This piece was written in response to the publication last week of a special report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which apologises for deliberately not commemorating Africans and Asians after the First World War
As someone of Indo-Guyanese heritage, growing up in Britain, one of the many bizarre justifications for the racial insults hurled at me was that I should be grateful to be a citizen of Britain and to just accept whatever racial abuse came my way. I should be grateful, the argument went, because two world wars had been fought and many white lives lost for the freedoms I enjoyed. Therefore, due to my dark skin, I had no right to criticise any aspect of British society and to just be thankful and accept my lot. I refused to do so.
On many occasions I argued back with the important fact (so I thought) that I was born in England and British (this was rejected because of my darker skin); and with the fact that millions of Africans, Caribbeans and Asians had fought for Britain in two world wars (this was denied). I am sure millions of ethnic minority Britons have had to face similar arguments, fuelled by ignorance and prejudice, which is why the revelations about the actions of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in the non-commemoration of Africans and Asians after the First World War is of importance to everybody.
My Guyanese grandfather served in the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) in the First World War, which is something I only discovered later in life. I have always felt that if people knew the histories of African, Caribbean, and Asian war service in both world wars this might lessen the ignorance and racism that pervades large portions of the British population. I have taught History in schools in England, Australia, and Malawi for over twenty-five years and when the subject of the First World War is taught, the textbooks invariably only cover the Western Front and the war poets. When I taught in Malawi (formerly ‘Nyasaland’), I took my students to see war graves in the local cemetery in Blantyre. Only white South Africans, Germans, and ‘Cape Coloureds’ were buried in the First World War section. There were no graves to the Black Malawian servicemen of the King’s African Rifles, even though Malawi had been invaded by German Schutztruppen and Askari in the war. Indeed, in the whole of Malawi, not a single Black African soldier had a grave with a headstone; nor were they commemorated on a memorial even though 1,741 Malawian soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Such a large-scale absence of Black African servicemen in the memory of the war and in the memorial landscape can only have been achieved through an industrial-scale cover-up. Here the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), founded in 1917 to find, bury, and commemorate, in equality, the bodies of the fallen in the First World War, sought and found the assistance of the Colonial Office, the War Office, and other official bodies, which constituted the British Empire in the African colonies, in their denial of war graves and memorials to African men. In the aftermath of the war, the aim of British governmental and colonial officials was to ensure that the pre-war imperial status quo – white supremacy – was reverted to as rapidly as possible. The last thing white settlers in Britain’s East African colonies wanted was any cultural signifier that victory in the war could not have been achieved without the assistance of Black Africans. The war, like the ‘Boer War’ earlier in the century, needed to be represented as a ‘white man’s war’ even though millions of Black Africans had been mobilised, served as soldiers or carriers, and paid with their lives.
A study of official documents in the IWGC archives reveal that, in 1918, Commission officials operating in Africa decided that where temporary graves of African ‘native’ soldiers were located, these graves should be collapsed and ‘allowed to revert to nature’. Instead, any names were to be registered on a memorial roll in the cemetery. This policy did not apply to anyone apart from Black colonial soldiers, carriers, porters, and guides from east and west Africa. This deliberate exclusion of Black bodies from the commemorative process was called ‘sent missing’, meaning that African corpses were to be considered as ‘missing’ and therefore not given a headstone in a war cemetery.
The absence of African graves in these war cemeteries would lead a visitor to conclude that only whites fought in the war and bolsters the popular narrative of the whiteness of the war. It is estimated that 11,000 British, Dominion, Asian, and African soldiers died in the African theatre, along with an estimated 200,000 African Carriers, porters, and followers. The British and Dominion troops were commemorated because they were white; some Indians were commemorated because that was the policy elsewhere, although unevenly; West Indian and South African ‘native’ servicemen were commemorated because they were considered Christian and ‘civilised’, but ‘native’ Africans, considered ‘heathen’ and ‘uncivilised’ were not. Here, commemoration conformed to pseudo-scientific notions of a racial taxonomy with Black Africans at the bottom of a racial and military hierarchy and not considered fully human.
At the time, IWGC officials legitimised the memorial absence by blaming Africans themselves. They explained that Africans did not mourn their dead but instead left bodies for hyenas to eat. Whilst this cultural tradition was true for some East African ethnic groupings such as the Meru, Kikuyu, Maasai or Nandi, it was not the case for the majority. Most West African servicemen who served were from the Yoruba, Igbo, Ogboni, Egun, and Oro ethnicities and had been converted to Christianity or were Muslim Hausas from Nigeria who buried their dead. The IWGC also stated that ‘the sentimental and sacred feeling for one’s dead relatives does not appear to appeal to the native mind to the same degree as it does to the European.’ This Eurocentric ethnography was incorrect: relatives held mourning rituals for deceased African servicemen, whether a body was present or not. In the Luo ethnic group of Kenya, members of the community would join the family in circling a dead soldier’s house and shake spears to battle evil spirits in the soldier’s memory lest they invite curses from the spirit of the deceased man. In the absence of a body, the fruit of a yago tree was placed in a grave and buried ceremoniously. These rituals were well known to colonial officials as missionaries dutifully recorded African burial traditions.
IWGC officials also invoked the cost of commemorating the thousands of dead African servicemen despite the immense efforts they had gone to in Europe to recover the dead. They suggested that as ‘East African natives are mostly illiterate’ so the provision of headstones ‘would constitute an unnecessary expenditure’ and ‘not be appreciated’. Lord Arthur Browne of the IWGC justified the policy in Africa in 1923: ‘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.’
There is also evidence of a variation in Commission policy closer to home. Muslim merchant seamen who died at sea should be commemorated by name with their shipmates on the Tower Hill Memorial in London, but their names were placed on a separate list and, although they were commemorated by name, their memorial is in Mumbai not London. West Indian stokers who perished on HMS Good Hope in the Battle of Coronel in 1914 should be commemorated by name on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial alongside the rest of the stokers, but their names are found on the same memorial in Mumbai. African and Caribbean servicemen are not on the ‘Million Dead of Empire’ memorial in Westminster Abbey, despite a complaint by a BWIR veteran in 1932. The IWGC was aware of all of these anomalies because they had deliberately constructed a methodology to obscure Black war service.
In April 2021, the CWGC finally publicly apologised for their actions and have pledged to act upon the recommendations of their special report. They only set up a committee after a Channel 4 documentary exposed their policies in 2019. The omission and cover-up are just the latest of many shameful episodes in the history of the British Empire. My hope is for an inclusion of Black African war service in the memorial landscape in west and east Africa, so that it resembles that on the Western Front and, of course, in the history books. Such actions would undo some of the damage caused by the deliberate distortion of the public memory of the war and provide some reparation to Africans and Asians after a century of exclusion.
John Siblon is the Head of History at City & Islington College. He is also a PhD Candidate at Birkbeck College researching the representation of African and Caribbean servicemen in the aftermath of the First World War. He has published a small book, Caribbeans on the Western Front, and many articles, blogs, and chapters on Black servicemen in the First World War. He is also an active anti-racist campaigner and was a co-author of the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History. You can find him on Twitter @john_siblon.