Hundreds of thousands of Black and Asian military personnel who died fighting for the British empire during World War I were not formally commemorated like their White counterparts due to decisions underpinned by the “pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes,” according to an investigation released Thursday.
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.
Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defense, apologized on the behalf of the CWGC and the UK government on Thursday in Parliament, 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.”
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.
The report comes as various British organizations acknowledge their blind spots to structural racism and historical ties to slavery amid calls for a fuller discussion about the issues in Britain.
A Thursday report from the Church of England, the country’s established church, said it must include at least one candidate from minority ethnic backgrounds for jobs within the institution and for senior roles, right up to bishops.
The “Lament to Action” report, published by the Archbishops’ anti-racism taskforce, called for a change of culture within the Church of England, pointing out that a failure to tackle racism could have “devastating effects” on the future of the church.
“Decades of inaction carry consequences and this inaction must be owned by the whole Church. A failure to act now will be seen as another indication, potentially a last straw for many, that the Church is not serious about racial sin,” the taskforce said.
Separately, a report on racial inclusivity in the British Jewish community says that security guards or volunteers of community venues should “desist” from racial profiling.
This is one of the 119 recommendations included in the report published Thursday, commissioned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews after the murder in the United States of George Floyd.
“Communal venues should institute bag searches for all visitors, including regular attendees, so as not to stigmatize people who look different, without compromising on security,” the report added. The Board of Deputies is the umbrella organization representing British Jewish synagogues and community organizations.
Last September, the British conservation charity the National Trust acknowledged the links between its properties and colonialism and slavery in a report.
CNN’s Samantha Tapfumaneyi contributed to this report.