British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has apologised after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission found itself guilty of “pervasive racism” with respect to the way some ethnic minority veterans were commemorated — or not — over 100 years ago.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), formerly the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), was established in 1917 in order to memorialise those who died during the Great War while fighting for the British Empire, with “the principle of equality of treatment in death” being a key tenet of the organisation.
However, an investigation has now found that some predominantly black and Asian veterans who fell in war zones beyond Europe were commemorated inadequately or, in some cases, not at all.
The CWGC explains on its website that “between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties (predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel) were commemorated unequally”, and “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.”
Some of the Commission’s failings, it is explained, are due to “conditions and circumstances [that] sometimes made the IWGC’s job difficult or even impossible, [but] on many occasions differences in commemoration were avoidable”.
Ethnic minority veterans did not, on occasion, receive individual headstones, or were commemorated on collective memorials which did not list individual names. At times, the decision not to memorialise the fallen outside Europe in this manner was driven by “contemporary attitudes towards non-European faiths and differing funerary rites”, and the feeling of some senior colonial officials that their wards were “hardly in such a state of civilisation as to appreciate such a memorial” and that “the erection of individual memorials would represent a waste of public money”.
“The average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone,” argued the former colony’s governor in 1923, for example.
Some at the Imperial War Graves Commission did push back at such suggestions, however, with principal assistant secretary Lord Arthur Browne writing back to the governor to argue that “In perhaps two or three hundred years’ time, when the native population had reached a higher stage of civilisation, they might then be glad to see that headstones had been erected on the native graves and that the native soldiers had received precisely the same treatment as their white comrades,” for example.
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Ben Wallace, Britain’s Secretary of State for Defence, issued an official apology for the now-century-old offences in Parliament, saying that “There can be no doubt prejudice played a part in some of the Commission’s decisions.”
“Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the government both of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to their founding principles all those years ago, and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation,” he continued.
“While we can’t change the past we can make amends and take action,” he added, confirming that the CWGC would accept all the recommendations of the committee which produced the war graves report to attempt to ensure the inadequately memorialised fallen are now commemorated properly.
“No apology can ever make up for the indignity suffered by the unremembered,” railed David Lammy MP, the Shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice for the opposition Labour Party.
“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,” he added, perhaps hinting that the war graves incident will be yet another historic offence which the nation will be expected to “confront”.
“When it came to men who were black and brown and Asian and African, it is not equal, particularly the Africans who have been treated in a way that is, as I said, it’s apartheid in death,” accused BBC historian David Olusoga.
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