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British officials ‘will apologise’ over claims black and Asian troops were denied gravestones

Officials are expected to apologise today over claims black and Asian troops who died fighting for the British Empire were denied gravestones due to racism.

The acknowledgement by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission comes after an inquiry found that hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth casualties were remembered unequally in official cemeteries as a result of blatant prejudice.

Black and Asian troops who died in the First World War were among those who suffered, according to the commission’s report.

In 1920 a British governor in Africa is alleged to have said ‘the average native would not understand or appreciate a headstone’.

The report says up to 350,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern war casualties may not have been commemorated by name or at all. 

Meanwhile fallen UK military service personnel received headstones over identified graves or had their names engraved on memorials.

Officials are expected to apologise today over claims black and Asian troops who died fighting for the British Empire were denied gravestones due to racism. The acknowledgement by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission comes after an inquiry found that hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth casualties were remembered unequally in official cemeteries as a result of blatant prejudice. Pictured: Headstones on the Somme, France

All troops killed in action are supposed to be commemorated identically. However, the best many black and Asian troops could hope for a century ago was for their names to be recorded in a register.

Last night the commission said: ‘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 World War One.

‘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 findings of the report are due to be announced by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in the House of Commons.

The report was ordered in 2019 following a probe by Labour MP David Lammy, who discovered that the graves of African soldiers in Tanzania were being abandoned while the graves of European officers were still being tended. 

Professor David Olusoga said the failure to properly commemorate potentially hundreds of thousands of predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire is ‘one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian’.

Prof Olusoga, whose television company produced the documentary Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think the question that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission needs to ask itself urgently is what would it be doing, what action would it be putting in place this morning, if it had learned that 100,000 white soldiers on the western front had been left in the ground with no memorial or left in mass graves, the sites of their mass graves had been built over or ignored, what would they be doing?

‘I think if they ask themselves that question honestly – what action would they be taking? – I think what they should be doing is clear.

‘These are men who died fighting for Britain in the most appalling war Britain’s ever faced, the war that 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.

‘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.’ 

The report was ordered in 2019 following a probe by Labour MP David Lammy (pictured), who discovered that the graves of African soldiers in Tanzania were being abandoned while the graves of European officers were still being tended [File photo]

The report was ordered in 2019 following a probe by Labour MP David Lammy (pictured), who discovered that the graves of African soldiers in Tanzania were being abandoned while the graves of European officers were still being tended [File photo]

Prof Olusoga said the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, under its previous leadership, ‘chose to ignore’ the work of Professor Michele Barrett.

Prof Olusoga said he first read her research papers back in 2012, adding: ‘This information was in my book The World’s War in 2014 and this has not been a secret.

‘This information has been known. It’s been known to historians. It’s been known to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

‘I’m very pleased that this report has come out and I look forward to an acknowledgement and an apology today.

‘But people knew about this. This is not something that’s been uncovered by this report. It’s being acknowledged by this report. Michele’s work uncovered this a decade ago.’

He said the CWGC’s initial response to the documentary 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.’ 


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