Thursday, November 27, 2014

Too little, and far too late. But better than nothing.

I do not know why World War I means so much to me.  

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the sheer idiocy of the entire venture.  Unlike World War II, there was no reason to go to war, other than rampant nationalism and male testosterone.  But to war, the major European powers went, resulting in the deaths of millions of men and the associated family tragedies.  The war was so horrific that it still sears people’s minds, even though no combatants are still alive.

800,000 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London - one for each death

My first associations with World War I were through poetry.  Initially I loved the jingoistic verses of Rupert Brooke, who died at the young age of 27 in 1915, not from action but from sepsis en route to fight at Gallipoli.

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

But then my interest turned to the more realistic and bitter verses of Wilfred Owen, who died in Europe at age 25.  In particular, I love the poem Dulce et decorum est, which really benefits from being read out loud:

Wilfred Owen

Dulce et decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest  
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

What really gets to me in this poem is the last line, spat out in ultimate sarcasm and bitterness:  Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, which means It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country.  Owen lifted this line from Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes.

On this 100th anniversary of the start of one of mankind’s greatest tragedies, I want to say a few words about African involvement in the war.  

I suspect that very few people could tell you anything about the involvement of Africa and Africans in WWI – with the exception, of course, of blog mate Annamaria.  I will leave it to her to cover the East African campaigns, in which well over a million people died, and I’ll postpone to some other time, the campaign in German South West Africa.

I want to pay tribute to the thousands of Black South Africans who went to Europe to support the country’s fighting troops.  They worked as cooks, builders, stevedores, batmen, and so on – but not as combatants.  All in all, over 30,000 non-White South Africans went to the Western Front, and several thousand died. 

The greatest tragedy to befall Black South Africans in the war was the sinking of the troopship SS Mende off the Isle of Wight on February 21 1917 after a collision in thick fog with another vessel, the SS Darro.

SS Mende

On board were 823 personnel of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps.  607 of them died.

Of course, they and other Black casualties could not be buried in the same cemeteries as their White compatriots, but were buried in nearby civilian cemeteries and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

Until this year . . .

Private Myengwa Beleza was one of the first black South African soldiers to be killed in France during the 1914-1918 war.  He died on November 27, 1916 and was buried in a civilian cemetery at the port city of Le Havre.

In June this year, his remains were exhumed and he was reburied at the South African Memorial, where 600 of his White fellow South Africans are buried.

South African Memorial at Delville Wood - now multiracial

"The re-interment process is part of government efforts to restore the dignity, particularly of those black South Africans who made an immense contribution towards world peace," spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said.

In addition, the Mende disaster is remembered through The Mende Award, which is South Africa’s highest award for bravery.

So after 100 years, some recognition is being made of those who were not White, who lost their lives for King and country.  Far too little, and far too late, I think.  But better than nothing.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Powerful, powerful post, Stan. But I'd expect nothing less in a piece by you on a subject you care about so deeply. Knowing you, my only question is did you have to look up any of the verses, or were you able to transcribe them all from memory?

  2. No apology is necessary for the length of this, Stan. There is quite enough here to bring tears to my eyes. I have just begun to scratch the surface of this subject. I am just beginning Tolliver3, and the war for my characters is still two books off. On that 100th anniversary battlefield tour of Kenya that I took in August, the organizer spoke often and eloquently of the suffering of the black Africans. They were the porters who carried the supplies and war materiel to the front through the Tsavo desert and died in their thousands from exhaustion and disease, snake and scorpion bite. The Brits owed their victory (if one can call it that) to those men. Our little group visited both categories of cemeteries: the ones for Europeans and the ones for non-whites. It's all heartrending.

  3. I always have to shake my head when I read things like, "...who made an immense contribution towards world peace." It's rare that war makes any contribution toward world peace except by exhausting everyone involved to the point of not being able to continue. A line like that is all too similar to "Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori." Great post, Stan.

  4. Beautiful post. I share a small part of your fascination with WWI, Stan.

  5. It's terrible to think of the loss of so many young, promising lives in that unnecessary war. So many deaths, injuries and what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.
    When I see the paintings of young artists whose lives were lost, it just feels like the world lost so much talent unnecessarily, in addition to their right to life was snuffed out.
    Thanks for the post.