‘Prejudice played a part’ in failure to commemorate fallen black and Asian troops, Government admits

Danielle Sheridan
·3 min read
War graves - Christian Hartmann/Reuters
War graves - Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Boris Johnson has said he is "deeply troubled" by failures to properly commemorate potentially hundreds of thousands of black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire.

In response to an investigation that found the Commonwealth War Graves Commission did not formally remember the individuals in the same way as their white comrades, the Prime Minister offered an "an unreserved apology".

In a statement, Mr Johnson said: "On behalf of the Government, I offer an unreserved apology. I welcome the fact that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has accepted all of the Committee’s recommendations and that it will now re-examine records and make amends wherever possible.

"Our shared duty is to honour and remember all those, wherever they lived and whatever their background, who laid down their lives for our freedoms at the moment of greatest peril.”

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, told the Commons that the report, which found that "pervasive racism" underpinned the failures, made for "sobering reading".

He said: "On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the government, both of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to the founding principle all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation."

He said there were cases where the commission "deliberately overlooked evidence" that would have allowed it to find the names of the dead and that there were examples of officials employing an "overarching imperial ideology connected to racial and religious differences" in order to "divide the dead and treat them unequally".

Cenotaph - Eddie Mulholland/Eddie Mulholland
Cenotaph - Eddie Mulholland/Eddie Mulholland

Mr Wallace also announced a public consultation over plans to waive the visa fee for service personnel from the Commonwealth and Nepal who choose to settle in the UK in order to honour their contribution.

Meanwhile the CWGC also issued an apology, saying the actions were "wrong then and are wrong now", and that officials would be "acting immediately to correct them".

Originally named the Imperial War Graves Commission, the organisation was founded in 1917 to commemorate those who died in the war with the principle that each fatality should be commemorated by name on a permanent headstone or memorial.

The investigation discovered at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties that "were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all". The figure could be as high as 350,000.

Mr Wallace told the Commons on Thursday that more must be done to "understand the sacrifices" of these communities, and said that he had not been taught at school "the East Africa campaign" and "the early salvos of the First World War". He added: "How many in this house probably were? Almost none at all."

However, Mr Wallace noted that as a result of the commission a process has been started that will have implications for "many, many decades" that "will probably affect my grandchildren's education". He pledged that the Commission will now "reach out to all the communities of the former British Empire touched by the two world wars to make sure their hidden history is brought to life".

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said: "No apology can ever make up for the indignity suffered by the unremembered.

"However, this apology does offer the opportunity for us as a nation to work through this ugly part of our history - and properly pay our respects to every soldier who has sacrificed their life for us."

Professor David Olusoga said the failure to properly commemorate predominantly black and Asian service personnel is "one of the biggest scandals I've ever come across as an historian".