Racist treatment of black and Asian war dead is acknowledged at last | Military

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It is gratifying that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will finally apologise, after 100 years, for denying black African soldiers and labourers war graves for their service to the British empire in the first world war (UK inquiry blames ‘pervasive racism’ for unequal commemoration of troops, 21 April). Many people in Britain and Europe will have seen headstones in cemeteries to colonial servicemen from the British West Indies Regiment, the South African Native Labour Corps, the Chinese Labour Corps, and Indians, alongside others, and will wonder what the fuss is. These troops were considered Christian and given the privilege of a headstone by the commission.

But on the African continent, where there was fighting in east and west Africa, you will not see any native African soldiers from the King’s African Rifles, the West Africa Frontier Force and the Carrier Corps given a headstone, as they were considered “heathen” and “uncivilised”. There should be at least 200,000 war graves to these men. It is important that the commission creates new headstones so that the racist construct that the war was a “white man’s war”, where only white soldiers paid the ultimate price, can finally be laid to rest.
John Siblon

Racism in the army goes back before the first world war and extends well beyond it. Unless it has changed, the war memorial for the siege of Mafikeng has, alongside the names of British soldiers, one plaque commemorating, with no names, “the Black Watch”. From 1884, entrants to Sandhurst and Woolwich had to declare that they were of pure European descent. Between the wars, the War Office insisted that Indian undergraduates could not join the University Officers’ Training Corps. This was justified as they would not be available for the Territorial Army in a war, although Australians and white South Africans were accepted.

Meanwhile, in the Colonial Office it could not be “seriously contended that any negro or person with a good deal of negro blood would be regarded as suitable to hold a commission in a British regiment of white troops”, according to a 1935 document in the National Archives.

It gets worse. After 1945, African soldiers were only slowly demobilised from regiments deployed to Burma and, while British relatives heard if soldiers had been killed or wounded, African family members often did not know until the troops returned whom they could expect to see. The new report looks like a useful part of the atonement and reckoning called for by David Lammy.
Dr Hilary Perraton
Author of A History of Foreign Students in Britain

People don’t forget. My late father served in Flanders alongside many regiments, including Indian ones. He was deeply impressed by their heroism and especially admired the Gurkhas. He did not forget, and the memory has been casually passed on in many places. But if you seek a tangible memorial, send your readers to Brighton Pavilion, where there’s a room dedicated to the wounded Indian soldiers who were treated there. And up on the South Downs is the Chattri, a fine white stone memorial to the Indian war dead. The reminders are here, if not the overwhelming lists of names.
Stan Baker
Brighton, East Sussex

The British army buries its dead in separate sections of “officers and men”. It’s not just a racial divide.
John Batey
Bedlington, Northumberland

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Written by bourbiza

Bourbiza Mohamed. Writer and Political Discourse Analysis.


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