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The Colonel at cross purposes

15 August 2014

Ninety years ago this month, Colonel Allin Methuen met a wall of resistance when he tried to unveil a memorial to African troops who died in the Great War. But he was not to be denied, as Cliff Lonsdale explains


Methuen's memorial: Cross Kopje, Mutare, Zimbabwe, as it is today

Methuen's memorial: Cross Kopje, Mutare, Zimbabwe, as it is today

IT WAS the indifference that Colonel Methuen could not accept. The Governor, Sir John Chancellor, had promised, but the Civil Commissioner had talked him out of it. On a string of flimsy excuses, Chancellor would not, after all, unveil a monument to African soldiers who had given their lives for the British cause in the First World War.

Instead, on that warm August afternoon in 1924, Chancellor would be gracing a colonial garden party in the Eastern Highlands town of Umtali, below the massive stone cross that Methuen had erected to correct an unacceptable wrong.

The official war memorial for Umtali - a simple obelisk in a park off Main Street - carried no specific mention of the often-barefoot, black "askaris" of the Rhodesia Native Regiment (RNR), who had died fighting the Germans in the East African campaign.

In the heady atmosphere of the newly granted "responsible government" of Southern Rhodesia - a reward for its white population's enthusiastic response to Britain's call to arms - African sacrifice in the same cause was now an inconvenient truth. It was something to be grateful for, of course, but also to be forgotten as quickly as possible when political power was at stake.

Lt. Col. James Allin Methuen DSO, the district's volunteer military commandant, was not going to stand by and let that happen. A colonialist he undoubtedly was, a man of his time, but he was also a man of deep Christian faith. All people, he believed, deserved respect. It was a principle he lived by, and inconvenience did not come into it.

Methuen was a colourful character, better known in Umtali for his wicked sense of humour than for his faith. He exercised the latter without display.

The contrast with other aspects of his life was sharp. Having started his career as an engineering apprentice in a shipyard on the Clyde, for his African home he built himself a Scottish-style stone castle, complete with turrets, and symbolically guarded by field guns.

Few knew that he also taught evening classes in the Anglican "native church", helping Africans learn to read and write. He had been wounded in the leg in France in the First World War, and doctors still wanted to amputate it to relieve his recurring pain. Yet he quietly took over the supervision of a floundering mission - supporting it with his own funds, and walking there through the bush once a month, a distance of 16 miles. He did this with minimal fuss.


METHUEN had arrived in Umtali in 1902 - 12 years after the country was occupied by the British South Africa Company's "pioneer column". He started an engineering business, and, as a captain, led the Umtali engineering section of the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers, becoming the commandant of all the Eastern District volunteers in 1910.

He served with distinction in the First World War, first as second-in-command of the First Rhodesian Regiment in German South-West Africa, then on the Western Front as a major with the 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps. He won his DSO for "conspicuous gallantry" in extracting his men from a tough spot with minimal losses.

After being wounded, he ended the war as commanding officer of the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers, in a forward training position in France. He encouraged soldiers to present themselves for confirmation, and became a founding member of Toc H.

Now a Lieutenant-Colonel, in September 1919 Methuen married Doris Pemberton Airth, a nurse who had tended his wound in a London hospital, and returned, with her, to Umtali, his business, and his unpaid position as the district's military commandant.

For the Anglican parish council, he and his brother Stuart drew up plans for a huge stone cross to be erected as a memorial to all the town's war dead. They were shelved, however, when the town council decided on a more modest obelisk, erected and unveiled in December 1922.

AND that might have been the end of it - had the names of the dead of the Rhodesia Native Regiment appeared there, alongside those of the whites who had also made the ultimate sacrifice.

"I think it was just a bit awkward to be memorialising black soldiers who had died in the Great War, when responsible government was largely explained in terms of Rhodesia's great sacrifice during the Great War," says Dr Timothy Stapleton, Professor of History at Trent University in Canada, who wrote a history of the RNR. "It saw itself as having the highest enlistment rate in the British Empire, if you just count among the white community."

The Methuen brothers didn't. They dusted off their plans for the cross. A local farmer called Condy had land on the border with Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique), including a towering rocky outcrop known as Baboon Kopje.

He gave the Methuen brothers permission to erect their 30-foot-high, 50-ton reminder on its summit. The memorial, not just to the men of the RNR but to all African soldiers who died in the war, would be visible right across the town, and well into Portuguese territory.

The kopje's summit was accessible, with difficulty, from only one side. National workers, all paid by the Methuen brothers, struggled up with huge loads of steel and concrete, which the Methuens also provided.

It may be seen as a measure of the Colonel's popularity that he carried much of the white population of Umtali with him in this crusade. When, after two months' effort, the memorial to African troops was completed, the council, whose shortcoming had triggered its erection, obliged by constructing a better path to the summit.

ON 19 AUGUST 1924, as construction was being completed, the first British Governor of Southern Rhodesia passed through the town.

Stuart Methuen met Chancellor in his railway carriage, and, knowing that the Governor planned to be back on 30 August, asked him to unveil the cross at 3.30 p.m. that day. According to Stuart, Chancellor agreed, "barring an act of God", and he hastened to tell his brother the good news.

No sooner had he gone, however, than the Civil Commissioner in Umtali, Norman Chataway, who had been present at the exchange, intervened. There is no full record of the conversation, but its essence can be extrapolated from documents preserved in Defence Department files in the Zimbabwe National Archives.

Did the Governor realise that Methuen's project, despite his status as military commandant, was not officially sanctioned? The Governor did not. Would it do to be seen to be giving official recognition to African sacrifice at this delicate point, when white-dominated "responsible government" had just been proclaimed? Perhaps not. Better find an excuse.

They found not one, but several. The Governor had not really agreed at all - he had just said that he would try to be there. He might be delayed on the road, and he would not want to keep people waiting. He could not risk being late for the Civil Commissioner's garden party at 4 p.m. There was a charity dance to attend later that evening. And, anyway, how could a man of his age be expected to climb such a steep hill? Unaware of all this, Methuen pressed ahead with his arrangements.

On the afternoon of 25 August, the Colonel phoned Chataway and asked whether he would like to see the programme for the unveiling, which he was about to have published in the local paper, The Rhodesia Advertiser. It involved a 17-gun salute, and a contingent of askaris forming a guard of honour, together with a handful of ex-RNR soldiers-turned-policemen from the neighbouring Portuguese territory, accompanied by the commandants of two Portuguese garrisons.


CHATAWAY then dropped his bombshell. He told Methuen that the Governor had never really agreed to take part, and trotted out the excuses. Methuen was in no mood to concede.

Chataway sent a telegram to the Governor's ADC, Captain Lowther. He wrote: "My opinion Governor should not be asked to make this very rough climb and unveiling ceremony unnecessary."

At about 11.30 a.m. on 27 August, Chataway received a firm reply. He was to tell Methuen that His Excellency would not attend, there should be no unveiling announcement, and "the ceremony should not take place."

It was too late. The Advertiser had just published a story announcing that the Governor would perform the unveiling that Saturday - and the Bishop of Southern Rhodesia, Dr Frederic Beaven, had already "cheerfully" climbed the kopje "in spite of his advanced age", and performed a hastily arranged dedication, standing at the foot of the cross, "clad in the scarlet vestments of his office". The Bishop was 69 years old; the Governor was 53.

Chataway relayed the ADC's message to Methuen - but the Colonel was experienced in fighting rearguard actions. Apparently testing the logistical excuses, he proposed two alternatives. The first was for a drive-by unveiling. The Governor's car could just draw up at the gate to Condy's farm, and His Excellency could pull on a string rigged to remove the flag from the cross, half a mile away.

Failing that, Methuen suggested, the Governor could do the unveiling from Chataway's garden party. "Pulling string from lawn in Mr Chataway's garden tied to a bush in the veldt," he detailed in a note to the chief of staff. "Man behind the house with a white handkerchief or flag. Man at Memorial to pull down the flag."

These suggestions were ignored. Chancellor enjoyed the garden party without interruption, while the Mayor of Umtali, Cllr W. Stowe, did the unveiling. But officials in Salisbury were now out for Colonel Methuen's blood.

ON BEHALF of the colony's most senior military officer, his chief of staff demanded: "Did you erect, or cause to be erected, a native war memorial in your capacity as District Commandant, or as a private citizen?" To this Methuen parried: "Neither." Perhaps, in view of the part that his brother had played, he thought the question gave him too much credit.

The Governor personally penned a memorandum in which he struggled to remain aloof: "Without definitely forming an opinion on Col. Methuen's proceedings in this matter, I think he acted improperly:

"(1) In publishing a programme of the unveiling ceremony without authority.

"(2) In inviting armed forces of a Foreign country to enter S. Rhodesia, without authority, to be present at the unveiling."

When this was passed on, Methuen shot back that he had invited the commandants of Villa Perry and Mascquece on the authority of both the Governor himself and the military commandant in Salisbury, who had "told me they wished to invite Portuguese officials on every occasion that anything of importance was taking place in Umtali." Touché.

The confidential correspondence descended into ever more petty allegations. Gradually, however, officials realised that they could not take public proceedings against their district commandant without exposing themselves, and the Governor, to further embarrassment.

After six weeks of thrust and parry, an official wrote in the file: "I am very disinclined to again refer this matter through proper channels to His Excellency the Governor. It would I think serve no good purpose and I think Lt. Col. Methuen would be well advised to let the matter rest where it is."

THE Colonel had won. To this day, his massive memorial on what became known as Cross Kopje remains a feature of the skyline of Mutare, as the third city of Zimbabwe now called. The official war memorial has, unfortunately, been defaced.

Chancellor completed his term as Governor, and was posted in 1928 as High Commissioner to Palestine and Trans-Jordan.

In 1949, Lt. Col. Allin Methuen was made an honorary induna - counsellor - by the Mambo of the Manyika people, Chief Cimuriwo Mutasa, "because you have helped me and my people for many years. You have done much for us, especially the children."

Cliff Lonsdale was formerly chief news editor of CBC Television in Canada. He grew up in Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and, as a journalist, was deported from Rhodesia by the Ian Smith regime.

Correction:In "Conflict on the home front" (Features, 25 July), we included a photograph which we believed to be of the war poet Geoffrey Dearmer. This was, in fact, his brother Christopher.

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