'Deep regret' for failure to commemorate black and Asian troops, defence secretary says

ITV News Senior Correspondent Paul Davies reports on the injustice and inequality in the commemorations of troops from the First World War

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has apologised and expressed “deep regret” for failures to properly commemorate black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire.

It comes as a report found up to 350,000 predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire were not properly commemorated due to "pervasive racism".

Mr Wallace expressed “deep regret” that it took so long to rectify the situation on the commemoration of troops. He also added there is "no doubt” that prejudice played a part in the decisions made by the commission.

He told MPs: “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 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.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has also apologised, saying: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now", after its investigation found that black and Asian individuals were not formally remembered in the same way as their white comrades.

The investigation discovered at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties “were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all”.

The figure could be as high as 350,000, according to the report obtained by the PA news agency after it was first reported by the Guardian.

Most of the men were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names. Credit: PA

Most of the men were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names.

The investigation also estimated that between 45,000 and 54,000 Asian and African casualties were “commemorated unequally”.

Some were commemorated collectively on memorials, unlike those in Europe, and others, who were missing, were only recorded in registers rather than in stone.

The special committee behind the investigation was established by the CWGC in 2019 after a critical documentary on the issue, titled Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes and presented by Labour MP David Lammy.

The investigation was started following a TV documentary presented by Labour MP David Lammy. Credit: PA

Originally named the Imperial War Graves Commission, it was founded in 1917 to commemorate those who died in the war.

But the investigation found that the failure to properly commemorate the individuals was “influenced by a scarcity of information, errors inherited from other organisations and the opinions of colonial administrators”.

“Underpinning all these decisions, however, were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes,” it added.

One example given is based on communications in 1923 between FG Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast colony, now Ghana, and Arthur Browne, from the commission.

At a meeting in London, it was said that the governor said “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone” as he argued for collective memorials.

In response to the defense secretary's statement, Mr Lammy said the findings were a "travesty, stain and shame", but added that Thursday was a "watershed moment" for the country.

He said: "On this sombre, but important day, I'm thinking of the King's African Riflemen and the many, many thousands of men that were dragged from their villages."

"Let there be no more whitewashing, the unremembered will be remembered."

Professor David Olusoga, whose television company produced Mr Lammy's documentary, said the commission's failure was "one of the biggest scandals" he'd ever encountered as a historian.

He 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?

“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.”

A response from Arthur Browne showed “what he may have considered foresight, but one that was explicitly framed by contemporary racial prejudice”, according to the report.

“In perhaps two or three hundred years’ time, when the native population had reached a higher stage of civilisation, they might then be glad to see that headstones had been erected on the native graves and that the native soldiers had received precisely the same treatment as their white comrades,” he said.

In its response to the report, the CWGC says it “acknowledges that the Commission failed to fully carry out its responsibilities at the time and accepts the findings and failings identified in this report and we apologise unreservedly for them”.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will make a statement in the House of Commons later. Credit: PA

In a statement CWGC Director General Claire Horton said: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now.

“We recognise the wrongs of the past and are deeply sorry and will be acting immediately to correct them.”

Mr 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.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will give a statement to MPs on the findings on Thursday, when the report is formally published in full.