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Defence Secretary apologises for 'pervasive racism' a century ago


Defence Secretary Ben Wallace apologised this week for the 'pervasive racism' of the British Empire a century ago after a report found as many as 350,000 black and Asian troops who died fighting for Britain during World War One were not commemorated in the same way as their white comrades.

Around three million soldiers from the Empire served in the British armed forces in World War One and fought against German forces in East Africa, the Ottomans in the Middle East and some fought in Western Europe.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was established in 1917 under the principle that all soldiers should be commemorated with a headstone or by their names being engraved on a memorial, but researchers found it regularly fell short of this goal when it came to non-white troops recruited from the Empire.

All fallen UK military personnel received this honour, but the report estimates that between 45,000 and 54,000 World War One casualties (predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel) did not.

For some, rather than marking their graves individually, as would have been the case in Europe, these men were commemorated collectively on memorials. For others who were missing, their names were recorded in registers rather than in stone. 

A further 116,000 WWI casualties (predominantly, but not exclusively, East African and Egyptian personnel) – but potentially as many as 350,000 – were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all, out of the around 500,000 colonial and white dominion troops who died during the conflict.

Within Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria and Sierra Leone, which had around 600 burials combined, no African fatality of the First World War is commemorated with a headstone.

In East Africa after World War One, statues were erected in Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Nairobi as the only memorial to up to 55,000 African soldiers and labourers whose final resting place went unrecorded.

And it is accepted that between 100,000 and 300,000 nameless African soldiers were killed fighting for the British against Germany but their final resting place is unrecorded

Many colonial soldiers were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names – in part because the military or colonial authorities never provided their names. In the words of one colonial official: 'The average native would not understand or appreciate a headstone.'

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace expressed 'deep regret' that it took so long to rectify the situation on the commemoration of troops.

'There can be no doubt, prejudice played a part in the some of the commission's decisions. In some cases officials considered that the communities of forgotten personnel would not recognise or value individual forms of commemoration, in other cases they were not provided with the names or burial locations.

'On behalf of the CWGC and the government, both of today and of the time, I want to apologise for their failure 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.

'Whilst we can't change the past, we can make amends and take action.'