“The events of a century ago were wrong then, and they are wrong now,” said Claire Horton, director general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). “The commission clearly failed many of those it was established to serve by not delivering on its original founding principle of equality of treatment in death,” she said.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace expressed “deep regret” to Parliament on Thursday for the failures described in the investigation.
The inquiry was prompted by “Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes,” a 2019 television documentary. Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy presented the program and has written about how he visited Kenya and Tanzania to see firsthand how Africans who died fighting for Britain were treated.
“Across East Africa there are just three memorials to all of those who died, in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam,” he wrote in the Observer newspaper. “I reached one by clambering over a chain fence in the middle of a busy roundabout.”
The investigation comes at a time when the country is grappling with race relations and its complicated colonial past. Black Lives Matter protests in Britain following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis were some of the largest outside the United States.
Last summer, in the English city of Bristol, demonstrators toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th century slave trader, prompting many Britons to cheer. Protesters in London also tagged a statue of Winston Churchill with graffiti branding him “racist,” which drew a more divided response.
Originally founded in 1917 under the name Imperial War Graves Commission, the CWGC has a mission to commemorate fallen personnel from the two world wars and to do so equally. An individual’s name is engraved on a headstone over an identified grave or a memorial to the missing.
But the investigation found that at least 116,000 service members, and perhaps as many as 350,000, “were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all.” An additional 45,000 to 54,000 people were “commemorated unequally.”
The report noted that one officer, in 1920, wrote to the commission: “Most of the Natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature,” adding that the “erection of individual headstones would constitute a waste of public money.”
The report noted that decisions were “influenced by a scarcity of information, errors inherited from other organisations and the opinions of colonial administrators.” But “underpinning all these decisions” were the “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes.”
Britain made extensive use of its colonial subjects as soldiers, not just on battlefields in Asia and Africa but also in the trenches of Europe. The Commonwealth cemetery in Egypt’s El Alamein for the dead of the North African campaign in World War II carries the names of soldiers from dozens of Britain’s overseas possessions.
In World War I alone, British colonies contributed 2.5 million men, mostly from India, which then included both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
On Thursday, Lammy, the Labour lawmaker, said that “the truth is, none of us learned about this history in our schools, and it’s still the case that there are many young people in the United Kingdom not understanding this huge contribution to our history and society and life that we enjoy.”
He told the BBC that the panel’s findings touched on some of the country’s bigger debates about “how we reckon with the past and understand the past so that we can move through.”