Memories of my grandfather in World War One

20 Nov 2018

By Richard Moleofe

Every morning when I take a shower, I look through the window of our bathroom and my line of sight is always obscured by an old Size 30 pot, a relic from the past. This pot was among the three major items that my maternal grand father brought along from England in 1918. The other two items included a Singer sewing machine and a large mould board plough.

I am challenged to share with my readers these few memories of my grandfather because this past weekend, the world commemorated Armistice Day. That’s the day the war ended in Europe. And it was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

There was a formal gathering at the grounds of parliament to celebrate our heroes of the war that was to end all wars. I am a self made military historian because there is none in Botswana. I went over to Botswana National Archives and Records Services to dig for any important information that they might be keeping. To my utter dismay, the staff there didn’t even know that the citizens of this republic once participated in the First World War

It is sad that the memory of our first heroes who fought overseas is all forgotten and being slowly wiped off. We can only blame our lack of enthusiasm toward historic issues. I listened to Radio Botswana as they were broadcasting the Armistice Day speech by the British High Commissioner. Unfortunately, like many other participants on the programme of the day, she got derailed from the real issue. She went on to talk at great lengths on how soldiers from Botswana were useful in Second World War campaigns in Sicilly and Syria.

There is nothing wrong in acknowledging those who participated in the latter war when doing the Armistice remembrance. But I think the mere presence of WW2 veterans is the reason for wanting to give praise where praise is not deserved.

I went to the national archives to search for the names of those who were drafted for the First World War. I was hoping to find the names. Beyond that expectation, I was anticipating that I would be met with a trove of pictures to match the names. It is disappointing to say the least in that we have no record of these heroes and for this reason their memories are slowly being eroded by time.

I would want to suspect that all the records pertaining to WW1 are stashed in the Mafikeng Museum. While I was on the search for Sechele’s gun in 2014, I landed at this museum. I was informed by the curator that a lot of Botswana records dated around the turn of the previous century are plenty in Mafikeng. However, the records are not arranged in any desirable manner and sequence. This is where records of our old soldiers might be found.

There is a lot we have lost in terms of our history because we don’t care about its preservation. Some years back I was seated for dinner with a Chinese man who could recite thirty six generations of his family. I felt like a rat in a hole because I could only go five generations.

There was no way Bechuanaland could avoid going to war. Their neighbour to the west was hostile and had declared war on our British masters. The Germans made incursions into our country. The first bomb to go off in this country was at Folley bridge near Tonota. The Germans were doing this in an attempt to curtail trains bringing young able bodied men from Rhodesia enroute to the port of Cape Town.

Batswana were also using the same trains and unlike during the Second World War where training was done in Lobatse, this time around it was done in Cape Town. Then after their basic training, they were attached to South African units.

WW1 took many lives but, an even greater tragedy was in store. The breaking of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so devastating as the virus targeted mostly young men. According to historians, the virus was transported to every corner of the world where troops were returning. It is of importance to know how the pandemic played out in this country.

It is important to note that the British depended solely on the powers of the chiefs to send their young men to war. This is why at a latter stage after the second war King George VI of England came to offer his profound thanks to the chiefs for their war effort.

It is also important to note that Kgosi Khama III did not contribute any troops toward the war effort. He was doing this in protest to the British’s perpetual promise-breaking. Khama had been instrumental in helping the British dislodge King Lebengula of the Ndebeles in the then Rhodesia during the Anglo-Ndebele war. Other chiefs were promised mouth-watering developments, but after the two major wars Botswana continued to remain as a poor appendage of the Union of South Africa.

It has been disheartening and indeed surprising to learn that Botswana’s war veterans have only started receiving their pensions from about twenty years ago. It was thanks to some visiting British war veterans who came to discover the ordeal of their comrades in arms.

Let us be mindful of our history as a nation. Especially the history of those who laid down their lives for our sake. Forty years ago Botswana Defence Force was formed and the men that started this military organization who were known as the eight zeros have all left and are forgotten. In other countries, the departure of the last of the eight zero would have been celebrated.

*Richard Moleofe is a security analyst