VETERANS DAY IN MALAWI
While Americans all celebrate Veterans Day each November, for most of the rest of the world it is referred to as Remembrance Day and, in many cases, "Poppy Day". Remembrance Day is an international holiday that marks the end of World War I, and is celebrated on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, or November 11th at 11:00 a.m. This is the time the Armistice ending World War I went into effect. The day is also known as "Poppy Day" due to the wearing of the poppy flower in remembrance of the lives lost. The poppy became the symbol of remembrance after Canadian Military Doctor, Major John McCrea wrote "In Flanders Fields", a poem honoring a friend killed in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. The United States celebrated Armistice Day, another name for Remembrance Day, until 1957 before enacting Veterans Day to honor all veterans.
"In Flanders Fields"
On May 2nd 1915 Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a Canadian artillery officer, was killed by German artillery during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. His close friend, Major John McCrea, conducted the burial service and that night wrote the now famous "In Flanders Fields":
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
Remembrance Day, Zomba 2017
The Remembrance Day ceremony we attended was held before the Kings African Rifles Memorial Clock Tower in Zomba. The clock tower memorializes the soldiers of the Kings African Rifles (KAR) who died fighting for the British in World War I and it stands before the gates of Cobbe Barracks. Many of Zomba's residents braved the rain and surrounded the tower to pay their respect. The ceremony began with a parade of soldiers and Zomba police officers in full dress uniform. The soldiers and officers stood in formation behind tents erected to shield local political and religious leaders, and a group of World War II veterans from the rain. We were lucky enough to sit next to the World War II veterans, and they enjoyed watching Ben explore the Clock Tower. After the parade, artillery was fired followed by a moment of silence. The politicians, religious leaders, and army officers somberly climbed the tower's stairs and laid poppy wreaths at the base of the monument. Many stopped, bowed, and said a prayer before retreating to their seats. After the laying of the wreaths, taps was played by Zomba police officers, as the soldiers and police marched past the crowed and back to the barracks.
Malawian Military History
Speaking for myself as an American, when learning about the Great Wars of the Twentieth Century, Americans are rarely introduced to the effect conflict had upon people outside of the great powers. This oversight is a product of scale. A global war is just that, global, as such the conflagration consumes lives far from the major theaters. Unless you are a historian, you probably just learned the broad strokes, the basic whys, actors, major battles, and conclusions. However, most European nations maintained colonies across the globe and actively fought in areas outside the the main theaters of action. They also drew men from these colonies to fight and support the war effort. Thus, there is a rich, if often missed, military history in places such as Malawi.
Upon hostilities erupting in 1914, the British quickly called upon their colonies to help sustain the war effort. Of these groups, The Kings African Rifles included 20,000 men from Nyasaland, present day Malawi, who were pressed into active military service, while at least another 200,000 became porters. Most of these men fought in the East African Campaign against the Germans. The British employed some 250,000 soldiers and approximately 600,000 porters. The porters where necessary to carry heavy military equipment due to the lack of infrastructure. The conditions were horrific, especially for the porters, and many died of disease. The drain of men depopulated many regions and led to social upheaval and eventual rebellions such as the Chilembwe Uprising.
27,000 Nyasas fought for the Allies in WWII. 16,400 served in The Kings African Rifles and the rest were placed in combat support roles. Of 43 KAR battalions, 16 came from Nyasaland. 1st Battalion KAR, though being greatly outnumbered, held the town of Moyale in Northern Kenya from multiple attacks by Italian troops between the 1st and 15th of July 1941. The 1st Battalion received battle honors from the King for their courage in the face of a superior force. Incidentally, 1st Battalion KAR would become the Malawi Rifles 1st Battalion after independence, and is the unit that marched in the Remembrance Day ceremony parade. Nyasas soldiers would eventually fight in British Somliland, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, and even against the Japanese in Burma and Thailand.
The Malawi Defense Force (MDF) has and is currently supporting U.N. peace keeping operations around the globe, to include missions in Democratic Republic of Congo, The Western Sahara, Sudan and Darfur, and Kosovo. Also, the MDF supports national anti-poaching and deforestation efforts.
I felt honored to share Remembrance Day with the soldiers and veterans of Malawi. I learned a lot about Malawian military history that I never knew, and sat with the men who fought battles far from western newsreels. My favorite part of the ceremony may be something most miss. The poppy wreaths were presented to the politicians and army officers by enlisted soldiers. Meaning those who may make decisions or pursue policy that could lead to war must carry the symbol of sacrifices made by past soldiers. I wonder if the wreaths felt heavy when the decision makers looked into the eyes of those soldiers and thought of their burden as they climbed the clock towers stairs.