The Armistice Day parade in Princetown yesterday was a resounding success despite a wind cold enough to freeze neat gin. Beautifully organised by the local committee, it was a tapestry of beautifully pressed military uniforms, clanking medals and smart young service people – as well as a few old toppies in civilian clothes like myself.
We marched down the main street and despite the cold, local people lined the street in their droves. We duly formed up in front of the hundred year old cenotaph memorial for a short service to commemorate the dead and while the Padre was delivering his sermon, my wreath burst open. A helpful lady had opened it up before the parade to put a weight in it as Princetown winds are inclined to be violent as well as cold. Unfortunately she or we perhaps because I helped, hadn’t put it back together properly and the whole thing sprang apart, dropping the weight on to the tarmac. There followed minutes of anguished fumbling to put it together without being able to look down at what I was doing because I was standing at ease with my head up and my shoulders back – I had almost forgotten how good that feels.
Anyway, I was thankful when ‘The Rhodesian Armed Forces’ were called and I could get rid of the damned thing. As I bent down to place it on the monument, what I had feared most happened. I burst into tears! With a row of medals on my chest that must have looked weird but I couldn’t help it and was not sorry about it.
Anyway, it was all a great success and I have been invited back next year so that is nice. I will make sure my wreath is intact this time and look at it carefully beforehand to see just how it is all put together.
A day later and it is a solemn day for all former Rhodesians, even those like me who refer to ourselves as Zimbabweans. Fifty-four years ago today, Ian Douglas Smith declared our little country unilaterally independent from Britain. It was a momentous occasion and although the consequences were to be severe, we were all very proud of Smithy.
Most of the outside world condemned UDI and imposed sanctions on Rhodesia, but that merely ensured that our resourceful citizens learned how to make everything for themselves rather than import goods from other countries. British politicians cursed and swore, but we became ever more self-sufficient. Blacks and whites worked together in the cause of survival and when the guerrilla war – no damn it; it was a terrorist war – started, our security forces were very much in control of the situation.
Then Russia and China took a hand and gradually the tide turned. The weight of numbers against us increased and gradually, Smith and his Ministers were forced to negotiate conditions for peace. It was a peace that still has not come to Zimbabwe even though the Western world promptly washed their hands of my country.
Many people in Britain have told me that they looked upon that horrible little war as a conflict between black and white, but that just was not the case. The majority of casualties on our side were black and they included the military and innocent civilians. My Support Unit Company for instance consisted of a hundred and twenty black men and at the most, six whites. Is that racist? I don’t think so and I loved those black men like the brothers I never had. Yes I was in command, but they were all ‘my men’ and I was proud of them.
With the benefit of hindsight, UDI was a decision that led to enormous loss of life but Smith was an honest man and a born leader. Unlike the political leaders of today, he did not travel in convoy and he was readily approachable. He certainly was not as bright as many of his political opponents in the Western World but I and the majority of Rhodesians would have followed him in any circumstances. He had the charisma that rarely exists in the modern political classes.
It is all history now and cannot be changed but after my sad euphoria (does that make sense?) of yesterday, today will be a day of solemn reflection and remembering the Rhodesians who died for my little country.
I will raise a glass or three to them all this evening and can only pray that British politicians and the British Legion will see sense next year and I will not be the only former Rhodesian allowed to lay a wreath for the fallen in an official parade.
I have often heard it said that politics should not interfere with sport and it is so but above all, politics should not interfere with a proud nation’s wish to honour their dead. Yet it still does and that just cannot be justified.
I used to wear a tee shirt proclaiming that I was ‘proud to be a Rhodesian.’ Incredibly that was almost forty years ago but the sentiment still holds good.
I am incredibly proud of my tormented little country.