BRITAIN issued an apology on Thursday (22) for failures that meant ‘pervasive racism’ might have denied a proper commemoration to as many as 350,000 black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire in world wars.
An independent inquiry commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) found that hundreds of thousands of mostly African and Middle Eastern casualties from World War One were not commemorated by name, or at all.
The CWGC works to commemorate Commonwealth forces and ensure that all those killed in the two world wars are remembered in the same way, regardless of rank, background or religion.
Addressing parliament, British defence secretary Ben Wallace said there was no doubt prejudice had played a part in some of the failures of the Imperial War Graves Commission, the CWGC’s precursor.
“On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the government both at the time and today I want to apologise,” Wallace said. He also expressed ‘deep regret’ that it had taken so long to rectify the situation.
The report found that between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, Egyptian, Somali and from East and West Africa, were commemorated “unequally”.
Another 116,000 casualties and as many as 350,000, predominantly from East Africa and Egypt, were not commemorated by name or possibly not at all.
“The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now,” Claire Horton, director general of the CWGC, said. “We recognise the wrongs of the past and are deeply sorry and will be acting immediately to correct them.”
The CWGC, which will act on the report’s 10 recommendations such as seeking out new names and adding explanations at relevant sites, commissioned the inquiry in December 2019 after a television documentary found it had not treated Africans killed in World War One equally.
The investigation found the example of a British governor saying “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone”.
An officer who later worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission wrote that “most of the natives who died are of a semi-savage nature”, so erecting headstones would be a waste of public money.
The report said the decisions that led to the failure to commemorate the dead properly or at all were the result of a lack of information, errors inherited from other organisations and the opinions of colonial administrators.
“Underpinning all these decisions, however, were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes,” it concluded.