Britain’s failure to honour black and Asian dead is a scandal of the present, not just the past | David Olusoga

Why did it take our TV documentary to push the Commonwealth War Graves Commission into righting a wrong they had long known about?

One afternoon, nine years ago, I read an astonishing academic paper, written by Professor Michèle Barrett of Queen Mary University of London. Using documents from the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), she had demonstrated that in the 1920s the commission had profoundly failed to live up to its founding principles.

Beyond the Western Front, in Africa and the Middle East, the remains of black and brown men who had fought, laboured and died for the British empire had been treated differently to those of their white comrades. Although these men had fallen in the same theatres of the same war, they, unlike white soldiers, had been denied the dignity of a known grave. Some were left in unmarked graves or even mass graves on the edges of forgotten battlefields or the sites of temporary field hospitals. These men, at least 100,000 of them, subjects of the British empire, had been treated in death as they had been so often treated in life – as the second-class citizens of a racialised empire.

The Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was then known, along with various colonial governors and politicians, had justified this unequal commemoration by pointing to the huge logistical challenges of locating and exhuming bodies and the costs of doing so; as if the creation of the vast cemeteries of the Western Front and the gathering of bodies from the munition-strewn battlefields of Flanders involved no logistical challenges or expense. At times, they suggested that the African societies from which soldiers and auxiliaries had been drawn were not civilised enough to appreciate being given places in cemeteries and headstones through which to remember their dead. The CWGC has now rightly acknowledged that these excuses were exactly that.

This history of unequal commemoration is most starkly apparent at the CWGC cemetery at Voi in Kenya. Within its walls are the beautifully tended graves of white British soldiers who died in the little-known east Africa campaign. Outside the walls, along a busy road, lies a patch of scrubland. There, under a carpet of litter, lie the bodies of Africans who fought and died in the same campaign.

What amazed me reading all this, nine years ago, was that historical facts as incendiary as this had not become public knowledge; that the publication of Barrett’s paper had not become front-page news. Just as shocking was the fact that the CWGC had not acted on her research, especially as in 2007 she had sent her paper to the then director-general of the CWGC and to a prominent historian who was a CWGC commissioner at the time. Yet disconnects like this, between what historians know and what is commonly known, are not unusual. Academic books often lie dormant and inert, hermetically sealed within a world of academic discourse, studiously ignored by journalists.

After reading Barrett’s work, I did what historians do. I cited her findings and sources in my own writing – a book on the First World War published in 2014. But as I also work as a TV producer, I arranged to meet Barrett and tentatively suggested that together we should make a documentary. A few years later, after having set up a TV production company with the former Panorama producer Mike Smith, we wrote a proposal that we sent to Ian Katz, director of programmes at Channel 4. He got its significance immediately and, in what turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, C4 suggested we ask David Lammy to present the film.

In late 2019, our documentary, The Unremembered, was broadcast. It revealed the same shocking history that Professor Barrett had uncovered over a decade earlier. It set in train a series of events that, thanks to the ceaseless campaigning of Lammy and Barrett, led to the publication last week of a report produced by a special committee appointed by the CWGC. It was accompanied by acknowledgments and apologies, from both the commission and the government.

The report admits that what lay behind this historical betrayal were the “entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes”. Such attitudes were prevalent within the commission and among politicians and colonial governors in the decades after 1918. This is a sober and nuanced report written by a committee made up of serious thinkers and seasoned historians. It is significant because the CWGC is an organisation that is rightly held in high esteem.

What is unique, perhaps, about this scandal is that the principles that were betrayed when it came to men from Africa and Asia were ones that were so nobly and faithfully adhered to in the case of their white comrades. I have been writing and making documentaries about the First World War for most of my career. Over the years, I have travelled along the great archipelago of war cemeteries that trace the line of the former Western Front. Those many visits have instilled in me a profound respect for the work the commission does in Europe, which makes its failings in Africa all the more disturbing.

The gulf between the nobility of the commission’s key principle – equality in death – and the racial mindset that led to men who had died fighting for Britain being left in unmarked graves, is deeply disturbing.

However, it is important to recognise that there are two scandals here – the first historical, the second contemporary. In parliament, the defence minister, Ben Wallace, apologised, on behalf of the CWGC and the government, for the commission’s “failure to live up to their founding principles”. He went on to express deep regret that it has “taken so long to rectify the situation”. But this day of reckoning was delayed by more than a decade, during which the CWGC acted exactly as so many organisations have done when asked to confront their past. They closed their eyes and hoped it would all go away.

The commission put the defence of its reputation over its responsibilities to men who had lost their lives fighting in the name of the British empire. It continued to celebrate auspicious chapters of its past while knowingly overlooking others. Its leadership hoped and presumed that the historians who knew of those chapters would never be given the platform from which to broadcast their findings and cause embarrassment or force change.

Documentary makers dream of producing shows that bring about genuine change. The role of Channel 4, the broadcaster of The Unremembered, is to be a platform for programmes that do exactly that, by challenging both established institutions and established views. Yet the fact that it took a documentary to force the CWGC into confronting aspects of its own history that had been in the public domain for so long is a scandal in itself.

A scandal of now rather than then, one that aggravates the original sin and that cannot be blamed on the “standards of the time” or the attitudes of earlier generations.

• David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster

Contributor

David Olusoga

The GuardianTramp

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