Our shameful failure to commemorate black Great War heroes

22 April 2021

7:06 PM

22 April 2021

7:06 PM

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. Ware saw the project as a unifying one, not just for the British public but also the British Empire, in which he was a firm believer.

Such a monument denoted an important and decisive break with the past in how British casualties were commemorated. There are no cemeteries for those who fell at Waterloo or Agincourt, since only the generals made it home to be immortalised. The families of soldiers have always mourned their loved ones, but they had no public memorials. As novelist William Makepeace Thackeray writes, soldiers used to be ‘shovelled into a hole… and forgotten.’ The first world war was a moment of significant change for how we remember our war dead, yet it appears for many Commonwealth troops nothing changed in 1914.

Remembrance provides spaces and occasions to mourn as individuals and communities. Most families of the fallen were unable to visit distant graves, especially true for those who lived furthest away in Asia and Africa, but they could at least touch the cold communal stone and run their fingers over the names of their loved ones: it provided a physical anchor amid a void of absence. This is what was denied to the families of the 116,000.

Our memories as both nations and individuals are fundamental in defining who we are: they give us coherence. They are the foundations of the narrative we create about ourselves; part of a recognition of shared values and identity. Many national characteristics we pride ourselves in today reference back to our shared experience of the twentieth century wars; the spirit of the Blitz or Dunkirk, the Stoic heroism of those called to do their duty in the mud of The Somme.

But our memories of the first world war exclude many of those who displayed these characteristics and gave their lives for a country many thousands of miles from their own, such as the contribution of the 130,000 Sikhs who fought in the first world War. We share our history with those who took part in it with our memories being their memories too.

Remembrance can also play a role in tackling our own collective amnesia, our nostalgia for a time we have never known. Memory and imagination are usually thought of as separate activities recent studies have confirmed that both engage the same network in the brain. Nostalgic states are not limited to autobiographical memories but can contain imagined memories of an idealised past. The current politics of nostalgia uses propaganda about the way things were to provide people with the right materials to conjure up such imagined memories. One way to counteract this anaemia is to examine more carefully how and what we remember. This report is part of that process.

At the end of the war not everyone agreed with the work of the War Graves Commission. A healthy anti-war movement developed in the 1920s, best remembered today through the war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate,’ Sassoon claims that the dead who struggle in the slime will ‘Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime,’ referring to the new memorial to the missing in Ypres. Sassoon objected to the glorification of the suffering of his comrades. His poetry conveys the ugly truth of the trenches to a public he believed were patriotically unaware. He wanted us to remember accurately, not cling to some rosy-eyed memory that would betray the experience of those we claim to value.

The work the poets of the first world war left us is perhaps the greatest memorial to the lost generation, but even here it is selected voices telling the story. Poems by non-white writers are still largely missing from most anthologies and the wider public imagination, even though as the African-American poet Walter E. Seward pointed out ‘Bullets have no special people/No one especially they hate/And the Germans’ large artillery/Sure did not discriminate.’

During the war, some 347,000 African Americans were inducted into the army, of which 47,000 saw active service. Back in the USA between November 1918 and the end of 1920 at least 16 black veterans were lynched, some of whom were still serving. We should be more familiar with the stories and experiences of soldiers from all countries that suffered the tragedy of the Great War and listen to the voices of their loved ones back home. The Indian poet Sarojini Naidu wrote in 1915 of Indian soldiers ‘Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands’ for whom we should ‘honour the deeds of the deathless ones/Remember the blood of thy martyred sons!’ Such sentiments cannot and should not be marginalised any longer.

Remembrance is a duty we own to those martyred sons and to all those we owe a debt for the hardships and loss they endured. To not remember the soldiers identified in this report is a failure of a duty we have to them to recognise their sacrifice and the loss of their families. Remembrance should not be about what is most flattering or most politically expedient to remember, but about what it is right to remember. This report gives us an opportunity to make sure we belatedly remember the right people and through that learn more about who we are and what has formed the society we now live in a hundred years later.

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