The failure to properly commemorate hundreds of thousands of black and Asian troops who died fighting for the British empire has been known about for years, the head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has acknowledged.
Claire Horton, the director general of the CWGC, acknowledged that research revealing black and Asian soldiers had not been equally commemorated had been in the public domain for years. The commission had only taken steps to address the imbalance following a 2019 documentary featuring Labour MP David Lammy.
Horton was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme why it had taken so long to take action, given the work of historian Michèle Barrett uncovered the issue a decade ago. Asked if the issue had not been known about “a long time ago”, Horton replied: ““It was and I think to be honest we’ve not seen enough of that work over the years, we’ve not looked into it deeply enough.”
She added that the commission was “apologising unreservedly”, adding that “the failings of the past should absolutely not have happened.”
An investigation by the CWGC, published on Thursday, discovered that at least 116,000 – but potentially up to 350,000 – predominantly African and Middle Eastern first world war casualties may not be commemorated by name, or at all. It also estimated that between 45,000 and 54,000 African and Asian casualties were commemorated “unequally”.
Horton said the commission would work “intensively” over the coming years “to ensure that these people that we failed 100 years ago are properly commemorated as everyone else”. That would include new memorials, individual headstones and would involve working with communities in the countries involved, she added.
“Pervasive racism” underpinned a failure to properly commemorate service personnel, the investigation found, quoting racist statements such as a governor saying in the 1920s that “the average native … would not understand or appreciate a headstone”. The commission concluded that soldiers were treated differently if they came from Commonwealth countries.
Tottenham MP, David Lammy, said the investigation was “a watershed moment”. Speaking on Today, he said: “It’s taken 100 years to bring it about, but of course, I am pleased … It’s a major moment that we, that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are now rewriting this history and writing their lives, their virtue their sacrifice, into the history books.”
Prof David Olusoga told the programme that the failure to properly commemorate potentially hundreds of thousands of predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British empire was “one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian”.
Olusoga, whose television company produced the documentary Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes, said the first world war had killed more British soldiers and more Commonwealth soldiers than any conflict in history.
“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,” he said.
“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. 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.”
He said the CWGC’s initial response, under previous leadership, to the documentary featuring Lammy was not to launch a committee but instead was “annoyance and anger”.
He added: “The first attempt to put a committee together excluded Professor Barrett, and I know that because they invited me to sit on it and not her. I’m very pleased this is all happening but it has been somewhat reluctant, it has been somewhat dragged down to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.”