14 Aug 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Africa was a ‘sideshow’ compared with the immensity of destruction and the ritualised killing fields in the trenches of Belgium and France, writes Tony LeonTHE recent centenary of the outbreak of the First World War brought back to mind my Grandpa Jack (Jack Leon, 1892-1983). Of imperishable memory to his grandchildren and others, he would enliven our early childhood with his tales of some wonder and much hardship from his experiences as a foot soldier in the Great War, the so-called "war to end all wars", which profoundly it did not.
My grandfather was one of about 150,000 white soldiers and more than 80,000 black compatriots who served in the Union Defence Force in the wide-ranging theatres of combat across Southern Africa and beyond, when they answered the call of Empire to push back, or push out, Kaiser Wilhelm’s colonial empire in Africa. Jack endured considerable hardship in today’s Tanzania — which back then rejoiced in the name German East Africa — and was captured by the Germans shortly before hostilities ended. He recounted his "days of thirst" when, in the absence of any water provided by his captors, he and his comrades sucked stones and dew off the grass in a desperate attempt to keep hydrated. But he was lucky to have returned alive, as opposed to those South Africans who went to France, where, in the epic battle of Delville Wood in 1916, nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s combatants were killed or severely injured.Africa was more incidental than central to the war aims of either the winning "Entente Powers" side (the UK, France, Russia, Italy, Serbia and the US) or the losing "Central Powers" (the German Empire, the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). But, as the world soon enough discovered, there was no end of consequences from this global conflict, some of which — from Syria to Palestine to Ukraine — enflame the world today.
Africa was a "sideshow" compared with the immensity of destruction and the ritualised killing fields in the trenches of Belgium and France. It lacked the set-piece battles that history and blood has emorialised and globalised on such bucolic and, until the war, unknown European towns and villages such as Ypres and Passchendaele.
But, as Byron Farwell, in his work, The Great War in Africa, notes, the "butcher’s bill" in Africa was immense, and the theatre of war stretched over thousands of kilometres of inhospitable terrain, and most of the skirmishes were fought by "tattered hungry men in dust and mud".Africa also provided both the first and the last shots of the Great War, proving yet again that the continent marches to its own rhythm. According to Hew Strachan’s account of the First World War, regimental sergeant-major Ahaji Grushi of the West African Frontier Force entered the history books for firing the first shot in the war, which had been declared by England nine days before. At the end of this global conflagration, about 16-million soldiers and civilians had perished out of a global population of less than 2-billion people. But even after the armistice had been signed by Germany on November 11 1918, the war continued in Africa for two more weeks; only on November 25 in Abercorn (now Mbala) in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) did Col Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck of the Imperial German Army finally surrender. He earned a footnote in history as the last German commander to do so.
One of the consequences of the war for the then fledgling Union of South Africa was its effect on solidifying the white sense of nationhood here, just as the epic battles, immense loss of life and chains of brotherhood among survivors (or "mateship", as the Australians call it) helped to forge a specific sense of national identity in far-flung dominions of the British realm, from Canada to Australia and New Zealand.On the other side of the white fence in the Union of South Africa, fighting on the "wrong side", as Boers and bittereinders viewed the decision of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha to enter the lists on the side of the UK, would further light the fires of nationalist resentment. They would smoulder on until the election in 1924 of a Hertzog coalition government and then, with far greater consequence, in 1948, when the politics of resentment would burn into political victory, after the next world war, and the triumph of the National Party.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa went to France last month to correct a historic injustice; the reinternment of the remains of South African Native Labour Corps member Myengwa Beleza, who, unlike some of his slain white counterparts in the slaughter of Delville Wood, had been denied a final resting place in a military cemetery. This "correction" inspired a lively correspondence in some local newspapers, with military historians indicating that many soldiers, and not just due to the strictures of South African segregation being carried over to France, had also been buried in civilian cemeteries or in unmarked graves.But without descending down the road recently paved by the South African Democratic Teachers Union and its new history project designed to "manufacture patriotism", the global consequences of the First World War, particularly the terms on which it ended, would also be informed by some localised and almost forgotten events.
Perhaps the greatest "what if?" question from the Great War is both the simplest and most complex: what if it had never happened? RJW Evans, Regius professor of history emeritus at Oxford University, provided his distinguished answer: "This calamitous conflict, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it, we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically."If, a century later, there is no historical consensus of either its causes or even its necessity, there was no uncertainty about who was blamed for it at its end. The victorious powers at the Paris Conference in 1919 and in the treaty signed in nearby Versailles were unanimous — Germany and its leaders were responsible. And Southern Africa provided a crucial piece of evidence for both this assertion and the carving up of the world order that followed.
To German aggression was added the charge of "barbarity", and the mistreatment of the Belgian civilian population was "exhibit A" on the charge sheet. But from the shadows of forgotten history in 1919, the earlier German genocide of the Herero and Nama people in their colony of South West Africa was added to the bill of indictment.In David Olusoga and Caspar Erichsen’s riveting book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust, they note: "At Versailles, if only momentarily, the lives of black Africans were regarded as comparable to those of white Europeans. Indeed, the history of German brutality in South West Africa was ‘proof to the civilised world’ that it was ‘duty bound to shackle the monster of German militarism’."
Smuts and Botha marshalled the abundant evidence of such cruelties to make a winning bid for the territory to be mandated to South Africa as a "sacred trust" on the basis that "they had established a white civilisation in a savage continent and had become a great cultural agency all over South Africa".
Sixty years after my grandfather joined up, I, alongside most white matriculants, was conscripted into the South African Defence Force, which in 1975 had as its core military objective securing the borders of South West Africa. It proved to be as futile and unattainable a goal as many of the military objectives of the "war to end all wars".
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA