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Remembered Today:

COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION AND RACISM


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A report is about to be published by CWGC on the "racist" treatment of commemorations.  Below is the BBC  News story of today's date from it's website. Photographs and links to other previous BBC stories removed-text only.

 

‘Pervasive racism’ blamed for failure to commemorate black and Asian troops

 

Tens of thousands of predominantly black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire were not properly commemorated due to "pervasive racism", a report has said.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission apologised after it found individuals were not formally remembered in the same way as white troops.

"The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now," it said.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will address MPs about the findings later.

The inquiry found at least 116,000 mostly African and Middle Eastern casualties from World War One "were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all".

But that figure could be as high as 350,000, according to the report first seen by the Guardian.

It also cited racist comments such as the governor of a British colony saying in 1923 that: "The average native... would not understand or appreciate a headstone".

 

Six million soldiers from the British Empire served in World War One.

Between 45,000 and 54,000 Asian and African personnel who died in the conflict were "commemorated unequally", the commission said.

Some of the troops were commemorated collectively on memorials, unlike their white counterparts who had a headstone bearing their name.

Other people who were missing were only recorded in registers rather than in stone.

The report concluded 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.

 

Founded in 1917 as the Imperial War Graves Commission, the organisation is tasked with commemorating those who had died in the war.

The report picked out an example from 1923, when the governor of the Gold Coast colony, now Ghana, argued for collective memorials rather than individual ones.

At a meeting in London, it was said that the governor, F G Guggisberg, said: "The average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone".

In response, commission employee Arthur Browne said: "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."

The report said Browne's response showed "what he may have considered foresight, but one that was explicitly framed by contemporary racial prejudice".

Reacting to the findings, the commission's director general Claire Horton said: "We recognise the wrongs of the past and are deeply sorry and will be acting immediately to correct them."

'Ugly part of history'

The investigation was set up by the commission in 2019, following a Channel 4 documentary, Unremembered, presented by Labour MP and shadow justice secretary David Lammy.

Mr Lammy said the report was a "watershed moment".

"No apology can ever make up for the indignity suffered by The Unremembered," he tweeted.

"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."

 

 

Edited by Guest
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And not just colonial troops, also neglected are several thousand Laskars and seamen of Chinese ethnicity who served aboard British flag merchant ships that were mined or torpedoed. Some are properly commemorated, but many not. 
MB

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  • Admin

The full report and the message from the  CWGC is available on the CWGC website

https://www.cwgc.org/

 

and there will also be a statement in the House later.

 

Any comments should be directed to the CWGC.

 

I have already hidden two off topic posts and while the topic is undoubtedly of interest it is an issue for the CWGC  and has been locked here.

 

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  • spof locked this topic
  • spof unlocked this topic
  • Admin

As Ken mentioned, we've already had to hide off topic posts.

 

After a discussion between the Admin Team, we have reopened this thread for comments. This is a sensitive subject and all posts will be subject to approval by us to ensure posts relate to the subject and abide by GWF Rules.

 

Any additional threads will be merged into this one to keep all posts together.

 

Glen

GWF Admin Team

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Cheshire22

An interesting report to read and also the different views on Facebook and Twitter. 
 

im surprised by the lack of comments on this forum 

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Probably one of the bigger news stories of the year in relation to the Great War, but our ability to comment on this forum has been curtailed and restricted. Perhaps the mods can provide a more detailed explanation to this perplexing situation.

MB

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Gunner Bailey

What can we say?

 

The report was written in 'todays world' and things were very different 100 years ago. 

 

It could be said that there seems to have been no concern or campaign for memorials in these countries, so is the outrage just the opinion of a modern writer?

 

Personally I think the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do an amazing job with the resources they have. They can't be blamed for mistakes made in the past.

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27 minutes ago, Gunner Bailey said:

They can't be blamed for mistakes made in the past

There are similar situations aimed at many large businesses and organisations. Recently a large confectionery brand has been "investigated" regarding link to slavery in the past. 

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SiegeGunner

The work of identifying and commemorating casualties of all nations that fought with the British is surely ongoing.  Errors and omissions should be corrected wherever possible, but recent reporting seems to give the impression that nothing has been done in the past, distant and more recent.  In particular, I have not seen any mention of the magnificent Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (1927), innumerable named graves to Indian troops buried rather than cremated, named graves for casualties of the Chinese Labour Corps, etc, and more recently the inspiring project to discover and commemorate the real names of as many as possible of the hundreds of members of the South African Labour Corps lost on the Mendi.

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Liz in Eastbourne

I was going to mention Neuve Chapelle too, Mick.  I saw nothing about it in yesterday's coverage. I haven't read the report yet but the coverage does not give the IWGC enough credit.

The rest reflects the times, and as you say there is ongoing work to correct the omissions.  These omissions extend to the Second World War, of course:  West African troops in Burma, for example. It's more important now, I think, that the accounts of what happened should include everyone who was there.  

 

All descendants of 'Other ranks' surely feel something of the same sense of injustice on finding that the war diaries only name the officers killed - the rest are just a lump sum.

 

Liz

 

 

 

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On 22/04/2021 at 08:10, Guest said:

A

 

It also cited racist comments such as the governor of a British colony saying in 1923 that: "The average native... would not understand or appreciate a headstone".

 

 

 

 

Not a racist comment at all if they are Muslims. Muslim graves are never marked in any way.

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Keith_history_buff

This won't be the first time in history that a lofty ideal has been declared, and figures of authority of the "old guard" have undermined the initiative at that point in time.

If this did not strike a chord, the "Yes, Minister" comedy series would not have enjoyed the success that it did, with Sir Humphrey outmanoeuvring Jim Hacker in order to maintain the status quo and to resist change.   

In this current day and age, I do see the CWGC living up to their ideals. They are receptive to some source-based requests to amend details, or to accept non-commemorations.

There is an interesting thread on the ethos of IWGC/CWGC that was started a few years ago on here.

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Buffnut453
2 hours ago, SiegeGunner said:

The work of identifying and commemorating casualties of all nations that fought with the British is surely ongoing.  Errors and omissions should be corrected wherever possible, but recent reporting seems to give the impression that nothing has been done in the past, distant and more recent.  In particular, I have not seen any mention of the magnificent Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (1927), innumerable named graves to Indian troops buried rather than cremated, named graves for casualties of the Chinese Labour Corps, etc, and more recently the inspiring project to discover and commemorate the real names of as many as possible of the hundreds of members of the South African Labour Corps lost on the Mendi.

 

From my reading, the report acknowledges that military personnel of all nations, ethnicities and religions are treated equitably when it comes to memorials/cemeteries in the Western Front battle region.  The report specifically focuses on non-white military personnel who served in other theatres, notably Africa and the Middle East, where the same equivalency was not maintained. 

 

The report recognizes that some of the issues were caused by lack of information when the memorials were created, and that the IWGC was often subject to the information provided by other organizations.  There were also concerns at the time over different burial/funerary traditions in these different countries.  However, that doesn't excuse mass burying the deceased in a single grave within an IWGC/CWGC cemetery without individual markers - that's not something we see in the Western Front but it did happen elsewhere in the world.  Likewise, the lack of stone monuments in those other non-WF theatres to the missing is something that should be corrected.  

 

As we all know, the record for Great War casualties is constantly evolving, not least driven by the hard work of cold case volunteers who participate on this forum.  My hope is that volunteers, the CWGC, and host nations can work together better to ensure these "forgotten fallen" get the recognition and remembrance they deserve.  This will take time and funding will always be a challenge.  However, I do think it's important that CWGC starts taking positive steps to address the issues raised. 

 

At the end of the day, the focus should not be on hand-wringing (by either side of the debate regarding whether the IWGC was/was not racist).  The focus should be on ensuring these soldiers are equitably identified, recognized and remembered.  

Edited by Buffnut453
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Gareth Davies

 

I strongly recommend that people read the report written by the CGWC. They are saying

2 hours ago, Gunner Bailey said:

What can we say?

 

The report was written in 'todays world' and things were very different 100 years ago. 

 

It could be said that there seems to have been no concern or campaign for memorials in these countries, so is the outrage just the opinion of a modern writer?

 

Personally I think the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do an amazing job with the resources they have. They can't be blamed for mistakes made in the past.

 

From the CWGC:

 

"Recognises this is a significant report that offers the Commission the opportunity not to rewrite our history, but to complete it."

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Gareth Davies
1 hour ago, Buffnut453 said:

 

From my reading, the report acknowledges that military personnel of all nations, ethnicities and religions are treated equitably when it comes to memorials/cemeteries in the Western Front battle region.  The report specifically focuses on non-white military personnel who served in other theatres, notably Africa and the Middle East, where the same equivalency was not maintained. 

 

The report recognizes that some of the issues were caused by lack of information when the memorials were created, and that the IWGC was often subject to the information provided by other organizations.  There were also concerns at the time over different burial/funerary traditions in these different countries.  However, that doesn't excuse mass burying the deceased in a single grave within an IWGC/CWGC cemetery without individual markers - that's not something we see in the Western Front but it did happen elsewhere in the world.  Likewise, the lack of stone monuments in those other non-WF theatres to the missing is something that should be corrected.  

 

As we all know, the record for Great War casualties is constantly evolving, not least driven by the hard work of cold case volunteers who participate on this forum.  My hope is that volunteers, the CWGC, and host nations can work together better to ensure these "forgotten fallen" get the recognition and remembrance they deserve.  This will take time and funding will always be a challenge.  However, I do think it's important that CWGC starts taking positive steps to address the issues raised. 

 

At the end of the day, the focus should not be on hand-wringing (by either side of the debate regarding whether the IWGC was/was not racist).  The focus should be on ensuring these soldiers are equitably identified, recognized and remembered.  

 

I agree with most of this but the report clearly states that pervasive racism played a large part. Let's not try and hide that fact.

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Gunner Bailey
3 hours ago, SiegeGunner said:

The work of identifying and commemorating casualties of all nations that fought with the British is surely ongoing.  Errors and omissions should be corrected wherever possible, but recent reporting seems to give the impression that nothing has been done in the past, distant and more recent.  In particular, I have not seen any mention of the magnificent Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (1927), innumerable named graves to Indian troops buried rather than cremated, named graves for casualties of the Chinese Labour Corps, etc, and more recently the inspiring project to discover and commemorate the real names of as many as possible of the hundreds of members of the South African Labour Corps lost on the Mendi.

 

I fully agree with you. I have always found the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-mer a place of inspiration. Designed by Lutyens himself, a magnificent  memorial to the humble Chinese labourers. Given equal status to soldiers who served in France. To me such a place exemplifies the good values of that time. Was that mentioned in the report?

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Buffnut453
47 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

 

I agree with most of this but the report clearly states that pervasive racism played a large part. Let's not try and hide that fact.

 

I don't disagree and I'm not trying to hide anything.  I simply feel that individual perspectives on the degree to which the IWGC was racist won't be changed much by discussion of that  issue.  Where one person sees the IWGC showing respect for the funerary traditions of a particular culture, another person may see unequal treatment of the remembrance of sacrifice.

 

Arguing over the motivations and decisions within the IWGC a hundred years ago seems rather fruitless to me.  It was a different age and what was considered acceptable then may not be considered appropriate today. 

 

I'd much rather see the effort expended in ensuring that every soldier is commemorated equitably, regardless of where they came from or where they served/died.  Clearly, IWGC was capable of treating all soldiers alike on the Western Front so let's redouble our collective efforts to help ensure soldiers in other theatres are treated the same way.  

Edited by Buffnut453
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Gareth Davies
1 hour ago, Buffnut453 said:

 

I don't disagree and I'm not trying to hide anything.  I simply feel that individual perspectives on the degree to which the IWGC was racist won't be changed much by discussion of that  issue.  Where one person sees the IWGC showing respect for the funerary traditions of a particular culture, another person may see unequal treatment of the remembrance of sacrifice.

 

Arguing over the motivations and decisions within the IWGC a hundred years ago seems rather fruitless to me.  It was a different age and what was considered acceptable then may not be considered appropriate today. 

 

I'd much rather see the effort expended in ensuring that every soldier is commemorated equitably, regardless of where they came from or where they served/died.  Clearly, IWGC was capable of treating all soldiers alike on the Western Front so let's redouble our collective efforts to help ensure soldiers in other theatres are treated the same way.  

 

What?  There is/was unequal treatment. The report makes that very clear. Pervasive racism.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Gareth Davies
Removed an inflammatory comment.
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Gareth Davies
1 hour ago, Gunner Bailey said:

 

I fully agree with you. I have always found the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-mer a place of inspiration. Designed by Lutyens himself, a magnificent  memorial to the humble Chinese labourers. Given equal status to soldiers who served in France. To me such a place exemplifies the good values of that time. Was that mentioned in the report?

 

Why would it be mentioned in the report, it is utterly irrelevant. The report is about "unequal commemoration and non-commemoration, and the IWGC’s role in bringing them about" which was caused by "entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism".

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Liz in Eastbourne

Having now looked at but not thoroughly digested the report, I see that (of course!) Terry Denham was on the committee.

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Gunner Bailey
35 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

 

Why would it be mentioned in the report, it is utterly irrelevant. The report is about "unequal commemoration and non-commemoration, and the IWGC’s role in bringing them about" which was caused by "entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism".

 

I was hoping the report may have some balance in it.

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Gareth Davies
10 minutes ago, Gunner Bailey said:

 

I was hoping the report may have some balance in it.


The report is about a wrong. It highlights this wrong and explains what has caused this wrong (pervasive racism being a major factor). That said it does have some balance in it. But the report isn’t about your views on Noyelles. The report is about a very wrong wrong. 

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Gareth Davies

Here is a short summary.  In George Hay's words "the Commission was also complicit.....it supported and allowed decisions that went against its policy of equal commemoration". And as he says "that was wrong then and it is wrong now".

 

 

Edited by Gareth Davies
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Gunner Bailey

Having read the report, I think it highlights huge administrative issues within the forces in the field at the time, the greater mobility of the action and the issues of burial in a war where mobility meant graves were scattered all over the place and not recorded. The fact that many of the regiments overseas never recorded the names of 'carriers' being a significant problem. The report mentions the problems identifying graves, by markers having inscriptions that were wiped out by the weather, wooden memorials eaten by termites and a host of other practical issues not faced in Europe. The 'local custom' of bodies being left in the bush to be eaten by Hyenas is not something I'd come across before. I suspect the IWGC hadn't either.

 

Yes, there are issues related to the Imperial 'racist' view of the world relating to 'natives', and from todays perspective these are 'wrongs'. I agree.

 

I hope the Commission will be able to address this adequately and to the satisfaction of any surviving relatives or administrations that are concerned.

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