BRITAIN will build new memorials to honour black and Asian soldiers who died fighting for its empire in world wars but were not commemorated.
A special committee convened by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission found that at least 116,000 such casualties, and perhaps as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name and some were not commemorated at all. A further 45,000-54,000 other casualties were commemorated unequally.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said in the Commons that the unequal treatment identified in a report was inexcusable, reported The Times.
The UK government apologised on Thursday (22) for historical failures by which ‘pervasive racism’ underpinned a failure to properly commemorate personnel from the colonies.
Wallace said: “On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and of the government both of the time and of 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.”
In Sierra Leone, 795 names of those who should have been commemorated will, after consultation, be added to a new memorial within the next two years. The commission said it was too soon to be specific on how many new memorials elsewhere would be required, “but where absences in commemoration can be corrected, they will be, in a timely manner”.
In other cases, the commission said that names would be added to existing ‘nameless memorials’. It said decisions on how personnel were memorialised would hinge on discussions with local communities and that some memorials would probably be digital.
Besides, the commission will seek to add all known names of previously uncommemorated casualties to an online database, The Times report added.
David Olusoga, professor of public history at Manchester University, said that Britain’s failure was one of the worst scandals he had come across in his career.
“It is a war that deeply changed our culture, and part of the impact of the First World War was the power of the way those who fell were memorialised. 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,” Olusoga, whose television company produced the 2019 documentary Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes, which led to the investigation, told the BBC Radio 4.
“It is an absolute scandal. It is one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian, but the biggest scandal is that this was known years ago.”
David Lammy MP, who presented the documentary, told the BBC that while making the film in Kenya and Tanzania, he discovered mass graves in which Africans had been ‘dumped with no commemoration whatsoever’.
The report estimates that more than three million British colonial and dominion subjects served in the First World War and more than 500,000 died. While about a third of those serving were from the ‘white-settled dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand’, they were only ‘one part of a much bigger global story’.
Professor Michèle Barrett’s research uncovered the extent to which black and Asian casualties were not given equal treatment by the Imperial War Graves Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
She was a member of the commission’s special committee, which has now published findings on this unequal treatment.