Speech by Mxolisi Nkosi, Ambassador of South Africa to the Kingdom of Belgium at the Reburial Ceremony of the remains of South African Soldiers who died during World War I, Zonnebeke City Hall, West Flanders, Belgium, 9 July 2013.

Programme Director,


Your Worship, Mayor of Zonnebeke,


Esteemed Representatives of the Belgian Federal Government,


Esteemed Representatives of the Flemish Regional Government,


Esteemed Representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Memorial,


Chief of South African Reserve Forces, Major-General Anderson,


Members of the Diplomatic Corps,


Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,


Permit me to commence my address by reading a war-time ode in honour of the memory of the city of Ypres.




She was a city of patience; of proud name,

Dimmed by neglecting Time; of beauty and loss;

Of acquiescence in the creeping moss.

But on a sudden fierce destruction came

Tigerishly pouncing: thunderbolt and flame

Showered on her streets, to shatter them and toss

Her ancient towers to ashes. Riven across,

She rose, dead, into never-dying fame.

White against heavens of storm, a ghost, she is known

To the world’s ends. The myriads of the brave

Sleep round her. Desolately glorified,

She, moon-like, draws her own far-moving tide

Of sorrow and memory; toward her, each alone,

Glide the dark dreams that seek an English grave.


This emotional, yet fitting tribute to the historic city of Ypres, one of the main battle grounds of World War I was paid by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943).[1]


World War I was a war without parallel – all previous wars were eclipsed by the sheer scale of its destruction. For the first time, the war involved the use of new technology such as aeroplanes, tanks and submarines. But it is the gruesome trench-warfare that remains the lasting image, indeed the icon of World War I.


Triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on a visit to Sarajevo, World War I was a struggle between Europe’s great powers, grouped into two hostile alliances, the central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey), and the allied powers (Britain, France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, USA). As well as all the great powers of Europe being involved, the war also extended into Asia and Africa. Troops throughout the British and French colonies rallied to support the allies. Over three million came from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.


Britain’s entry into the war was precipitated by the brazen invasion of Belgium, at the time a neutral country and a “buffer zone” between the great powers of Europe, namely, Germany, France and Britain. This act of aggression by an expansionist Germany was a breach of the Treaty of London[2], which the German Chancellor contemptuously referred to as a “scrap of paper.”[3] In the minds of German military strategists, Belgium’s geo-strategic location made it a natural choice as a corridor for launching a blitzkrieg into France . In pursuit of part of this strategy, popularly known as the Schlieffen Plan[4], it was inevitable that Belgium’s neutrality would be compromised.


The rejection by the Belgian government of the German ultimatum for unimpeded passage into France was an act of courage and resistance against the mighty German army. This set the scene for the right versus might narrative. Whereas Belgium stood for the rule of law and principle, Germany was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion for the violation of Belgium’s neutrality.


Germany’s invasion of Belgium provoked a great sense of indignation. In the words of Mary Stocks, the general “revulsion of feeling on learning of the Belgian invasion, which brought [us all] into wholehearted support of the war effort [and] (…) was seen as a monstrous, wicked, unprovoked act of aggression against a small neutral country which we were honour bound to assist.”[5]


Ladies and Gentlemen,


The unparalleled devastation of the war and its horrific, grisly images prompted poet Wilfred Owen to pen one of the most famous war-time poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth:


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


We pay tribute to all the young men and women of the time who sacrificed life and limb in this war!


The legal status of the dominions, of which South Africa was one, precluded any of them remaining neutral in a British war. Consequently they were ipso facto deemed to be at war on the side of the Crown. Upon the outbreak of the war, the South African National Congress (SANC), a fore-runner to the African National Congress (ANC) had ceased agitation against the Union government’s racist Natives’ policy, in particular the then recently promulgated Native Land Act of 1913 which dispossessed Africans of their land. Driven by the bigger interest, the SANC, not wishing to embarrass the government during the time of domestic as well as international tension, resolved to support the war effort. It even went further and offered to help recruiting troops, and in return for loyalty to King and country it expected to be rewarded by recognition of an African stake in the economic and political order.[6] This first major act of magnanimity and I may add bipartisanship by the ANC sought to preserve unity and isolate the noisy anti-war lobby in and outside the Union government.


Following a decision of the Union government in the affirmative, a South African Battalion was deployed for service in Europe under British command. Between 1915 and 1918, South African soldiers were involved in fierce frontline battles in some of WWI’s famous battlefields in Belgium, such as the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, the Battle of Ypres, and the Battle of Lys.


Here, in Zonnebeke, over 10000 km from South Africa lies the mortal remains of three of my countrymen. I have no doubt there are many more. The reburial service that we have just conducted is in recognition of their bravery and readiness to serve.


These combatants were part of an African detachment from many African countries who served with the Allied forces during the First World War, as front line troops and in auxiliary roles. Of a population of some 30,000,000 in the African Colonies of the British Empire, 55,000 men served as combatant soldiers, and many hundreds of thousands more as carriers and auxiliary troops. They hailed from Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Many African combatants saw active service in their home continent, taking part in the campaigns to capture the German-controlled territories of Togo, Cameroon, German South West Africa (now Namibia) and German East Africa (now Tanzania).


The heroic deeds of chivalry performed by the South African Labour Corps in Africa,  was rewarded with recruitment for service overseas. Three frigates ferrying this contingent sailed from our warm shores to  Europe’s icy shores at the beginning of 1917. Only two of these ships landed safely in France, with the third, the SS Mendi, with over 600 men, sinking off the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917 as a result of a collision with another vessel, the SS Darro, in the thick fog.


As his men were starring death in the eye, the Chaplain on board Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha exalted them to accept their fate with valour when he said, “Be quite and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies…”[7]


The men sang and stamped the death dance together as the SS Mendi sank, taking with her all still on board and many who leapt into the icy waters (607 black troops along with 9 of their fellow white countrymen and all 33 crew members).


On receiving the news of the disaster on 9 March 1917, all the members of the South African House of Assembly, rose in their seats as a token of respect to their fellow South Africans who had gone down with SS Mendi.


The survivors were to continue with their military service in France.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


Like so many other military disasters, the story of the SS Mendi is a story of supreme courage in the face of death and valour shown in dire circumstances. The courage displayed by these men has remained a legend in South African military history.[8]


African soldiers who saw military action in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa itself learned modern military skills in battle and were able to demonstrate their leadership abilities. Many of them performed acts of bravery and endurance that should have banished once and for all any racist notions that Africans, given a chance, could not measure up to Europeans. Once the war ended, African veterans felt that they had earned at least the right to be treated with respect. Basil Davidson quotes a Nigerian soldier who wrote home from India during the war:


We, all overseas soldiers are coming home with new ideas. We have been told what we fought for. That is freedom. We want freedom, nothing but freedom.


African veterans resented very much the lack of gratitude shown by their colonial masters. Many British veterans were rewarded for their part in saving Britain and her empire with generous pensions and offers of nearly free land in the colonies. The African soldiers were given hand- shakes and train tickets for the journey back home. They could keep their khakhi uniforms and nothing else. These African soldiers, after returning home, were willing to use their new skills to assist nationalist movements fighting for freedom that were beginning to take shape in the colonies. Service in the colonial army made it possible for Africans from different regions of the same colony to meet and get to know one another, an important step in the breakdown of ethnic barriers and the development of shared identification with the country as a whole.[9]


When the fighting was finally over, no-one could tell exactly how many had been killed but historians estimate that up to 10 million men lost their lives on the battlefield – and another 20 million were wounded. An estimated 10,000 were killed or died while serving. More than one million Africans had fought on behalf of their colonial rulers. Many had hoped that their service would lead to more rights and opportunities. Instead, the situation remained mostly the same or even worsened.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


World War I contributed to the shaping of the contours of the twentieth century geopolitical landscape. It triggered the collapse of the three major empires of eastern Europe and central Asia: Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. It gave rise to the Russian Revolution and to the Soviet Union; it prompted the U.S.’s maiden entree into world affairs; but failed to resolve the problems of the Balkans and generated new ones in the Middle East. More importantly though, the war bequeathed multilateralism in the form of the League of Nations unto the international system, which though threatened by regression to unilateralism endures till today.


Undoubtably the war left much of Europe in severe economic hardship. As well as political changes the war led to social changes in Europe too – with wider opportunities and greater equality for women.


But 80 years later it is perhaps best remembered for the staggering loss of human life. In the decade following the war many had the firm conviction that it should be “the war to end all wars”, but alas! this was not to be as another world war with more calamitous consequences took place 20 years later.


The war’s connotations of waste, futility, and military incompetence have remained remarkably persistent. The war was a behemoth, possessed of a life and dynamic of its own and creating unintended consequences independent of the designs of either statesmen or generals. The war, or so the story goes, proved Clausewitz’s much-abused aphorism spectacularly wrong: it was not a political instrument, but an end in itself.[10]


Ladies and Gentlemen,


As we prepare to commemorate the centenary of WWI next year, 2014, the best homage we can pay to the martyrs of this deadly war is to declare: Never, never again… shall so many a life be sacrificed in a senseless war!


The blood shed by my countrymen in this and other battlefields has cemented the bonds of friendship and solidarity between South Africa and Belgium. These relations, which are thriving and enduring find concrete expression in the ever-expanding economic ties, development, cooperation and people-people interaction. We owe it to the South African martyrs of WWI who died on Belgian soil to intensify these bilateral ties of friendship, solidarity and cooperation.



I thank you.

[1] Lawrence Binyon was Keeper of Oriental Paintings and Prints at the British Museum and was Professor of Poetry at Harvard for a year. During the war he worked in a Red Cross unit at the front in France.

[2] Treaty of London Treaty between Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia, and Russia, on the one part, and The Netherlands, on the other signed at London, 19th April, 1839, bound Britain to guard the neutrality of Belgium in the event of the latter’s invasion.

[3] The German Chancellor stated that “just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.” The Times, “The Eve of War,” August 28, 1914.

[4] Gross, Gerhard P., “There was a Schlieffen Plan: New Sources on the History of German Military Planning”, War in History, Vol. 15, Issue 4 (November 2008), pg. 389.

[5] See excerpt in Joyce Marrow, ed, The Virago Book of Women and the Great War (London, 1999), pg. 23

[6] Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa, 1912-1952, C.Hurst & Co Publishers, 1970, pg 263.

[7] SA Legion – Atteridgeville Branch and Navy News)

[8]The South African Military History Society Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereeniging Military History Journal – Vol 10 No 1 THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI, 21 FEBRUARY 1917


[9] Davidson Basil, Modern Africa, 2nd Edition, New York: Longman, 1989, p. 66.

[10] Strachan H, The War to End All Wars? Lessons of World War I Revisited January/February 2003, Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, Oxford University, and author of The First World War: To Arms.