Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Role of Batswana in World War I

It’s a pity that a lot of our people are not aware of the true fact that Batswana took active part in the First world War also known as The Great War. I went over to the National Archives in Gaborone to search for any existing records regarding the war veterans of this particular war but I was shocked at what I discovered.

The attendant that came over to help told me with so much confidence that no Motswana has ever taken part in the First World War. I insisted that I have full knowledge and that I have evidence that in that era, able bodied men were recruited to take part in the theatre of war that was taking place largely in Europe.

The year 2018 marked the 100th year since the end of World War One and Europe was abuzz with so much activity to mark this milestone. As a writer who has particular interest in military history, I mapped out a way of marking the centennial year on the war. But with the way we keep records in this country, I came back enveloped in total disappointment.

How can our record keepers miss such an event in the history of this nation? From oral history of my family, a man named Madisakwane Salmon Madisakwane went to war with several others from the little known village of Gabane, they went overseas to join in the war effort against the Germans and what was known as the Central Powers. The Central Powers were pitted against Britain and the Entente Powers.

Salmon was my maternal grandfather and he is a man that I so much revere. Coming back from the war in early 1919, he brought with him three items that three generations behind him got to enjoy. Salmon used his earnings to buy a large Size 30 three legged pot, a Singer Sewing machine and a cobbler’s tool.

The First World War took place very close to home as the Germans were occupying German South West Africa now Namibia. They were so entrenched in that country and heavy fighting ensued for months before they were rooted out by the South Africans. When the war broke out in Europe, the Germans already had a large military contingent in Namibia as they had been committing genocide there. 

It has been very difficult finding archival records on the participation of our country in the First World War. There are various reasons why this is the case. In most instances we were in the past clubbed with South Africa because we had our administrative capital in that country.

In fact there is a heap of paper work lying in the Mafikeng Museum which is said to be archival material for Botswana that we never got to collect when the capital moved to Gaborone as part of the preparations for independence. I hope someone comes to the rescue of these valuables placed in the care of another country.

But with little records available, it has become fully evident that Batswana took part in this war. And it is very clear that Khama III and his tribal regiments refused to participate in this war. Why did the tribal people of Gammangwato boycott the war? Khama did this to punish the British who on several occasions failed to fulfil their end part of the promise of development like after helping in the defeat of King Lobenguala of the Ndebele in 1894.

For those Batswana who went to take part in the war, they were involved in this conflict as front line troops or in different auxiliary roles such as logistics and providing security in the rear positions. So it is for a fact that our grandfathers were useful in the objective of the war for the British Empire and the allied forces.

Our ancestors became what was known as “buffalo soldiers” as expressed in Bob Marley’s song. Until I trained with the United States Army, I had never understood the meaning of this song even though I had all the lyrics in order. These men from Botswana were fighting on a rival they did not know and fighting a war they did not understand.

This is a war that geographically defined Europe as old empires and dynasties disappeared and new countries emerged. The Soviet Union came into being in this era in 1917. The war provided the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to uproot the Nicolas Rasputin dynasty.

Many African countries participated in this war and it was just for the purpose of exploitation by the Europeans. After the war, Botswana remained in her deplorable state of poverty regardless of the gallantry shown by her sons. The only gesture of gratitude by the British in recognition of our country’s effort in the war was the subsequent total neglect on the development of our country.

Khama was very right in boycotting this war because in the previous conflicts that included the Anglo-Boer War, Batswana were only handed empty promises while her sons were paying in blood. I think it is time we seek war reparations for all the world wars.

It is in the nature of war that it enriches others while it impoverishes the rest. We are such a case as a country. Our grandfathers only went to war to serve the interests of their colonial masters. They left no legacy for the generations to come except for things that don’t matter so much in an economy. They only brought with them household items such as a pots and ploughs.

Britain needed to invest in real issues pertaining to the economy of Bechuanaland at the time. We see how Tshekedi Khama developed the Ngwato territory in the inter war era and beyond the Second World War. Health care and education needed the most attention. Road infrastructure and water development was one of the things we should have received as a reward for fighting on a rival we never knew.


Read this week's paper

Sunday Standard July 12 – 18

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 12 - 18, 2020.