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Heroes despised in life and death: lest we forget

Written by Reverend Guy Hewitt, Senior Research Fellow and Racial Justice Director for the Church of England |

Whether on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, or on Remembrance Sunday, we are encouraged to pause to remember those who sacrificed their lives in World War I (WWI) and other major conflicts. In our acts of Remembrance, we remember all those who defended, against the worst of humanity, the structures we take for granted. In our acts of Remembrance, we remember those who offered their lives to provide space for peace and humanity to flourish.

While these events seem many lifetimes removed, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the threat of a possible deployment of nuclear weapons, hopefully idle, rekindled a fear of global warfare not experienced since the Cuban missile crisis. Our acts of Remembrance join the past to the issues of the present, demanding that we continue to pay attention to and learn from them so that such inhumanity is not repeated.

Regarding the WWI servicemen from the Caribbean, what amazing grace that less than a hundred years after Emancipation Black men volunteered for the fight and, for many, ultimately died for a king they had never seen, against an enemy they didn’t really know, in lands not hitherto set down upon.

Conservative estimates indicate that during WWI, well over 4 million non-white men were mobilised into combat and non-combat roles in the British, European and American armed forces.

The colonial regime placed a different value on Commonwealth personnel compared to the English soldiers. Non-white soldiers generally received less pay, sometimes as little as a third of what their English counterparts earned.

Black and brown soldiers were also barred from fighting on the Western Front because it was feared allowing them to fight alongside and against white Europeans would undermine colonial rule. Though Commonwealth soldiers played a vital role in the Allied victory, after the War their contribution was suppressed to protect the monochromatic image of the British Empire.

Most tragically but not unsurprisingly, the racial prejudice experienced in life was also perpetuated in death.

Established in 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), at more than 20,000 sites in over 150 countries, preserves in perpetuity the memory of more than 1.7 million Commonwealth citizens who lost their lives in WWI, WWII, and other conflicts. From the outset this work was to be characterised by the principle of ‘equality of treatment in death’.

The 2021 Report commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to Review Historical Inequalities in Commemoration revealed that hundreds of thousands of non-white British soldiers from African, Asia, the Caribbean, and The Gulf were commemorated ‘unequally’; many received no headstone, too many were not commemorated by name or possibly at all.

The report found that: “The [War Graves Commission] is responsible for these shortcomings – either because of its own decision making or its complicity in the decision making of other authorities. In certain circumstances [it] did not stand by its principles.” The report is yet another indictment of the racist attitudes in the Colonial Office and War Office both during and after WWI. That it took more than a hundred years to mark these lives is indicative that such attitudes do not easily disappear, if ever.

Unbeknown at the time, Commonwealth soldiers were fighting two enemies at once: the brutal foes on the battlefield and the systemic racism and prejudice of colonialism. While the former conflict ended with the Armistice, the latter struggle persists insidiously.

These racist attitudes then pervasive, remain embedded in our systems today. Racism not only provided a justification for slavery but also for colonialism. It allowed for the ransacking not only of natural resources but also human resources.

Black men’s lives mattered so little that even their deaths were not properly recorded.

The 2021 report contains recommendations around three central themes: first, to extend geographically and chronologically a search of the historical record for inequalities in commemoration and address them. Secondly, the CWGC is encouraged to renew the commitment to equality of treatment in death through the construction of physical and/or digital commemorations.

Finally, it called for the need to acknowledge and accept this difficult history and share it with all those of the former British Empire touched by the two world wars, lest they forget.

Guy Hewitt ministers in the Church of England and advocates for racial justice and social inclusion. 

Comments to the blog

Professor David Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Yesterday I visited the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Chittagong where I'm now working (Chittagong was a major transport base for the Burma campaigns). There are more than 700 graves there from all over the Commonwealth, including East and West Africa as well of course as India, the UK and the white dominions. Many Muslim names both from Africa and from India.  In a corner there's a collective grave for nineteen Japanese soldiers. The cemetery is a rare oasis of tranquillity in the city.

Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow

I did 3 radio programmes for the BBC World Service based on original interviews with African veterans from WW 2. All of them together with papers and a book were deposited with the Imperial War Museum. David Killingray used them as illustrative material for a fine book on African troops serving in World War 2.

Dr David Taylor, Associate Fellow

Yesterday I visited the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Chittagong where I'm now working (Chittagong was a major transport base for the Burma campaigns). There are more than 700 graves there from all over the Commonwealth, including East and West Africa as well of course as India, the UK and the white dominions. Many Muslim names both from Africa and from India.  In a corner there's a collective grave for nineteen Japanese soldiers. The cemetery is a rare oasis of tranquillity in the city

Dr Marika Sherwood, Senior Research Fellow

I have written a little about troops from the colonies. Please see list below: