The Commonwealth War Graves Commission set up a special committee to review historical cases of non-commemoration of the two World Wars, identify gaps and propose how any such gaps could be rectified – this was a result of debate surrounding a documentary titled Unremembered – Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes, which was broadcast in November 2019.
The committee’s report found that potentially more than 116,000 of those who died while serving under the then British Empire during the First World War remain un-memorialised, with the majority of individuals being of African, Indian or Egyptian origin, and it has left many convinced that the reasons for this failure were underpinned by racism.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has apologised on behalf of the Government, stating: “There can be no doubt that prejudice played a part in some of the commission’s decisions.”
He told of ‘deep regret’ for failures to properly commemorate Black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire.
In Sheffield City Road Cemetery, there are said to be just under 200 burials of the First World War, 138 from the Second, five non-war service burials and nine war graves of other nationalities.
Some graves in the cemetery could not be marked individually and a screen wall commemorates casualties buried in Sheffield, whose graves could no longer be maintained.
As a city with a large population of people from an African background, some have relatives who served in the British Empire.
Dalia White, whose great uncle served in the First World War, told how although she was never told much about her great uncle, she does recall stories being told about inequalities he faced whilst serving.
She said: “I’m not surprised at this really. Racism has been around forever. You serve for your country and this is how you get treated, just because you’re not white.”
A similar experience is echoed in Walter Tull’s story.
He was the first black player in British professional football, but he also served in WWI, which included fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
At that time, military laws did not allow and ‘person of colour’ to be commissioned as an officer.
Walter fought this and was promoted to lieutenant in 1917, becoming the first black officer in the British Army, and the first black officer to lead white men into battle. Although he was recommended for the Military Cross, he never received it.
People from all different backgrounds played their part in the war – there were Indians and West Indians who were part of the Royal Flying Corps, and there were Indians, Chinese and Nigerians serving in the Royal Navy.
For many people from Black, Asian and other ethnic communities with relatives who fought in the war, many do not know what happened to them after they died.
Despite thousands of service personnel not being commemorated by name, and some not at all, some believe there still remains injustice for those who were commemorated.
It has been reported that of those who were commemorated, up to 54,000 individuals were deliberately commemorated differently from European combatants.
In the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s official response to the Committee’s report, director general, Claire Horton, said: “The Committee has produced an excellent report, which pulls no punches. Our response is simple: the events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now. We are sorry for what happened and will act to right the wrongs of the past. We welcome the committee’s findings and embrace fully its detailed recommendations.”
She added: “Many of the recommendations can be acted on at once, others will require further work and investigation.
"We are already prioritising several areas simultaneously for immediate action, building on activities already put in train over recent years to tell the stories of those who died.
"As we do, we will continue in our mission to live up to a promise made more than a century ago and inscribed in stone at CWGC sites around the globe: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’.”
The Commission has committed itself to positive, pro-active and inclusive action, and to engaging directly with the communities affected to address the issues raised.
It has also renewed its commitment to equality for all in commemoration, building on “the world-wide work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that has for over a century, maintained a global remembrance landscape and helped shape the deeply felt values and culture of commemoration and remembrance we know today.”
The Commission’s Vice-Chairman, Lt Gen Sir Bill Rollo KCB CBE, said: “The knowledge of what went wrong, and the need to put it right, will shape our approach to the future, arming us with a renewed determination to ensure that we fulfil the original promise to commemorate equally all who died in the two World Wars.”