‘Pervasive racism’ left thousands of Black and Asian war dead uncommemorated, UK inquiry finds


The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) formally apologized on Thursday after a report it commissioned found that 116,000 — and potentially up to 350,000 — primarily Black, Indian or Egyptian service personnel remain “not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all,” a century after they died.
It found among the Black and Asian personnel who were commemorated, up to 54,000 individuals were deliberately memorialized differently compared to their White colleagues via collective memorials rather than marked burials, “or by recording the names of the dead in registers rather than engraving them in stone,” the report wrote.
It runs contrary to CWGC stated aims of commending all fallen military personnel equally, “with their name engraved either on a headstone over an identified grave or on a memorial to the missing,” CWGC writes on its website.

This disparity can be explained by racist accounts shared in the report. In 1920, an official who worked with the CWGC in East Africa, said “while some 50,000 members of the Military Labour Corps had died, no marks of identity had ever been placed over their graves,” the report wrote.

The official “also noted that ‘most of the natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature’ and that the ‘erection of individual headstones would constitute a waste of public money,'” the report said.

Other racist statements by colonial administrators included one by a West African colonial governor who stated that “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone.”

Therefore, the report found that the omissions were caused by several contributing factors, including scarcity of information, errors inherited by other organizations and the opinions of colonial administrations. “Underpinning all these decisions,” it wrote, “were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitude.”

“Our response today is simple: the events of a Century ago were wrong then and are wrong now. We are sorry for what happened and will act to right the wrongs of the past. We welcome the Committee’s findings and embrace fully its detailed recommendations,” the CWGC Director General, Claire Horton, said in a statement.

The report was written by a group of independent experts who were commissioned by the CWGC in 2019 to analyze the non-commemoration of war casualties. The inquiry was ordered in the aftermath of a critical Channel 4 TV documentary about the issue in East Africa.

Campaigners have long complained that the substantial contributions of Black and Asian colonial subjects to Britain’s 20th century war efforts have been whitewashed in popular history and culture.

In 2017, the lack of Indian and African faces in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” a film about the evacuation of Allied forces from a French beach during World War II, was criticized as a “whitewash” for not including the accounts of the Indian and African soldiers who were among the forces taking part in the operation.

As the report writes, Britain’s victory in World War I came at the cost of more than 800,000 British deaths and an estimated 500,000 casualties among non-White colonial subjects.

“For example, the Indian Army alone provided more than 1.2 million men, with its soldiers deployed to all the main theatres of the war,” the report writes, adding that “British forces may have employed upwards of 50,000 African soldiers and probably in excess of one million African carriers in the same fighting.”

It adds that an equally large proportion of colonial subjects were coerced into fighting for the empire. “Egypt alone, it has been suggested that around 75% of the 327,000 men who served were recruited forcibly,” it wrote.



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