There can’t be many World War One veterans who won a Military Medal for bravery, went on to become a Prime Minister, then to become an ‘Official Hero’, and to have an international airport named after him.
That’s what happened to Norman Washington Manley – one of the many black troops from the former British west Indies who fought on the Somme and elsewhere. His younger brother Douglas Roy Manley – also a Gunner – fought with him and was killed in 1917. The brothers will be com-memorated with plaques this year at Lochnagar Crater – a reminder of the troops of Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Chinese descent who fought in the First World War. According to the historian David Olusoga, writing on the BBC iWonder website, more than four million non-European, non-white soldiers and auxiliaries fought in WW1 – more than a quarter of them in northern France and Belgium. Norman Manley was born in Jamaica in 1893. His parents were mixed race – of African, Caribbean and Irish descent – and when they died he moved to England, where he became a Rhodes Scholar and read law at Jesus College, Oxford.
Roy Manley was two years younger than Norman, and from 1911 to 1914 he boarded at a public school called Felsted in Essex. He was a good sportsman and featured prominently at cricket and in a school running team.
The Manley brothers enlisted in September, 1915, with the Royal Field Artillery at Deptford in London. Norman left a memoir, quoted in the Jamaica Journal in 1973, in which he describes his life in the army. Most of his fellow recruits, he said, were Cockneys: “I got to know them very well and a great affection developed between us. They were first-class thieves and would rob your last farthing if you gave them the chance, but for kindness and generosity I have never met their equal”. Norman said the Cockney recruits called him ‘Bill’: “They showed innate courtesy, I suppose because we liked each other, and soon found out that I did not like being called ‘Darkie’ as came natural to them, and I have heard a real tough guy get hold of a new arrival, a casualty replacement, who automatically called me ‘Darkie’, and take him aside and say, “Don’t call him that – he doesn’t like it. We call him ‘Bill’ and we like him!’” When Norman went to France as a Corporal in early 1916, he recalled it as an ‘odd life’: “Hard work, dull work, poor food and hard living quarters, to say nothing of the eternal misery of body lice which were found everywhere that soldiers lived…in spite of all these things, there was a strange and fascinating irresponsibility about the life of a private…Nothing in the future gave you concern. Your job was to do your job as a soldier and stay alive if you could. You blessed each day”.
He recalled that at this stage, he faced racial prejudice from the rank-and-file who did not like taking orders from a ‘coloured’ N.C.O., and even worse animosity from fellow Corporals and Sergeants who resented sharing their status with him. “It was only with the Officer class”, he said, “that I could expect to behave with ordinary decency”. Roy, too, felt discrimination in the army; despite his public school education, he was denied officer training.
It became so bad, Norman gave up his stripes, switched to the Royal Garrison Artillery and reverted to the rank of Gunner, or gun-layer, which continued until he left the army in 1919. He recalled:
“I was the fastest gun-layer in the battery. A gun-layer… is the man who operated a fairly complex unit that sets the gun dead on target when it is fired…In my new unit I started with a clean sheet, did not repeat my earlier mistakes and built up a most agreeable relation-ship with everybody. They respected and liked me and would follow my leadership in any circumstances. I liked them as men and as human beings”.
He left a vivid account of what it was like to be near an artillery barrage, when thousands of guns opened up at the same time, as they did on the Somme: “It has to be imagined to realise how the world can dissolve into one vast sound, so that nothing exists except the continuous unbroken rhythm of sound, like a great wave drowning every feeling and every emotion – sound broken every minute by the vast roar of our 18 inch guns, and punctuated constantly by the staccato tattoo of a couple of dozen seventy eight pounders sounding a practiced roll like super machine-gun fire – but mostly just sound – that you could feel that it enveloped you and bore you up”.
Norman also described what it was like to be at the receiving end of enemy shells: “They come with an awesome sound as their velocity was just less than sound. I knew from the increasing horror of the noise that I was in for a near shave and at the last split second dived for the ground and felt the shake of the air as it passed so near to me… Then I felt myself showered with earth and the noise of an exploding shell and came to realise that I was actually at the bottom of the Crater made by the shell… My escape was miraculous”.
The brothers fought for more than four months on the Somme in 1916 and were together the following year in the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele. Roy had already been wounded, in February, 1917, but he was killed on July 26th. He was 21. His obituary in the 1917 Felstedian reported: “Some of his men were severely wounded. He went out to help them and while carrying one of them to the dressing station he was struck over the heart by a piece of shell. His Major writes that his action at the time set a fine example to the men, and that his name had often been brought before him for devotion to duty”. Norman was devastated: “I cannot speak how I felt. We were good friends, and I would be lonely for the rest of the war”.
It’s said that Norman wore a black tie for the rest of his life, in memory of Roy. Roy now lies in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery near Ypres. Norman recalled the horror of seeing “a lot of dead people, three-parts buried by mud – you spotted them by an emerging hand or foot, or even a head. It was indescribable”. He was gazetted for the Military Medal in October, 1917. Norman was in London on leave on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1918, in Hyde Park with a crowd of around a million. He remembered: “It was over, but I could get no sense of joy. Long anticipation of some events leaves you cold and practical when they arrive… I remembered my fallen friends but the number was so great that each loss was reduced by some strange rule of feeling. I thought of the future of mankind but it did not seem that the spirit had fused in unity”.
Norman went back to Jamaica after the war. He worked as a lawyer, pursued music, boxing, cricket and racing and became active in politics, founding the PNP (People’s National Party) in 1938. He negotiated Jamaica’s independence from Britain, and became the country’s first Premier. He died in September, 1969. A month later, he was conferred with the Order of National Hero. Kingston’s international Airport was renamed after him. Roy and Norman were featured in a Channel 4 documentary Last Heroes of the Somme marking the centenary of the last offensive in the Battle of the Somme, screened on Remembrance Sunday in 2016. It marked the centenary of the action in the Mesnil Valley, when the Manleys were in the thick of the fighting.
There will be an article in the next issue of Lochnagar Crater Today about the many thousands of troops from the Indian sub-continent who fought in the First World War, and the way they are rem-embered at Lochnagar Crater and elsewhere.
For details about the British west Indian Regiment, see: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205394040
And for details about Black and Asian troops in general, see: www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z2bgr82#zp9k87h