William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

We shall remember them…or maybe not

9/11. It’s a date seared into the world’s consciousness.

Then there is 11/11. Known, variously around the world, as Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day, or Veterans Day.

Call it what you will. Although it predates the Twin Towers by almost a century, World War 1’s official end – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 – is still commemorated throughout the Commonwealth, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States.

It is the day that now, in most of these countries, honours the service of their soldiers in all conflicts, not just World War 1

The “war to end all wars” proved to be anything but. It was merely a curtain raiser to a century of war, including another global conflict in 1939-1945 that upended the lives of hundreds of millions.

Including the lives of South Africans. Although the Union was a mere four years old in 1914 and there had been a bitter scorched-earth conflict between the Boers and British only a dozen years earlier, SA immediately entered the war on the British side.

Its soldiers acquitted themselves with distinction. At Delville Wood the hastily assembled and inexperienced 1st SA Infantry Brigade captured and held the salient for four hellish days in July 1914. The brigade entered the Wood with 3 153 men, of which 763 were killed and 1 709 were wounded.

A neglected WW1 memorial in the KZN Midlands.

A neglected WW1 memorial in the KZN Midlands.

At the outbreak of World War 2, the SA military comprised barely 5 000 men. Despite the risk of armed insurrection by Afrikaners who opposed involvement in “Britain’s war” against a fascism that many of them openly supported, SA again joined the allied forces and fought with great distinction in North Africa and Italy.

Today, in a SA where many black commentators simplistically attribute to whites a universally shared set of values, beliefs, interests and behaviour – much as do white commentators, as regards blacks – it is mostly forgotten how divided the white population was about both those terrible conflicts.

In 1914 elements of the SA military were in open revolt against joining the war on the British side. Prime Minister Louis Botha, a former Boer commander, had to declare martial law, fire generals, and quell by force of arms a rebellion by fellow Afrikaners.

In 1939, Prime Minister Jan Smuts, another former Boer commando leader, carried the parliamentary divide to enter war by only 13 votes. The fascist Ossewabrandwag underground organisation had a membership of a quarter of a million, out of an Afrikaner population of barely a million. Thousands had to be interned for sabotage and other anti-war activities.

In my own family, my father was opposed to the war while on mother’s side of the family, her eldest brother was the 122nd person to join the perforce all-volunteer Union Defence Force.

He won a Military Cross in the Western Desert, was wounded in action and then captured and interned. However, none of this gallantry did anything to melt the stony heart of his own father, who always saw his son’s service as a betrayal of Afrikanerdom.

Such conflicts were commonplace. Karen Horn’s recent book, In Enemy Hands, has compelling first-hand accounts of how the volunteers often encountered bitter enmity from friends and family over enlisting. They had then suffered the rigours of war and prisoner-of-war incarceration, and Horn writes, “returned home in 1945 to a country which soon afterwards tried its utmost to promote national amnesia with regard to its participation in the war”.

The amnesia continues. While there traditionally are annual Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Cape Town, as well as at the Voortrekker Monument and the Union Buildings in Pretoria, they make nary a splash on the national consciousness.

This year one searched in vain for a single press account of the ceremonies. The SA National Defence Force website has screeds about celebrating Women’s Month but does not even mention Remembrance Day, although presumably its soldiers participated in the Cape Town and Pretoria ceremonies.

The explanation most offered is that these conflicts were “white” wars, of no import to blacks who, even when they enlisted, because of racist exclusion were rarely armed. It’s an explanation that has some validity but it camouflages a more nuanced reality.

Of the 330 000 South Africans who served in WW1, 83 000 were black and 2 500 coloured. In WW2, of the 334 000 who served, 77 000 were black and 46 000 coloured and Indian).

Matching the courage of the men at Delville Wood were the 607 men of the SA Native Labour Corps – along with 9 white officers – who in 1917 sang and stamped a death dance as the troopship SS Mendi went down its doom after being rammed.

The rallying words of their chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, cut unsparingly to the muddle and mess of our tribal, racial and national identities but, in doing so, are also an affirmation of the brotherhood of arms that any soldier, anywhere, will understand.

“Be quite and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.

“I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers. Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies … ”

To honour the sacrifice of fighting men is not to exult war. On the contrary, to not accord respect and dignity to all those who served, on whatever side, is a barren assertion of imagined moral superiority over common humanity.

The petty response of a father towards a son, as in the case of my grandfather, is ugly but just human foible. The petty response of an entire nation, as in the case of SA’s amnesia towards its war dead, is not only ugly but an inexcusable betrayal.

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