War, race and equality
Posted on 22nd April, 2021 in Director's Blog
Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) published the Report of the Special Committee to Review Historical Inequalities in Commemoration (available here). A century after the First World War, the Commission has acknowledged that its mission to ensure that all those who died in the service of Britain in that war and since should be commemorated equally was not always respected in Africa and the Middle East, and that this must be remedied.
As a member of that Special Committee, I share the responsibility for its conclusions. During its investigations and deliberations over the past year, the CWGC has been fully cooperative and supportive of the Committee’s work. As others have pointed out, this admission has been a long time coming, and may not have happened without the pioneering work of Michele Barrett, and the public pressure from David Lammy, David Olusoga and others. But even belatedly it is welcome, and illustrates how this country benefits from facing up to, rather than covering up, the sins of its past.
The Special Committee concluded that around 50,000 casualties amongst soldiers and auxiliaries recruited from India, Egypt, Somalia and East and West Africa were commemorated unequally, and that at least 100,000 more may not have been commemorated at all, their names and the places they died lost to history and to their descendants.
Almost all of these fell in the often forgotten campaigns of the First World War, in Africa and the Middle East. In particular, the British pursued a long, arduous and, in terms of casualties, hugely costly campaign against the Germans in East Africa to oust them from the territory that became Tanganyika and is now Tanzania. Thousands, even tens of thousands, of Africans were recruited in the neighbouring British territories of Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi) and in southern Africa to serve as askaris, soldiers, and porters and auxiliaries in the Carrier Corps. Often, the recruitment was not even voluntary, local chiefs being given quotas of young men to deliver to the British authorities. Nor was it even their war. But as subjects of the British Empire, which had been extended over many of the Africans concerned barely 30 years before, they had no choice but to become embroiled in the war of one European nation against another.
All too many never returned home. The casualty rate from sickness and disease even more than from enemy action was appalling. Many died in temporary camps far in the bush and were buried there with scant marking that would not bear the passage of time, if any marking at all. It is symptomatic that historians have been unable to establish with any precision exactly the total number of casualties, and the number of un-commemorated dead could therefore be as high as 350,000.
The CWGC (originally the Imperial War Graves Commission) was established with the principle that all those who died in the service of the country during the war should be commemorated permanently and equally in death. Generals, captains, privates, all would receive a simple headstone in common cemeteries. The cemeteries on the Western Front are well known, the many scattered throughout the world – 23,000 in all – are largely unknown, except to representatives of the British High Commission and the local armed forces who congregate there every Remembrance Day, as I did in my time, in an act of homage to the fallen.
But this equality in death was not extended to all the African fallen. The painstaking efforts to recover and commemorate every last casualty on the Western Front were not replicated in Africa. The area was vast, the locations scattered and inaccessible, the marking erratic and the records muddled or missing. But the decision not to expend the necessary resources to overcome those problems was a product of an imperial attitude that regarded Africans as different, as less civilised, as – frankly – worth less trouble than white men. It was rationalised: African burial customs were different, they argued; many were neither Christian nor Muslim, so the appropriate rites were not known; they would not ‘understand’ individual headstones. In many places – Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Kampala – common memorials were established, in some cases not even naming the fallen. Bluntly, the equality of sacrifice was not recognised in equality of commemoration.
It is a painful history. We cannot change the racism inherent in the imperial past. But we can – and must – acknowledge it, repent it, and make amends.
This is what the Special Committee has recommended, and what the CWGC has accepted. Action is now needed to implement these recommendations.
In this case, it is better late than never; because the past is always with us and the sins of the past, unless repented and forgiven, will haunt the present. So the work must continue, in all the areas of our national life.