War & remembrance

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky, The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields...” - Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (1915)

Fellow fans of the English Premier League may have noticed the return of red poppy representations on their team's jerseys. Across Britain, poppy symbols are worn by many in the days leading up to November 11, which is annually observed as "Remembrance" or "Poppy Day." The date coincides with the Armistice that took effect at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the moment when the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The cessation of hostilities effectively ended the First World War (1914-18), although it would be another two weeks before General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck became the last German commander to capitulate; on November 25, 1918, at Mbale in modern Zambia.

The term “Remembrance Day” with its poppies was popularized in 1921 by the Royal British Legion, a veteran’s organization that began the tradition of selling poppy pins as a charity initiative to raise funds for the relief of incapacitated veterans, war widows, and orphans. The poppy symbol was inspired by John McCrae's popular poem "In Flanders Fields" (above).


Outside of the United Kingdom, the Poppy Day tradition survives in several Commonwealth Countries, where local veterans’ associations also distribute poppies for donations. The date of the 1918 Armistice is further observed as a war memorial day by many non-Commonwealth countries that participated in the conflict, such as France and the USA.

The observance of Remembrance Day has declined in post-colonial Africa, being largely confined to modest barrack’s bound military ceremonies in a few jurisdictions in which legacy regiments honour their fallen. This pattern is understandable given that Africans had virtually no input in either the “Great War’s” outbreak or prosecution, for the most part being at the time the subjugated subjects of one or another of the belligerents’ empires. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky, The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields...” - Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (1915)

Fellow fans of the English Premier League may have noticed the return of red poppy representations on their team's jerseys. Across Britain, poppy symbols are worn by many in the days leading up to November 11, which is annually observed as "Remembrance" or "Poppy Day." The date coincides with the Armistice that took effect at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the moment when the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The cessation of hostilities effectively ended the First World War (1914-18), although it would be another two weeks before General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck became the last German commander to capitulate; on November 25, 1918, at Mbale in modern Zambia.

The term “Remembrance Day” with its poppies was popularised in 1921 by the Royal British Legion, a veteran’s organisation that began the tradition of selling poppy pins as a charity initiative to raise funds for the relief of incapacitated veterans, war widows, and orphans. The poppy symbol was inspired by John McCrae's popular poem "In Flanders Fields" (above).

Outside of the United Kingdom, the Poppy Day tradition survives in several Commonwealth countries, where local veterans’ associations also distribute poppies for donations. The date of the 1918 Armistice is further observed as a war memorial day by many non-Commonwealth countries that participated in the conflict, such as France and the USA.

The observance of Remembrance Day has declined in post-colonial Africa, being largely confined to modest barrack’s bound military ceremonies in a few jurisdictions in which legacy regiments honour their fallen. This pattern is understandable given that Africans had virtually no input in either the “Great War’s” outbreak or prosecution, for the most part being at the time the subjugated subjects of one or another of the belligerents’ empires.

While Africans have little to celebrate about an imperialist war that was imposed on their forebears, there are nonetheless considerable grounds for remembrance. Arguably no single conflict before or since has had a greater impact on Africa as a whole than the First World War. The conflict was accompanied by fighting across virtually every corner of the continent, from the Cape to Cameroon to Cairo, including Botswana.

While some half a million Africans ultimately served in the battle zones of Europe and the Middle East between 1914 and 1918, many millions more were involved in military action on their continent. Notwithstanding these numbers, popular images of the war in Europe rarely take into account the large-scale presence of Africans on the Western Front from the very beginning of the conflict up until the Armistice. Equally insulting has been the historical dismissal of the massive horror of the fighting in Africa itself as a mere sideshow.

Up to three-quarters of a million African combatants perished, about half of whom were from what is now the SADC region. While there is no reliable aggregate count for civilian deaths, population declines of up to 10% were recorded in some of the worst affected areas of East Africa.

Quite beyond the body count, there can now be little doubt that the very nature and course of the entire war would have been different without the participation of millions of Africans; who were also joined by some 200,000 African Americans and tens of thousands of black Caribbean troops. Amongst this Pan-African mix were Protectorate Batswana members of the South African Native Contingent’s 5th Battalion, who served in France.

Without the contributions of this 'La Force Noire', as the then-unprecedented presence of black troops was dubbed by the French, the final Allied victory over the German-led Central Powers is open to doubt.

In Africa, as in Europe, the conflict had a significant impact on the lives of the civilian population and combatants. Yet its political, economic, and social legacy across the continent continues to be a matter of debate. Many at the time hoped, and others feared, that there would be a post-war transformation of colonial political and race relations.

On July 10, 1917, at Abbeville in France, the British King George V, accompanied by his Queen Mary, heir the throne Edward, Prince of Wales, and supreme commander General Haig, addressed an audience of black Non-Commissioned Officers from the Union of South Africa and High Commission Territories. Before the select group, which included the future Bakwena Kgosi Sebele II, he affirmed that: ‘‘You are also part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the Empire.’’

A Mosotho who was present would later recall: “We were aware when we returned, that we were different from other people at home. Our behavior, as we showed the South Africans, was something more than they expected from a Native, more like what was expected amongst white men.” and the Middle East between 1914 and 1918, many millions more were involved in military action on their continent. Notwithstanding these numbers, popular images of the war in Europe rarely take into account the large-scale presence of Africans on the Western Front from the very beginning of the conflict up until the Armistice. Equally insulting has been the historical dismissal of the massive horror of the fighting in Africa itself as a mere sideshow.

Up to three-quarters of a million African combatants perished, about half of whom were from what is now the SADC region. While there is no reliable aggregate count for civilian deaths, population declines of up to 10% were recorded in some of the worst affected areas of East Africa.

Quite beyond the body count, there can now be little doubt that the very nature and course of the entire war would have been different without the participation of millions of Africans; who were also joined by some 200,000 African Americans and tens of thousands of black Caribbean troops. Among this Pan-African mix were Protectorate Batswana members of the South African Native Contingent’s 5th Battalion, who served in France.

Without the contributions of this 'La Force Noire', as the then-unprecedented presence of black troops was dubbed by the French, the final Allied victory over the German-led Central Powers is open to doubt.

In Africa, as in Europe, the conflict had a significant impact on the lives of the civilian population and combatants. Yet its political, economic, and social legacy across the continent continues to be a matter of debate. Many at the time hoped, and others feared, that there would be a post-war transformation of colonial political and race relations.

On July 10, 1917, at Abbeville in France, the British King George V, accompanied by his Queen Mary, heir the throne Edward, Prince of Wales, and supreme commander General Haig, addressed an audience of black Non-Commissioned Officers from the Union of South Africa and High Commission Territories. Before the select group, which included the future Bakwena Kgosi Sebele II, he affirmed that: ‘‘You are also part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the Empire.’’

A Mosotho who was present would later recall: “We were aware when we returned, that we were different from other people at home. Our behavior, as we showed the South Africans, was something more than they expected from a Native, more like what was expected among white men.”

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