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At least 116,000 mostly African and Middle Eastern casualties from the First World War, “were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all,” a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) committee has found. It estimated that the true number may be high as 350,000, citing “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes.”
The CWGC has apologised unreservedly for the historical wrongs and for “failing to live up to [its] founding principle, of ‘equality of treatment in death’.”
Appearing before the Commons on 22 April, the Secretary of State for Defence and Chair of the CWGC, Ben Wallace, apologised on behalf of the CWGC and the Government of the time and today. He said the Government would be “open” to considering further funding for the CWGC to support education and commemoration.
This Insight explains the background to the report, its findings, and how the CWGC and UK Government will take forward its recommendations.
Background to the report
In 2019, the CWGC established the Special Committee and its review into historical inequalities in commemoration following the Channel 4 documentary, Unremembered.
Writing in the Guardian, Lammy said the CWGC “decreed […] a morbid form of apartheid” in the 1920s, where individual graves were not provided to the non-White soldiers who died serving outside Europe.
The CWGC said it would conduct a full review of commemorations, to “look at the difficult issues that remain, including where our treatment of casualties was unequal.”
The CWGC has previously committed to improve community engagement, including with minority and diaspora communities and public history bodies in Commonwealth states, and to work with member countries to plan and build new memorials to those currently not represented. Prior to 2019, the CWGC supported the creation of new memorials in Mozambique, Kenya, South Africa and Namibia.
Number of troops
The Special Committee estimates that more than 3 million people from British Colonial and Dominion territories served in the war, and that “potentially upwards” of half a million died.
Historical inequalities in commemoration
The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission (IWGC) was established to identify the war dead and ensure that “all […] should have equal treatment in their graves.”
The Special Committee found that the IWGC “prioritised the Western front battlefields” in its commemoration efforts and when building memorials and cemeteries. It said that in many areas of the global conflict, scarcity of information, errors in recording and attitudes of colonial administrators resulted in a divergence from the IWGC’s principles.
Instead, the IWGC often followed the advice of local governors. The Committee cites (p39) the example of Governor Gordon Guggisberg who told the IWGC that “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone.”
The Committee estimates that:
- Between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties are or were commemorated differently across East Africa, West Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. While some had collective memorials, others had marked burials or their names recorded in registers.
- At least 116,000 casualties, but up to 350,000, may not be commemorated by name or at all. These people were primarily from East Africa and Egypt.
These decisions, the Committee said, were “owned by the IWGC” and underpinned by “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes.”
How did the CWGC respond?
- An ongoing commitment to search for the unnamed war dead and those potentially not commemorated
- Developing an education and engagement strategy for communities currently underrepresented through commemoration
- Digital rather than physical platforms for commemoration
- Reviewing whether to add context panels for existing memorials to discuss “historical flaws”
- Constructing new memorials or commemorative structures, where possible, “in a timely manner.”
David Lammy said the apology offered an opportunity to better respect all those who served:
No apology can ever make up for the indignity suffered by The Unremembered. However, this apology does offer the opportunity for us as a nation to work through this ugly part of our history – and properly pay our respects to every soldier who has sacrificed their life for us.
The Chair of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Elwood, also welcomed the apology.
Government statement and future support for the CWGC
On 22 April, the Secretary of State for Defence and Chair of the CWGC, Ben Wallace, apologised on behalf of the CWGC and the Government of the time and today “for the failures to live up to the founding principles […] and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation.”
The Secretary of State said the House would be regularly updated on the CWGC’s progress and that the Ministry of Defence would “be open” to considering further funding for the CWGC to support its education and commemoration activities.
He said a new consultation would soon be launched to waive the visa settlement fees for service personnel from the Commonwealth and Nepal who choose to settle in the UK.
About the Author: Philip Loft is a researcher specialising in international relations and the Commonwealth at the House of Commons Library.