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OP-ED: Remembering the fallen

  • Published at 06:35 am April 27th, 2021
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

Britain is looking to finally acknowledge the brave foreign heroes that fought during WWI

This week, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWCG) published a report that sought to understand why tens of thousands of black and Asian recruits who died in the First World War had not been suitably honoured. 

The report found that at least 116,000 non-white casualties from the war “were not commemorated properly or not commemorated at all.” The overriding reason, it concluded, was the “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions, and pervasive racism” of the time.

The CWGC was founded over a hundred years ago in the aftermath of WWI as the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC). Its mandate then, as it is now, was to care for all of those Imperial and later Commonwealth personnel who perished in the war, and later in subsequent conflicts, equally and individually. 

In practice, this meant that every one of the war who could be identified would be remembered by a headstone with their name, rank, the place where they died and, where applicable, their regimental insignia. 

All of the gravestones would be of an identical size, colour, and made from the same material. Therefore, today if one walks along the rows and rows of graves in any one of the CWGC’s 23,000 immaculately maintained burial sites around the world, it is possible to see a general laid alongside a private soldier, a corporal next to a brigadier. 

For those whose bodies were never recovered but who were known to have been killed in action, their names would be engraved upon a memorial on or near the site where they fell.

The founding fathers of the War Graves Commission clearly had egalitarian ideals when they agreed that all should be considered equal in death. Unfortunately, these principles did not extend to black and Asian combatants. 

For the 116,000, no such memorial or inscription was ever made to record their service and their passing. Instead, their names were recorded in paper registers, many of which later became lost. 

It beggars belief that, more than a century after the end of the conflict, this appalling state of affairs has only now been made public. As the CWGC themselves concluded in their report, “… it (was) wrong then and … wrong now.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to be “deeply troubled” by the revelations and has offered an “unreserved apology” on behalf of the British government. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, told the House of Commons last week, “Whilst we cannot change the past, we can make amends and take action.” 

It is to be hoped that he is true to his word and that a fitting memorial can be commissioned to these forgotten thousands. While, at this distance in time, it may be difficult to identify individuals, it is vital that the government does indeed make amends. It is a stain on the otherwise laudable reputation of the CWGC that its present commissioners will want to erase. 

But it was not only the black and Asian dead who until now had been forgotten. About 100,000 Chinese labourers were recruited by the British Army between 1917 and 1919. The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) as they were known, were employed not to fight but to clear up the grizzly aftermath of the war on the Western Front. 

In the closing years of the war, the men of the CLC had to extricate the rotting remains of the dead from the mud, uncover unexploded shells, and work long hours in digging and later filling in trenches. The work was not only deeply unpleasant but highly dangerous. 

It has been estimated that over 20,000 men of the CFC died from exploding ordinance, enemy attacks and, in the final years of the conflict, from the Spanish flu. Only 2,000 of these brave individuals lie in a grave maintained by the CWGC, the remainder are interred in unknown mass burial sites.

The members of the CFC performed essential work in the dying months of the war and in the year or so after it. Yet they were treated little better than slave labour, were only known by a number not their name, suffered frequent beatings, and were often given inadequate clothing and insufficient food. 

Once again, there is no memorial to these people and their contribution and plight is all but forgotten in this country. Tellingly, it was over a hundred years after 1918 that the first wreath of poppies honouring these Chinese workers was laid at the annual Remembrance Day commemoration in Whitehall.

It is wonderful that the forgotten thousands of black and Asian dead are finally being remembered and that Britain is, at last, acknowledging their contribution to that long and protracted conflict. 

But it is high time that the same acknowledgement is afforded to those nameless Chinese labourers who bravely carried out the grim work that most British soldiers would have balked at. Given this country’s poor relationship with the current Chinese government, it would be a timely, positive, and humanitarian gesture to make.

Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.

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