‘Prejudice’ led to a failure to commemorate thousands of soldiers of colour

Colonial WWI soldiers
Support us and go ad-free

The UK government has apologised for failing to equally commemorate up to 350,000 British Empire troops who died in WW1.

The controversy centres on a report on equality of commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). This report came off the back of a 2019 documentary on the issue presented by Labour MP David Lammy.

Overlooked

The report shows that tens of thousands of imperial troops were not commemorated in the same way white soldiers were. It also found that somewhere between 116,000 and 350,000 servicemen were either not commemorated by name or overlooked entirely. Most of this group came from African, Arab, and Asian countries:

This report estimates that between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties (predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel) were commemorated unequally.

A further 116,000 casualties (predominantly, but not exclusively, East African and Egyptian personnel) but potentially as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all.

The organisation accepted a degree of responsibility for the imbalance:

Although conditions and circumstances sometimes made the IWGC’s job difficult or even impossible, on many occasions differences in commemoration were avoidable. This report finds that the IWGC is responsible for these shortcomings – either because of its own decision making or its complicity in the decision making of other authorities.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

It also acknowledges that “prejudice” played a role:

Despite clearly making this argument, this report also shines a light on wider administrative errors and prejudiced attitudes that influenced or played a role in bringing about these issues.

Ultimately, many of these errors and attitudes belonged to departments of the British Imperial Government, including the War Office and Colonial Office.

Scandals

The historian David Olusoga called the issue:

one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian

He also tweeted that the unequal treatment amounted to a form of apartheid:

 

Olusoga then linked to the 2019 documentary made by David Lammy. Here, Lammy discovered that East African troops had been buried without headstones. He also found that most of these headstones are in what is now an overgrown verge between a road and a well-preserved cemetery for white troops in Kenya.

In a Guardian piece on the issue, Lammy described some of the attitudes which had led to the unequal commemorations:

The logic for this outrage was explained by Gordon Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), who wrote in 1923: “The average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone.” A War Graves Commission document refers to African soldiers and carriers as “semi-savage”. Another states “they are hardly in such a state of civilisation as to appreciate such a memorial”, and “the erection of individual memorials would represent a waste of public money”

A founding principle of the war graves commission was that those killed in the war, whatever their rank or background, should have equality in death.

Featured image via John Warwick Brooke/Wikimedia Commons

Support us and go ad-free

Get involved

 

 

 

 

 

Do your bit for independent journalism

Did you know that less than 1.5% of our readers contribute financially to The Canary? Imagine what we could do if just a few more people joined our movement to achieve a shared vision of a free and fair society where we nurture people and planet.

We need you to help out, if you can.

When you give a monthly amount to fund our work, you are supporting truly independent journalism. We hold power to account and have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence the counterpoint to the mainstream.

You can count on us for rigorous journalism and fearless opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right wing mainstream media.

In return you get:

  • Advert free reading experience
  • Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
  • 20% discount from our shop

 

The Canary Fund us