Ministers came under mounting pressure last night to reverse an “outrageous” ban on Zimbabwe from attending the Cenotaph to remember southern Rhodesians killed in the two world wars.
More than 34,000 young men from southern Rhodesia – both black and white – served in the world wars with an estimated 1,800 losing their lives.
But no official from present-day Zimbabwe is allowed to attend the wreath-laying at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in a ban that dates back more than 50 years.
The sanction was first put in place in response to Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence from the UK in 1965. Zimbabwe was banned again in 2003 after it withdrew from the Commonwealth as Robert Mugabe’s regime grew more tyrannical.
Although Zimbabwe has now applied to rejoin the Commonwealth after Mr Mugabe was forced out of office, its officials will remain barred from Sunday’s emotional service that will mark 100 years since the end of First World war.
In contrast, High Commissioners from the other Commonwealth countries will lay wreaths.
By November 1918, more than one in ten Southern Rhodesians – 846 out of approximately 8,100 who were sent to fight in Europe – had been killed.
Of the 26,000 troops who served in the Second World War, roughly 8,000 of whom were sent to Europe, East Africa, the Middle East and Burma, 916 were killed, according to official historical records.
Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party deputy chairman and owner of the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses, called for the urgent lifting of the ban in an article in the daily telegraph at the weekend.
That, in turn, has prompted a growing outcry with dozens of telegraph readers writing to the newspaper in support.
“Whoever was responsible for this outrageous decision should be made to rescind it immediately,” wrote one reader, adding: “many Rhodesians served loyally in this country’s armed forces throughout the 20th century and this should be recognised by those in authority.”
Last night senior politicians and former military leaders added their wight to the campaign.
General Sir Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said: “Regardless of the politics, soldiers from southern Rhodesia who fought in the first and second world wars should be recognised along with everybody else from the Empire and former colonies.”
Conservative MP and former Army officer Tom Tugendhat, chairman of foreign affairs select committee, said: “I think it is right for the Government to reconsider this now, particularly on the centenary. It was the Commonwealth which came in our hour of need, who stopped the German advance. I hope my colleagues in Government will recognise that.”
Julian Brazier, a former defence minister, said: “The Rhodesian contribution to both wars was completely disproportionate, they showed immense bravery.
“I think we need to recognise also that they were Rhodesians of all colours, including the African Rifles, and that they served in the ancillary services and the SAS. I think it is well overdue that they are readmitted.”
Julian Lewis, the Tory chairman of the defence committee, said: “Whatever sanctions may have been taken against an obnoxious regime, it cannot, surely, have been right to penalise and prevent veterans and their families from paying tribute to their fallen comrades.
“The two issues should have been treated as entirely separate and the issue should be reconsidered now. Paying our respect to the fallen should never be entangled with political disputes between governments.”
An Foreign Office spokesman said: “High Commissioners from Commonwealth countries are invited to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. Zimbabwe participated in wreath-laying ceremonies in the past.
“This invitation no longer stood when Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth. If Zimbabwe were to rejoin the Commonwealth, which the UK would welcome, their High Commissioner would once again be invited.”