Their investigation, which the Commission had been under pressure to undertake for years after historians put forward evidence of such problems and was ordered following a damning Channel 4 documentary presented by Labour MP David Lammy in 2019, found “pervasive racism” underpinned the failure - with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace telling Parliament that there was “no doubt prejudice played a part” in decisions taken at the time.
Originally named the Imperial War Graves Commission, the CWGC was founded in 1917 to commemorate those who died in the war. But at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties “were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all”. Most of the men were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names unlike their white counterparts.
Mr Wallace, himself a former soldier, correctly pointed out that this unequal treatment is particularly painful because of the ethos of the military. “True soldiers are agnostic to class, race or gender because the bond that holds us together is a bond forged in war,” he said.
The Commission has committed to extending its search for inequalities in commemoration. The task will not be an easy one now more than a century has passed but is a vital undertaking. The Government should now order the creation of a major new war memorial which would include the names of those who have been hidden from history for far too long.
It will not make amends for the mistakes of the past but it will at least provide a permanent acknowledgement of the sacrifice of so many.
As Mr Lammy put it in Parliament, it is time “the unremembered are remembered”.
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