Remembrance Day: The Unremembered
We Will Remember Them
Remembrance Day brings to mind the death of thousands of war heroes, battles fought across Europe in trenches located in France, Belgium and several other locations across Europe. It is often viewed as self-harm done to Europe by Europe, however, it is important to remember that both World War I and World War II were truly worldwide in participation and impact. Perhaps, a glimpse at the pre-war context may be of use here.
Before the first world war, Western powers already had embedded within their politics & society eugenicist ideas; racial selection was in the mainstream. The Daily Mail referred to some natives of these ‘lesser’ races as “natives who are worse than brutes when their passions are aroused;” prohibitions existed in the years leading up to 1914 when the First World War started prohibiting sexual relations between European women and Black men, although similar restrictions did not exist to prohibit said relations between European men and Black women. These were enforced across colonies in Africa as well.
However, what many do not know is that after the British Empire’s declaration of war on the 4th of August, 1914, the first shot was fired by a soldier in British Service was thousands of miles from Europe; it was in The Gold Coast (now called Ghana) by Alhaju Grunshi who served in the Gold Coast Regiment as they made their move on German-controlled Togoland. This was on the 7th of August – 3 days after the declaration.
The Impact of War
Between the 15th – 18th of October 1917, the Battle of Mahiwa-Nyangao, featured at least three battalions from the Nigeria Brigade, three from the King’s African Rifles, and the Bharatpur Infantry & 30th Punjabis from India. Many died of disease as they were deployed to perform carrier duties, as vehicles were unable to navigate the terrain and beasts of burden unable to withstand disease-carrying pests, leaving the men to do the heavy lifting while at risk to death either by bullet or disease. The official death records show death toll at about 105,000 in East Africa, although historians estimate it at up to three times that number.
In German-controlled East Africa, 350,000 men, women & children were coerced into unpaid carrier service of which there are no official records. Crops were requisitioned by Colonial troops without pay or destroyed to ensure there was no food left for enemy troops, leading to famine for the local populace – not for lack of rain or labour, but because their food was taken from them. This is without taking into account how many must have been caught in the crossfire. History professor at Hamburg University, Jurgen Zimmerer, states “The war changed some regions to such an extent that they needed decades to recover if indeed they did recover.”
To mark Remembrance Day 2019, a Channel 4 documentary took a trip to Africa, only to make a shocking discovery. A conscious decision was taken that denied dignity and respect to Black Africans who died in their very own continent that was accorded to soldiers who died fighting in Europe by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Letters uncovered in the Commission’s archives describing a policy that applied to the burial of “natives” who had served Britain: Unlike memorials to those who died in Europe or were white, “the commission would not erect individual headstones but a central memorial in some suitable locality to be selected by the [British colonial] government concerned”. The letter writer knew the policy well. He was the former secretary of state for war and chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission. He concludes: “I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient humble servant, Winston S Churchill.” Derogatory comments are made within the document where African soldiers & carriers are referred to as “semi-savage,” with another describing them as “hardly in such a state of civilisation as to appreciate such a memorial” and “the erection of individual memorials would represent a waste of public money.” Source: - https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/03/how-britain-dishonoured-first-world-war-african-dead
Such is the story of the unremembered who now lie in unmarked graves; who gave their lives for a war they knew not how it started, a war that did not concern them; a war that crossed the oceans and came to their shores long before it had actually started. Whether for the Germans, Austria-Hungarians (the Triple Alliance) or the British & French (the Triple Entente), they did not fight for the honour or dignity of their people, nor because they were passionate, but had to bend to the will of others to their own peril. In the end, they were all just victims and pawns in a cruel game of war from which they had nothing to benefit. Written out of history as though they were simply passers-by, with no dignity or respect.
It is crucial that we remember and respect all who lost their lives, regardless of ethnicity or nationality - Simeon Orduen.