Andy Owen

Our shameful failure to commemorate black Great War heroes

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has this week concluded that ‘pervasive racism’ was to blame for the failure to properly commemorate non-white troops who died for Britain in the first world war. It is estimated that at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern first world war casualties ‘were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all’ having laid down their lives in the service of the Empire. Their names were not even included on communal monuments, in part due to sentiments like those expressed by British colonial governor FG Guggisberg who claimed in 1923 that ‘the average native… would not understand or appreciate a headstone.’

The purpose of the Last Post in Remembrance Day ceremonies is to summon the spirits of the fallen to the Cenotaph; in light of this research it is clear some spirits have been deemed more worthy than others of being summoned. Britain’s failure to reflect and commemorate the sacrifices of the past is both morally wrong and profoundly damaging, affecting as it does our collective memory of the Great War to this day.

When troops marched past the first temporary Cenotaph, Fabian Ware, founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission – the CWGC’s forerunner – noted that if the Empire dead had marched four abreast down Whitehall it would have taken this ghost army some three and a half days of constant marching to pass through. Ware had been too old to fight, so he commanded an ambulance unit instead. He began marking and recording the graves of the fallen, taking on the responsibility of ensuring that they were remembered – as equals in death. Both Ware and the Cenotaph’s architect Edwin Lutyens wanted a secular memorial to create an equality of remembrance and bring those in mourning together regardless of class or creed. They faced opposition to this from the Bishops at the time, who wanted more overtly Christian symbolism, but they resisted.

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