The Defence Secretary has acknowledged “prejudice played a part” in failures to properly commemorate potentially hundreds of thousands of black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire.
Ben Wallace issued an apology and expressed “deep regret” on Thursday after an investigation found the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) did not formally remember them in the same way as white comrades.
The Cabinet minister told the Commons that the report, which found that “pervasive racism” underpinned the failures, made for “sobering reading”.
“There can be no doubt prejudice played a part in some of the commission’s decisions,” Mr Wallace, the CWGC chairman, told MPs.
“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 the founding principle all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation.”
He said there were cases where the commission “deliberately overlooked evidence” that would have allowed it to find the names of the dead.
He also said there were examples of the officials employing an “overarching imperial ideology connected to racial and religious differences” in order to “divide the dead and treat them unequally in ways that were impossible in Europe”.
Mr Wallace announced a public consultation over plans to waive the visa fee for service personnel from the Commonwealth and Nepal who choose to settle in the UK in order to honour their contribution.
The CWGC also issued an apology, saying the actions were “wrong then and are wrong now”, and that officials would be “acting immediately to correct them”.
Originally named the Imperial War Graves Commission, it was founded in 1917 to commemorate those who died in the war with the principle that each fatality should be commemorated by name on a permanent headstone or memorial.
The investigation discovered at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties “were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all”.
The figure could be as high as 350,000.
Most of the men were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names.
The investigation also estimated that between 45,000 and 54,000 Asian and African casualties were “commemorated unequally”.
Some were commemorated collectively on memorials, unlike those in Europe, and others, who were missing, were only recorded in registers rather than in stone.
The special committee behind the investigation was established by the CWGC in 2019 after a highly-critical documentary on the issue titled Unremembered and presented by Labour MP David Lammy.
The investigation found the failure to properly commemorate the individuals was “influenced by a scarcity of information, errors inherited from other organisations and the opinions of colonial administrators”.
“Underpinning all these decisions, however, were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes,” it added.
One example given is based on communications in 1923 between F.G. Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast colony, now Ghana, and Arthur Browne, from the commission.
At a meeting in London, it was said the governor said “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone” as he argued for collective memorials.
A response from Arthur Browne showed “what he may have considered foresight, but one that was explicitly framed by contemporary racial prejudice”, according to the report.
“In perhaps two or three hundred years’ time, when the native population had reached a higher stage of civilisation, they might then be glad to see that headstones had been erected on the native graves and that the native soldiers had received precisely the same treatment as their white comrades,” he said.
In a statement, CWGC director general Claire Horton said: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now.
“We recognise the wrongs of the past and are deeply sorry, and will be acting immediately to correct them.”
Mr Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said: “No apology can ever make up for the indignity suffered by the unremembered.
“However, this apology does offer the opportunity for us as a nation to work through this ugly part of our history – and properly pay our respects to every soldier who has sacrificed their life for us.”
Professor David Olusoga said the failure to properly commemorate predominantly black and Asian service personnel is “one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “These are men who died fighting for Britain in the most appalling war Britain’s ever faced, the war that killed more British soldiers and more Commonwealth soldiers than any conflict in history.
“It is a war that deeply changed our culture and part of the impact of the First World War was the power of the way those who fell were memorialised.
“When it came to men who were black and brown and Asian and African, it is not equal, particularly the Africans who have been treated in a way that is, as I said, it’s apartheid in death.
“It is an absolute scandal. It is one of the biggest scandals I’ve ever come across as an historian, but the biggest scandal is that this was known years ago.”