21 November 2021
Steve on Sunday (sometimes)
Greetings to my seven keen readers, whom I suspect of not having really missed the weekly blurb these last few months. Or is it six readers? My memory really fading along with so many other things…!
Every now and again, my health, quite entertaining at the best of times, improves to the degree where my brain can and does communicate to my fingers to get typing – hence these few hundred words today.
The main gist this day is remembrance, the memory of those who died in the two great wars of the 20th century, and not forgetting those who died in the many minor wars, one of which I was entitled to partake in. So I did. I survived, relatively unscathed, unlike so many thousands.
Remembrance Day, normally on the Sunday closest to 11 November, is more accurately termed Armistice Day, the Great War of 1914 – 1918 having ended at the 11th hour of 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 – the armistice. The ending of arms.
Sometimes it is called Poppy Day, the beautiful poppy flower having become synonymous with remembering the fallen of the wars, although the Poppy Day I remember from my lazy days of youth was in fact the Saturday before Armistice Day. The day when all the WW 1 and WW2 veterans walked the streets of each and every town and city in the British Empire shaking tins of various sizes and shapes, asking politely from all who passed by for a small donation. In exchange for the donation he or she would be given a poppy that would be pinned on to their shirt or blouse. It would remain there all day, especially in town, because if you were not wearing a poppy, then these men and women dressed in their Sunday best with medals galore (or so it seemed) would continue to thrust a noisy tin under your nose. Until you made a donation and put the poppy on where it could clearly be seen by all.
It used to be quite a day. The Legion, or before it changed its name to the Legion, whenever that was, was known to all of us youngsters in Umtali, Rhodesia, (now Mutare, Zimbabwe), as the BESL. The adults may have known it as their local pub, but us youngsters knew it as the BESL. The British Empire Services League. It had two billiard tables, some dart boards, a long and comfortable pub, a hall to be used for bingo and the annual Christmas Tree party, as well as for keen enthusiasts of cold beverages. Outside in the garden it had a slide and swings for the kids and for the teenagers a squash court. This latter came when I was a teenager.
For many weeks prior to Poppy Day there would be quite a flurry of activity at the BESL, when many ladies would sit in a large room adjacent to the hall making these poppies. And they were beautifully made too. No plastic or machine made poppies then. This would all be done under the eagle eye of Lt-Colonel Dennis Ford MBE MC. Colonel (retired) Ford appeared to control Poppy Day Saturday and the Poppy Day Remembrance Parade and service. He seemed to be everywhere. Perhaps he was.
The point is, is that Remembrance Day was a massive event in the history of the town on the eastern border. Every year. Even during the bush war years it was a big day, made even more poignant by such heavy local losses.
Today, a few locals in Mutare remember the fallen of the world wars, bless them all, those who fell, and those who remember them.
In Kimberley, where I now reside, and where we are just ending a four day water cut coupled to the ongoing power blackouts, the situation is quite dire. And it’s not just no water and no electricity, it’s that there is no more annual Remembrance Day parade.
Last year, 2020, it was perhaps understandable with all the c o v i d rules, but this year no excuse. There was not a word from the municipality, but most of us in this dusty town are well aware that the council has no money. And it is they who pay for the parade and after parade food and refreshments. So that massive parade at our local cenotaph just died. As did the wreath laying for those who died to save the world from fascism and Nazism. Wreaths used to be laid by members of the Legion, the SANDF, SAPS, Fire Brigade, the Cape Corps, the ANC, MK and PAC, as well as by a few individuals.
Well done to the local Kimberley MOTH who jumped in very quickly to save the day and a small but intense Memorial service and parade was held at their local Garden of Remembrance. In attendance was the Legion and the band of the Kimberley Regiment. It was not quite the atmosphere at the majestic Kimberley Cenotaph, but it served its purpose.
So, a small service in Mutare, a small service in Kimberley, but still a massive and most impressive service at the Cenotaph in London.
You are now going to find this next part hard to believe.
Read it twice.
Zimbabwe is the only nation from the former British Empire or Commonwealth that is not allowed to officially lay a wreath at London’s memorial service, the world’s largest such memorial service to remember the dead of World War I and World War II. Even Germany lays a wreath.
In World War I and World War II Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) rallied to the Empire’s call and many of its young men died in all theatres of the war and in all the services, navy, army, airforce, etc. It is said by many that Rhodesia, pro rata, lost more young men and women per capita than any other country in the Empire. If that is not true, forgive me, but it must be close.
So why not?
Why cannot Zimbabwe (read Rhodesia for WW 1 and WW 2) lay a wreath? It boils down to the rebels from Rhodesia declaring UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and not listening to Big Brother of Great Britain. And then they usurped Remembrance Day by declaring Independence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1965. It was an ‘up yours’ moment designed to prod the memory of those in power in the UK of the sacrifices made by Rhodesia in defending Great Britain and the west.
This snub by the nasty Rhodesians has never been forgotten, or so it appears. The late but not great Robert Mugabe’s attitude to the UK may have added cream to the cake for there still being no official representation, because, honestly, who wanted Mrs Mugabe shopping for a week while hubby laid a wreath and created havoc on the London roads with his blue light brigade?
Ian Douglas Smith, the Rhodesian Prime Minister who led the country that disobeyed the UK, was a Spitfire pilot who suffered severe burns when his plane crashed during World War 2. There were many others who fought for Britain and the allies. Many of them had been encouraged to emigrate from the UK to Rhodesia after the war had ended in 1945.
More than a few of these British (and Rhodesian) servicemen and women died, or to be more brutally honest, were murdered by insurgents from Mocambique and Zambia as they lived and worked on their farms and smallholdings, especially in the eastern districts.
A few names that spring to mind who fought for and with the British Empire and who were killed during the bush war 1964 to 1980, are Deryck Lamb DFC (603, 19 and 65 Squadrons RAF), Donald Baker (144 Squadron), Dennis Bartlett-Claircourt (Bomber Command), John Roberts (RNVR), Dennis Bleasdale (Para Brigade), Leslie Osborne (RE), Don Harvey-Brown, Guy Walton (Royal Marines), Peter Bassett, and Edward Wright, these brave men all being from the Manicaland area. There are no doubt many, many more from all around the country.
Other well-known military men who resided (and died) in Rhodesia included Air Marshal Sir Christopher Quentin Brand, William Faulds VC, and Gerard ‘Toys’ Norton VC. Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris lived for a time in the country.
All schools of the former Rhodesia had memorials to their former pupils who made the supreme sacrifice during the two world wars. Umtali was no different – seven old boys died in World War I and a further 47 in World War 2. They are (mostly) buried in conflict zones.
There were many too, who had fought for the self-same Empire, and who survived the local southern African war.
What were their thoughts?
I knew many, and most of them were not at all happy with the United Kingdom and their politicians. The majority have answered the final call by now, their duty on this earth done. I thank them for their service.
A Cenotaph is an empty tomb, symbolising the fact that many who died were never found or could not be identified. Many tens of thousands of British and Imperial families, especially from the two World Wars, consider this memorial in London as their loved ones monument. And so it should be. But not of course for those from a country that defied a political order from London.
It is perhaps fitting to end this Remembrance Day piece with a comment once made by a former Royal Air Force pilot who lived in Umtali.
He said that it would indeed be most ironic if the “Unknown Warrior” from World War I and buried in London’s Westminster Abbey, was in fact a Rhodesian sailor, soldier or airman.
Indeed, it could well be a Rhodesian.
It would be most ironic.