Volume 59, Number 6, June 2021
Grave concerns ON April 22 the BBC ran a news story stating that the Prime Minister was “deeply troubled” by the report by a special committee of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), chaired by Sir Tim Hitchens, KCVO, CMG. The committee was appointed to probe the early history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) to identify inequalities in the way the organisation commemorated the dead of the British Empire from the two world wars. The report concluded that “In conflict with the organisation’s founding principles, it is estimated that between 45,000 and 54,000 casualties (predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel) were commemorated unequally. For some, rather than marking their graves individually, as the IWGC would have done in Europe, these men were commemorated collectively on memorials. For others who were missing, their names were recorded in registers rather than in stone. A further 116,000 casualties (predominantly, but not exclusively, East African and Egyptian personnel)—but potentially as many as 350,000—were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all. Most of these men were commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names”. This conclusion led to the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace both apologising after the report concluded the reasons that the IWGC acted as it did was because of “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes”. Mr Wallace also pledged to “take action” as he had “no doubt that prejudice had played a part in some of the commission’s decisions”. Now Mr Wallace is living and working in 2021, he is a product of the post-colonial period as we all are, and so it is no surprise that he told Parliament that he was shocked by what the BBC termed the “racist language” of the Governor of the Gold Coast, F. G. Guggisberg, when the latter stated (in 1923) “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone and that the original suggestion of the O.C. Troops, viz: a central statue of a soldier of the Gold Coast Regiment—was a more reasonable suggestion. Such a memorial would be understood and greatly appreciated by the tribes from whom the majority of the men in the Regiment were recruited”. Personally I don’t see that as particularly racist language: it may well have been wrong. I don’t know, I’ve never spoken to a World War I veteran from the Gold Coast, but it seems to me that Governor Guggisburg was trying to do what he thought was right in giving a collective rather than individual memorials to the men. Was this motivated by racism? Did Governor Guggisburg genuinely want less for the Gold Coast natives than had been bestowed upon the fallen with a lighter skin tone? Or was he simply drawing on his knowledge of the local tribes and how they might want their dead to be remembered? I don’t know, Mr Wallace doesn’t know, the CWGC special committee doesn’t know, not really, because no matter what happened nearly 100 years ago, no matter what documents were produced at the time, everybody involved now is looking at the issue through 21st century eyes. And those eyes cannot see what others once did. Certainly if non-white casualties of today’s conflicts were treated differently then there would, quite rightly, be uproar; none of us would countenance such action, of course we wouldn’t, but these things aren’t happening today, the world has moved on and whether we like it or not things were different in the past. To try to force today’s principles on actions from a century ago seems futile. We don’t know upon what the decisions of the IWGC in regard to the treatment of “natives” were based. We may think we see racism in them, but that is because we are looking at them with our perspective. We cannot actually know what went on back then, all we can do is assume, based on our own moral compass. It will be interesting now to see what, if any, action is taken by the CWGC; will we see a raft of new war cemeteries or memorials to properly commemorate these men? Or will they simply use this as a lesson for the future? (a lesson that seems a trifle redundant as they are unlikely to act that way today). I only ask because I am waiting to see whether this will directly affect the medal world—are we, perhaps, to expect a mass reissuing of the East and West Africa Medal, the India General Service Medal, British War Medal et al? After all, “natives” only received a bronze issue, not a silver medal. Was that too motivated by “racism”? Watch this space!
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