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WWI memoir: Fallen soldier’s kin trek to Zambia

FROM left to right: Zambia National Service commandant Lieutenant General Nathan Mulenga, Haus Gasper, the grandson to the WWI famous German troops commander General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, President Edgar Lungu, Lord General David Richards, British Royal Representative, and Zambia Army Commander Lieutenant General Paul Mihova after laying wreaths at the war Cenotaph in Mbala to commemorate the 100 years after the end of the war. Right, Sergeant Major John Thomas Bannon with the African Askaris during the WWI. PICTURE: BANNON FAMILY ARCHIVES

FRANCIS LUNGU, Mbala
ZAMBIA attracted the world, proved it has the credentials of being a beacon of peace and a symbol of unity when it commemorated the centenary festivities in Mbala to mark the end of the First World War (WWI).
Mbala came alive with week-long activities that were lined up ahead of the 100 years celebrations at the war cenotaph in town where the last gun shot of the war was fired and a final armistice declared between the British armies and the defeated Germany troops on November 25, 1918.
The centenary events in Mbala were to bring to remembrance sacrifices made by African men, women, and even the Europeans who died during the war that raged from 1914 to 1918.
When it occurred on July 28, 1914 in Europe, the WWI was the most destructive war in the European history, and also in the history of Africa to date.
African families were depleted, devastated and poverty levels deepened as food stocks dwindled because most productive men were conscripted into the war that was not even theirs. As colonies, Africans were either supporting the British army or Germany troops of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, nicknamed Lion of Africa.
Of course after 100 years, none of those who fought in the war are alive, but a lot of their descendants live on and have painfully carried on the tales of the war that claimed lives of their ancestors.
Some of these people whose grandparents fought in the war travelled to Zambia to attend the centenary commemorations in honour of their ancestors who lived and fought the war in Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia.
John Thomas Bannon was a senior British military officer under the Kings African Rifles battalion of 750 soldiers who fought in Zambia during the WWI, survived and only died years later in 1961 in England.
According to his grandchildren who came to Mbala to honour their grandparent, the war veteran had documented war activities in Zambia in his 31-page handwritten diaries which the family has kept to date.
Passionately talking about his grandfather’s trying moments during the war as recorded in the diaries, John Thomas Bannon, who is named after his grandfather, says the family was inspired by the documented history their ancestor left behind.
“Zambians have shamed Britain and Germany in the manner they have organised themselves to celebrate the 100 years since the end of the Great War. Where in the world do you see children and adults gather in such a manner to celebrate their history? Zambia is an amazing nation,” he said as he hailed President Edgar Lungu’s pronouncement that the end of the WWI should be commemorated annually.
He feels the move could spur development by wooing investor influx because the world will be jostling to know more about Zambia, a country which heard the last gun shots of the war and witnessed the final truce.
According Mr Bannon, Zambia’s role in the promotion of world peace through the centenary commemoration proved to the entire world that it was an example of a united and peaceful nation.
Mr Bannon, from Northern Ireland but based in London, travelled together with his sister Briege.
Mr Bannon said the family was inspired by the war diaries his grandfather had written about Zambia and kept until his death in 1961.
Excerpts from John Thomas Bannon war diaries that his grandson exclusively availed to this author read: “We found several Askaries (soldiers) killed, we had one white wounded and a few killed. The next day [November 7, 1918] we followed the Germans and engaged them at Kayambi Mission-about 10 miles from our camp…At this place we had a most distressing accident, a sergeant Grimbeck of the South African Mounted Rifles was attached to our lot as a stoke gunner and was in action with his gun when it burst, killing this poor fellow. On having a look at his body, I saw his identity disc which showed he was a Roman Catholic. I had his remains moved into Kayambi Mission chapel for the night, and at sunrise the following morning I buried him in front of the church.”
It is such emotive memoires of his grandfather that Mr Bannon and his sister Briege brought to Kayambi Mission from Northern Ireland. They also too advantage of the occasion to see the burial site of soldiers who fought in the WWI.
“I have had such great interest to follow the footsteps of what he had written. From here [Lake Chila] we are going to Kayambi Mission to see where our grandfather buried his colleague,” a seemingly emotional Mr Bannon said while being calmed down by his sister.
Indeed the centenary commemorations evoked different emotions among those directly or indirectly linked to the people who participated in the war.
Most Africans who died in the war were not identified and their final resting places were not recognised simply because they were not formally recorded in recruitment books of either the British or German armies.
Their families have over the years made efforts to locate their graves but no avail.
“I am here in Mbala looking for the grave where my two grandparents were buried, but I cannot find any because Africans were not documented and recorded in death. They died like animals,” says 71-year-old Ackson Kanduza, Professor of English and History at the Zambian Open University.
Professor Kanduza’s story of losing an ancestor in the WWI is similar to those of many other Africans who for years have been yearning to see the graves of their beloved ancestors who died in a war that was not theirs.
“The pain comes in the fact that it was not our war. We were lied to believe (that) it was a good course in which we should participate, and then in the end, the compensation for it was either not there or extremely inadequate,” said Prof Kanduza who lost his grandfather Nyonyonyo Ngulube and his brother.
The question has been, how Africans found themselves fighting in a war that was not theirs?
Now, before the war reached to Abercorn, present day Mbala and other regions of Africa, it started after the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Hungary by a Serbian national.
This incident culminated into the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia on July 28, 1914 and this was immediately followed by the system of alliances and secret diplomacy pacts.
Europe got divided into two hostile camps; Triple Alliance [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy] and Triple Entente [Britain, France and Russia].
The war eventually spread to colonies in Africa and Mbala became a center of activity because it was one of the main slave trade routes where British and German armies were battling for territorial supremacy.
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Gen von Lettow-Vorbeck grandson, Haus Gasper, travelled from Germany for the centenary commemorations which he described as a “touching and unbelievable moment.”


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