Apology after British Empire’s African and Middle Eastern war dead treated unequally

Historian claims commission was complicit in treating non-white soldiers as inferior

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission found non-white soldiers were treated differently to their white comrades. Getty Images 
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission found non-white soldiers were treated differently to their white comrades. Getty Images 

The UK on Thursday formally apologised for failing to properly commemorate hundreds of thousands of non-white soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire in the same way as their white comrades.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission issued an apology after an inquiry it commissioned found hundreds of thousands of mostly African and Middle Eastern casualties from the First World War "were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all".

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace apologised on behalf of the government.

"There can be no doubt: prejudice played a part in some of the commission's decisions," he told the House of Commons.

"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."

Historians said the soldiers were treated to a form of “apartheid in death” and the failure to recognise them in the same way as their white colleagues was an “absolute scandal”.

Prof David Olusoga, whose television company produced TV documentary The Unremembered, which sparked an inquiry on the issue, said at one particular cemetery in southern Kenya the graves of black soldiers were abandoned while their white counterparts were given well-maintained headstones.

“Outside the walls of the cemetery in the bush covered in litter are little markers of the African soldiers and carriers who died in the First World War,” he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.

“They were comrades in arms to those British soldiers but treated to a form of apartheid in death.”

All fallen military personnel are supposed to be commemorated identically with their name engraved on a headstone or on a memorial to the missing.

But an investigation by the commission found soldiers from predominantly non-white Commonwealth countries were treated differently despite fighting the same war.

“The report highlights that, in certain circumstances, those principles so rigidly adhered to for all who fell in Europe were applied inconsistently or abandoned in the more distant corners of the globe when applied to the non-European war dead of the British Empire, in the immediate aftermath" of the First World War, a statement said.

“The commissioners acknowledge that this was not right then and must not be allowed to remain unaddressed now. Those identified in the special committee’s report deserve to be remembered as much today as they did 100 years ago.”

The inquiry quoted a colonial governor in the 1920s saying that “the average native … would not understand or appreciate a headstone”.

Other racist sentiments broadcast by the documentary suggested the commission referred to African soldiers as “semi-savage”. Another historical document suggested “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”.

Prof Olusoga said the commission was complicit in treating non-white soldiers as inferior. He urged the organisation’s current leadership to right the wrongs of the past.

“The Commonwealth War Graves is special. It’s done something absolutely remarkable – it said everyone who fell in the First World War is treated equally,” he said.

“When it came to class, the Commonwealth War Graves lived up to its principles. When it came to race, I’m afraid it disastrously failed.

“These are men who died fighting for Britain in the most appalling war Britain has ever faced ... but when it came to men who were black and brown it’s not equality, it’s an absolute scandal.”

Updated: April 22, 2021 03:12 PM

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