African History Month

Remembrance: Remembering the African Experience in WWI

by Nick Park, Director of Evangelical Alliance and Pastor of Solid Rock, Drogheda

Remembrance Sunday, by its very nature, stirs up all kinds of memories. Some of these are individual memories. As a young child, I remember my grandfather showing me sepia-toned photographs, (those brown-coloured photographs you see in museums) of his mates that served in the trenches with him in the First World War.

Today, no-one with first-hand memories of that conflict remains alive. The last WWI veteran died in 2012.

But memories are also shared by nationalities and communities. And, as we know only too well in Ireland, sometimes those memories are extremely selective.  I thought I understood the dynamics and catastrophic cost of what became known as the Great War.  I have seen enough war memorials wreathed in poppies that list the names of young men who died on Flanders’ fields. At school I memorised stanzas by war poets such as Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen that have stayed with me through the intervening years . (Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of  fumbling   Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,)

I’ve watched jerky black-and-white film footage of those who returned from the War suffering from shell shock. And I’ve read heart-breaking eye-witness reports of those who were severely ill with shell shock, yet were court-martialled for cowardice and faced the firing squad.

So, when asylum seekers from Africa began attending the church I pastor in Drogheda, it was coming up to November, and I felt it was my duty to educate them about Remembrance Sunday by sharing all these community memories with them. And then the inherent bias in my community’s First World War memories was exposed by a simple question.  “What about the Africans who suffered and died in that war?”

I was stumped. There was nothing in my community’s memories that even mentioned that. I had thought I was doing such a great job of educating my new friends about Remembrance Sunday and WWI from my community’s memories. But I had neglected to learn from their communities and their memories of that great conflict.

Africa and WWI

I discovered that over 2 million Africans were involved in WWI.  200,000 of them died on those French and Belgian battlefields. Even worse, as colonial armies marched around Africa, they conscripted Africans as bearers – carrying supplies and weapons.  300,000 of the bearers died, literally worked to death.  And the removal of so many able-bodied men, both soldiers and bearers, so devastated local economies that an estimated 1 million more Africans died from starvation and disease.

I had known nothing about all this. Growing up in Ireland, it wasn’t part of our memories of that horrible war.

Learning from my new African-Irish friends, I came to a fresh realisation that even the best of memories, even the most poignant of Remembrance Sundays, can only remember a small and selective slice of the pain caused by warfare.  I’ve tried to comfort Russian mothers who lost loved ones in a school siege in Beslan, an event that was all over our TV screens in 2004, but now the memories have been largely eclipsed by other tragedies.  I’ve listened to the stories of those from both communities in Northern Ireland who suffered such pain during the years of the Troubles.  I’ve been brought to tears in a refugee camp in Lebanon, listening to the stories of those who fled their homes in Syria.  And I grieve for families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, and haven’t even been able to conduct their funerals with the usual traditions and rites of passage.

My mind struggles to grasp the enormity of so many persecutions, of our community memory here in Ireland of how the Great Hunger was amplified by occupation and maintaining a war machine overseas, and of genocides perpetrated against the Armenians, the Jews and Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe, and in Rwanda.

It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by our inability to maintain all these memories.

But in the Old Testament, in Exodus 6:5,  God said to Moses, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.”

When it says that God remembered, that doesn’t mean that he had previously forgotten. But rather that God had continually maintained the memory of every cruelty, of every injustice, of every enslavement, of every death. And he was raising up Moses to right those wrongs.

As the song sums up words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel,  “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

Remembrance Sunday is a needed reminder to us as Christians that, even if our finite human memories can’t remember all of it, we need to hear the groaning of suffering and sacrifice. If we become indifferent to it, then how can we become those peacemakers whom Jesus says will be called sons of God.

Become part of the solution

At times the Christian Church has been complicit in the violence we remember on this day – waving flags and cheering on the bloodshed from the sidelines. Some have even questioned whether we should be commemorating a day like Remembrance Sunday. But it is important that we remember such momentous events, because, unlike God, we do have a tendency to forget. And unless we remember, the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be the people God always intended us to be. Peacemakers.  Those who become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.