Thursday, 22 April 2021

Commonwealth War Graves Commission accepts findings of 'pervasive racism' in historic burials practice

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org) has apologised for 'prevasive racism' in its historic burials practice by its predecessor, the Imperial War Graves Commission, with regards to black and Asian personnel who served on the side of the British Empire, following an inquiry set up by it in the aftermath of a Channel 4 documentary which first revealed the organisation's failings in 2019. 

From the report, available at https://www.cwgc.org/media/noantj4i/report-of-the-special-committee-to-review-historical-inequalities-in-commemoration.pdf

The evidence recorded here provides a preliminary exploration of cases of unequal commemoration and non-commemoration, and the IWGC’s role in bringing them about. It demonstrates that diver-gences from the organisation’s principles exist outside of Europe and across its estate, principally falling into two categories:

• In the first instance, it is estimated that between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties are or were commemorated differently across East Africa, West Africa, Egypt and the Middle East – usually collectively via memorials when some might have had marked burials, or by recording the names of the dead in registers rather than engraving them in stone.

• In  the  second  instance,  it  is  estimated  that  at  least  116,000,  but  potentially  as  many  as  350,000, casualties may not be commemorated by name or may not be commemorated at all, primarily across East Africa and Egypt.

Both issues are the result of decisions owned by the IWGC, albeit decisions influenced by a scarcity of information, errors inherited from other organisations and the opinions of colonial administra-tors. Underpinning all these decisions, however, were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes.

 

The following is the inquiry's statement on its findings:

PUBLICATION OF REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON HISTORICAL CASES OF NON-COMMEMORATION

A report by a Special Committee, established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in December 2019, has concluded that 116,000 casualties of the First World War were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all outside the European theatre of war.  

That figure could be as high as 350,000 and the Committee’s report has found that between 45,000 and 54,000 additional casualties were also commemorated unequally. The report provides ten far-reaching recommendations for action by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), in light of its findings.

Highlighting the complex situation on the ground, during and after the war, the report makes clear that there were several contributing factors. These ranged from the legacy of poorly marked wartime burials andthe treatment of some groups by the military authorities, to the actions and demands of colonial administrations and the impact of contemporary imperial attitudes on Imperial War Graves Commission decision-making. However, despite the many practical complexities involved, the Special Committee is unambiguous and uncompromising in its findings on the role of the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The Special Committee, chaired by Sir Tim Hitchens, Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner and President of Wolfson College Oxford, says that: “Though there were clearly unique challenges and difficulties faced on some of the battlefields outside of Europe,  there is also evidence that manycasualties in these regions were denied named commemoration where it was possible, and somewere deliberately treated differently. In short, these men were deprived of the equality in death promised by the Imperial War Graves Commission and of the opportunity for their story to be told”.

CWGC’s predecessor organisation, the Imperial War Graves Commission, included in its founding principles a commitment to equal commemoration for all in death, regardless of their rank or religion in life. In light of the inconsistency between the report’s findings and those principles, the Committee concludes that “more than a century since this work began, it is time to put right the mistakes and bad decisions of the past.

”The Committee’s Chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, said:“I would like to thank all those who gave their time, energy and expertise to the important work of the Special Committee. The Committee has gone about its work with the utmost professionalism and diligence, providing a comprehensive set of recommendations for action”.   

He continued: “The implementation of our recommendations would start to put right the wrongs of the past and we know that the Commission will consider them very seriously, as it continues on a mission as important today as it was a century ago. Our report is designed to provide a clear roadmap for tackling these important issues and building on its many remarkable successes.” 

 

And the CWGC's response:

COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION ACCEPTS SPECIAL COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS IN FULL

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (the Commission) has today welcomed the report produced by a Special Committee formed to review historical cases of non-c ommemoration and committed to implement the Committee’s ten detailed recommendations in full.

The Commission established the Special Committee in December 2019, following a Channel 4 Documentary Unremembered – Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes – first broadcast in November 2019. The Committee’s mandate – agreed by the Commission’s six member Governments – was to produce a report on the commemoration by name of all Empire war dead of the two World Wars, identify gaps in that commemoration and propose how any such gaps could be rectified.

The report finds that 116,000, and potentially as many as 350,000, of those who died while serving the forces of the then British Empire during the First World War remain unmemorialised, a century after their passing. The vast majority were of African, Indian or Egyptian origin. Of those who were commemorated, up to 54,000 individuals were deliberately commemorated differently fromEuropean combatants. This was in direct contravention of the core principle of equality of treatment in death, on which the original Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was founded.

Publishing the Commission’s official response to the Committee’s report, Director General, Claire Horton, CBE, said: “The Committee has produced an excellent report, which pulls no punches. Our response today 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”.   

Ms. Horton 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””.

In accepting fully the findings and shortcomings identified in this report – and apologising unreservedly for them – the Commission also committed itself to positive, pro-active and inclusive action, and to engaging directly with the communities affected to address the issues raised.

At the same time, the Commission renewed afresh its abiding commitment to equality for all in commemoration, in perpetuity, 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”.

Commenting on the report, the Commission’s Vice-Chairman, Lt Gen Sir Bill Rollo KCB CBE, said: “I would like to thank the Members of the Special Committee and its Chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, for this very thorough, detailed report, and its very clear recommendations.

One hundred years ago our predecessors set out a clear commitment to commemorate the First World War dead equally, by name, in a way which had never been done before. They succeeded remarkably in Europe, but as the report makes clear, they fell short in a number of other parts of the world”.

Sir Bill continued: This report will enable us to continue and, ultimately, complete our work to commemorate and recognise all those who lost their lives in this catastrophic conflict. Where names can be found they will be. Where they cannot, the Commission, working directly with the communities affected, will seek alternative means by which their memory can be properly preserved. We will also widen the search to cover both World Wars.

Above all 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.

 

The CWGC's Director general, Claire Horton, has recorded the following message:


(Also available at https://youtu.be/f7bVvTVg_uk)

 

The CWGC has also set up a dedciated section on its website, incluiding the report and details on how it will address its findings. You can find this at https://www.cwgc.org/non-commemoration-report/.

The BBC has a story on the report at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56840131.

Chris

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