek kupców korzennych o bezwarunkowej kapitulacji
piątek: początek dżumy sobota: popełnił samobójstwo
N. N. niezłomny obrońca niedziela: nie ma wody odparliśmy
szturm przy bramie wschodniej zwanej Bramą Przymierza

wiem monotonne to wszystko nikogo nie zdoła poruszyć
unikam komentarzy emocje trzymam w karbach piszę o faktach
podobno tylko one cenione są na obcych rynkach
ale z niejaką dumą pragnę donieść światu
że wyhodowaliśmy dzięki wojnie nową odmianę dzieci
nasze dzieci nie lubią bajek bawią się w zabijanie
na jawie i we śnie marzą o zupie chlebie i kości
zupełnie jak psy i koty

wieczorem lubię wędrować po rubieżach Miasta
wzdłuż granic naszej niepewnej wolności
patrzę z góry na mrowie wojsk ich światła
słucham hałasu bębnów barbarzyńskich wrzasków
doprawdy niepojęte że Miasto jeszcze się broni

oblężenie trwa długo wrogowie muszą się zmieniać
nic ich nie łączy poza pragnieniem naszej zagłady
Goci Tatarzy Szwedzi hufce Cesarza pułki Przemienienia Pańskiego
kto ich policzy
kolory sztandarów zmieniają się jak las na horyzoncie
od delikatnej ptasiej żółci na wiosnę przez zieleń czerwień do zimowej czerni

tedy wieczorem uwolniony od faktów mogę pomyśleć
o sprawach dawnych dalekich na przykład o naszych
sprzymierzeńcach za morzem wiem współczują szczerze
ślą mąkę worki otuchy tłuszcz i dobre rady
nie wiedzą nawet że nas zdradzili ich ojcowie
nasi byli alianci z czasów drugiej Apokalipsy
synowie są bez winy zasługują na wdzięczność więc jesteśmy wdzięczni
nie przeżyli długiego jak wieczność oblężenia
ci których dotknęło nieszczęście są zawsze samotni
obrońcy Dalajlamy Kurdowie afgańscy górale

teraz kiedy piszę te słowa zwolennicy ugody
zdobyli pewną przewagę nad stronnictwem niezłomnych
zwykłe wahanie nastrojów losy jeszcze się ważą

cmentarze rosną maleje liczba obrońców
ale obrona trwa i będzie trwała do końca

i jeśli Miasto padnie a ocaleje jeden
on będzie niósł Miasto w sobie po drogach wygnania
on będzie Miasto

patrzymy w twarz głodu twarz ognia twarz śmierci
najgorszą ze wszystkich – twarz zdrady

i tylko sny nasze nie zostały upokorzone

. . . . .

Election Day poems: “Democracy” X 3

August 12th 2014_106 Huron Street_Toronto_graffiti

Today, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, is traditionally “Election Day” in the U.S.A.  Following, some poems to ponder…

Langston Hughes




Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.


Dorianne Laux (born 1952, Augusta, Maine, U.S.A.)



When you’re cold—November, the streets icy and everyone you pass

homeless, Goodwill coats and Hefty bags torn up to make ponchos—

someone is always at the pay phone, hunched over the receiver

spewing winter’s germs, swollen lipped, face chapped, making the last

tired connection of the day. You keep walking to keep the cold

at bay, too cold to wait for the bus, too depressing the thought

of entering that blue light, the chilled eyes watching you decide

which seat to take: the man with one leg, his crutches bumping

the smudged window glass, the woman with her purse clutched

to her breasts like a dead child, the boy, pimpled, morose, his head

shorn, a swastika carved into the stubble, staring you down.

So you walk into the cold you know: the wind, indifferent blade,

familiar, the gold leaves heaped along the gutters. You have

a home, a house with gas heat, a toilet that flushes. You have

a credit card, cash. You could take a taxi if one would show up.

You can feel it now: why people become Republicans: Get that dog

off the street. Remove that spit and graffiti. Arrest those people huddled

on the steps of the church. If it weren’t for them you could believe in god,

in freedom, the bus would appear and open its doors, the driver dressed

in his tan uniform, pants legs creased, dapper hat: Hello Miss, watch

your step now. But you’re not a Republican. You’re only tired, hungry,

you want out of the cold. So you give up, walk back, step into line behind

the grubby vet who hides a bag of wine under his pea coat, holds out

his grimy 85 cents, takes each step slow as he pleases, releases his coins

into the box and waits as they chink down the chute, stakes out a seat

in the back and eases his body into the stained vinyl to dream

as the chips of shrapnel in his knee warm up and his good leg

flops into the aisle. And you’ll doze off, too, in a while, next to the girl

who can’t sit still, who listens to her Walkman and taps her boots

to a rhythm you can’t hear, but you can see it—when she bops

her head and her hands do a jive in the air—you can feel it

as the bus rolls on, stopping at each red light in a long wheeze,

jerking and idling, rumbling up and lurching off again.


from: Facts About The Moon, copyright © 2007, Dorianne Laux


Leonard Cohen

(Songwriter/singer, born 1934, Montreal, Canada)



It’s coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.
It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we’ll be making love again.
We’ll be going down so deep
the river’s going to weep,
and the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on …
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


José Guadalupe Posada: the ‘calaveras’ of a Mexican master of social reportage and satire


The etchings of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) demonstrated a worldview that was, and often still is, profoundly Mexican.  A commercial illustrator who also printed political broadsides, Posada invented the ‘calavera’ portrait.  Calavera means skull, and by extension, skeleton.  Aspects of the nation’s Indigenous heritage (skulls and death-goddesses were central to Aztec and Maya cultures) plus its Spanish cultural inheritance (death-oriented monastic orders, the ‘dance of death’ and ‘memento mori’ traditions) combine in Posada’s rustic yet sophisticated prints to give us the flavour of the average Mexican’s stoical yet humorous appreciation of Death.





La Catrina_zinc etching by J.G. Posada

La Catrina_zinc etching by J.G. Posada



A Sincere Tale for The Day of The Dead :
“ Lady Catrina goes for a stroll / Doña Catrina da un paseo ”
“¡ Santa Mictecacihuatl  !
These Mandible Bone-nix (Manolo Blahniks) weren’t meant for
The Long Haul – certainly not worth the silver I shelled out for ’em ! ”
Thus spoke that elegant skeleton known as La Catrina.
And she clunked herself down at the stone curb, kicking off the
jade-encrusted, ocelot-fur-trimmed high-heel shoes.
“ Well, I haven’t been ‘bone-foot’ like this since I was an escuincle. ”
She chuckled to herself as she began rummaging through her Juicy handbag.
Extracting a shard of mirror, she held it up to her face – a calavera
with teardrop earrings grinned back at her.  ¡Hola, Preciosa!
she said to herself with quiet pride.  She adjusted her necklace of
cempasúchil blossoms and smoothed her yellow-white-red-and-black
Just then a lad and lassie crossed her path…
“ Yoo-hoo, Young Man, Young Woman !
Be dears, would you both, and escort an old dame
across La Plaza de la Existencia !  My feet are simply
worn down to the bone ! ”
“ Certainly, madam – but we’re new here…
Where is La Plaza de la Existencia ? ”
“ We’re just at the edge of it – El Zócalo ! ”
And La Catrina gestured beyond them where an
immense public square stretched far and wide.
She clasped their hands – the Young Man on her left,
the Young Woman on her right – and the trio set out
across a sea of cobbles…
By the time they reached the distant side of the Plaza the
Young Man and Young Woman had shared much with the
calaca vivaz – their hopes, fears, sadness and joy – their Lives.

The Woman by now had grown a long, luxurious
silver braid and The Man a thick, salt-and-pepper
beard.  Both knew they’d lived fully – and were satisfied.
But my… – they were tired !
In the company of the strange and gregarious Catrina 5 minutes
to cross The Zócalo had taken 50 years…
“ Doña Catrina, here we are at your destination – will you be
alright now ? ”
“ Never felt better, Kids !  I always enjoy charming company
on a journey ! ”  And she winked at them, even though she had
no eyeballs – just sockets.  “ Join me for a caffè-latte?  Or a café-pulque,
if you’re lactose-intolerant ! ”
“Thank you, no,” said the Man and Woman, in unison.
And both laughed heartily, breathed deeply, and sat down
at the curb.
When they looked up, Doña Catrina had clattered gaily out of sight.
And before their eyes the vast Zócalo became peopled with
scenes from their Lives.

The Man and Woman smiled, then sighed contentedly. And, side by side, they leaned closer together – and died.

* finis *
Alexander Best – November 2nd, 2011


Mictecacihuatl  –  Aztec goddess of the AfterLife, and Keeper of The Bones
La Catrina  –  from La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Lady-Skull),
a famous zinc etching by Mexican political cartoonist and print-maker
Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).  Posada’s “calavera” prints depict
society from top to bottom – even the upper-class woman of wealth –
La Catrina – must embrace Death, just like everyone else…
She has since become a “character”,
invented and re-invented, for The Day of The Dead (Nov.2nd).
escuincle  –  little kid or street urchin
calavera  –  skull
¡Hola, Preciosa!  –  Hello, Gorgeous!
cempasúchil  –  marigold  (the Day of The Dead flower)
huipil –  blouse or dress,  Mayan-style
El Zócalo  –  the main public square (plaza mayor) in Mexico City,
largest in The Americas
calaca vivaz  –  lively skeleton
pulque  –  a Mexican drink make from fermented
agave or maguey – looks somewhat like milk


¡Chaucito, chavos! Ciao, kiddies!

¡Chaucito, chavos! Ciao, kiddies!