Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland man’s poignant trip to Zambia to salute his grandad’s role in last battle of the Great War

Jack Bannon
Jack Bannon
John Bannon holds a medal awarded to his grandfather Jack Bannon
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

A Newry man will travel to Zambia next month to honour his grandfather, who fought in the last battle of the First World War 100 years ago.

John Bannon (66) has been invited to the African country to take part in official commemorations marking the centenary of the end of the battle.

During the war Zambia's Mbala district - then known as Abercon - was a focus of the British military effort to defeat the German army under their East Africa Commander General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

At 11am on November 11, 1918 the First World War came to an end. However, poor communications meant fighting continued in Mbala. Weapons weren't laid down until the following day when a telegram with the news finally arrived.

Born in 1891, John (Jack) T Bannon signed up for the Royal Irish Rifles at the age 21 as a reservist.

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 he was working as a horse and van driver for McAreavey's furniture removals in Newry.

He joined the East Africa Rifles, was promoted to Battalion Sergeant Major, and bestowed with the Distinguished Service Medal. Jack left Belfast in May 1916 and landed in Africa in early July.

Despite surviving the war, John says his grandfather almost died in the post-conflict Spanish flu epidemic that claimed a 100 million deaths worldwide.

He eventually returned to Ireland in April 1919 after four different ship journeys, and later married Margaret (Cissie) Brady.

The couple had one son, Patrick, who is now 92 and still living in Newry.

After the war Jack became a well-known figure in the world of public transport, training as a mechanic and forming the Newry Bus Company.

He later joined the Belfast Omnibus Company, which ultimately became the Ulster Transport Authority.

Down the years Jack kept his experiences of the war largely to himself. He passed away in April 1961.

John said: "He never really talked much about his time during the war, except to reminisce about teaching some of the locals the popular wartime songs like It's A Long Way To Tipperary.

"Afterwards he was offered a full-time officer's commission but he had no interest -he thought their party lifestyle would be too much for him!"

John's interest in his grandfather's role in the East Africa campaign came after reading his diaries.

"I just couldn't believe the scale of what happened out there," he said.

"It really blew my mind to read about my grandfather's African adventures and realise his central role in the war."

More than 18 countries will be represented at next month's commemorations in Zambia, including Britain, France, Russia, India, the USA and Japan.

John will be the only person from Ireland to attend alongside distinguished guests, including a grandson of General von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The events will include a re-enactment of the receipt of the telegraph notice of the end of hostilities and a wreath-laying parade at Mbala's cenotaph on November 25.

"It will be a once in a lifetime opportunity and a very emotional experience to honour my heroic grandfather and stand where he stood exactly a century ago," John added.

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