"On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the government both of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to their founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation. Whilst we can't change the past, we can make amends and take action,” UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in the House of Commons this week.
"There can be no doubt prejudice played a part in some of the Commission's decisions," he said.
The grim acknowledgement came as a new review found that “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes” meant that nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the during the First World War were not commemorated the same way as others.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which commemorates the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars, had created a Special Committee in late-2019 to investigate potential gaps in the commemoration of those who died during and after the First World War. It found that an estimated 45,000-54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel, were commemorated unequally. A further 116,000 casualties, potentially as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all.
Claire Horton, Director General of the CWGC, said: “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.
“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.”
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During World War I (1914-18) India, which at that time included Pakistan and Bangladesh under British colonial rule, sent the largest share of Commonwealth soldiers to the war effort at over 1.4 million. , British Indian historian-author of ‘For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18’ and one of the committee members behind the review, said the most shocking fact that came to light during the research was that nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers had not been commemorated in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.
She also expressed shock at the “sheer callousness” with which an Indian Army general had advised the then Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), later changed to CWGC, saying that Hindu and Muslim soldiers placed “no importance” on their names being recorded on graves and therefore they could just be mentioned in memorial tablets.
Basu said: “From my research, I knew that this was not true at all. They wanted to be remembered
“A Sikh soldier specifically tells his officer that he would understand if he couldn't be cremated and had to be buried, but he would like his name recorded on a headstone. Another Dogra soldier says that if he is to be buried, his shoes should not be put in his grave.
“They were particular about how they were treated after their death.”
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Among the several recommendations set out by the review, Basu highlights an urgent need to find the missing names of the dead and commemorate them. Also, work must be undertaken with local communities in the relevant countries, such as India, to find not only the soldiers but also thousands of others who lost their lives in the war effort including cooks, cleaners and labourers. Memorials and museums in their memory, in the individual countries where they came from or in the regions where they fought and died, should also be among some of the actions.
The CWGC said that in accepting fully the findings and shortcomings identified in the report – and apologising unreservedly for them – the Commission has committed itself to positive, proactive and inclusive action.
CWGC Vice-Chairman Lt. Gen. Sir Bill Rollo said: “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.”