If the Germans can come, why not the Rhodesians?
Let relatives of soldiers from the former Rhodesia honour their Great War fallen at the Cenotaph
On Remembrance Sunday, which this year marks the centenary of the end of the Great War, more than 100 people, including war veterans and their supporters, are due to gather on the north side of London's Westminster Abbey for a military parade.
With the former servicemen standing ramrod straight and their Rhodesian regimental colours hoisted proudly into the air, they will hold a discreet service to commemorate their country’s war dead. Little more than a stone’s throw away, the queen and senior members of the royal family, along with the prime minister and leading politicians, will at the same time be at the Cenotaph, similarly paying their respects to the war dead, but this time in front of the whole nation.
The small gathering of people from what was once known as Rhodesia – renamed Zimbabwe in 1980 – would welcome the chance to join the throng at the main service, but, barring a sudden U-turn, this will not happen.
For successive British governments have vetoed them from officially laying a wreath at the Cenotaph during the main memorial service, even though thousands of soldiers from the then Rhodesia fought shoulder to shoulder with Allied servicemen in the two world wars, receiving heavy casualties.
The decision was taken after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, when Ian Smith announced that Rhodesia was an independent, sovereign state. Now, senior military, political and religious leaders from the former African country, along with their British supporters, are mounting a campaign in an attempt to reverse the decision.
And, surely, they have a point. In the spirit of reconciliation, which is, quite rightly, being advocated to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, shouldn’t we be inviting our former allies to join us at the Cenotaph?
The German president will lay a wreath at this year’s Cenotaph service. I have no desire to debate the controversial UDI decision. My interest lies as someone who is committed to honouring the war dead of the UK and its allies.
As a champion of our military and of gallantry, including building up the largest collection of Victoria Crosses in the world, I simply want those who gave their lives fighting for wider freedoms to be remembered as their loved ones see fit.
The Rhodesian Christian Group has published a pamphlet, Lest We Forget, that is being circulated to figures from all parties in the UK. It says that, during World War 1, Rhodesians were among the first to volunteer for service: more than 6,000 went to war for the Crown in Europe and Africa. During World War 2 they again stood solidly behind the UK, declaring war on Germany before any other colony or dominion.
More than 26,000 Rhodesians served in the 1939 to 1945 conflict. They also served during the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902 and the Malayan Emergency.
Denis Walker, a Briton who lived in Rhodesia for 17 years until 1980 and who served in Ian Smith's cabinet, is among those angered by the treatment of veterans and their families. Walker, whose wife, Jill, was born in Rhodesia and who both had to leave in 1980 because he was an outspoken opponent of Robert Mugabe, told me: “It’s outrageous that our wreath cannot be officially laid at the Cenotaph.”
Walker added that his wife had never met her father, Captain Harold Bromwich, of the African Rifles, because he was killed serving in North Africa during World War 2. “My wife feels her father’s memory is being lost,” he said.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 for breaching the Harare Declaration and it withdrew the next year after the Commonwealth refused to lift the suspension. Following Mugabe’s resignation as president earlier this year, there has been an application from Zimbabwe to rejoin.
Sources at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) say that, at the main Remembrance Sunday service, only the high commissioners from Commonwealth countries are invited to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph (the only exception to this is Ireland). The sources say Zimbabwe was represented until it left the Commonwealth and that it could participate again if it rejoined.
But today, the website of the Royal British Legion sums up the purpose of Remembrance Sunday simply, and with no mention of politics. It says: “Remembrance Sunday, which falls on November 11 2018, is a day for the nation to remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom.”
On Remembrance Sunday this year, I, for one, will feel uneasy if those like Jill Walker, who has lived in Britain for nearly 40 years, does not feel able to attend the Cenotaph service to pay her respects to the father she never met: a soldier who gave his life fighting alongside the Allies against the evils of Nazi Germany.
• Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman and philanthropist.
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