WWI

Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Search For WW1's Forgotten Heroes

A recent report found "pervasive racism" was behind a failure to properly commemorate a large number of black and Asian service personnel.

A Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) project is under way to correct the historical wrong that left tens of thousands of fallen black and Asian troops without headstones after the First World War.

Last month a report released by the CWGC revealed "pervasive racism" in the way their deaths were treated, which prompted an apology from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

The investigation found that at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern casualties of World War One "were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all".

The CWGC report focused on when the organisation was known as the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), and found it did not commemorate many minority troops from the four-year conflict in the same way as their white comrades.

Dr George Hay authored the report and is now part of a team of researchers beginning the colossal task of finding the thousands who have been forgotten – which he believes may be possible. 

Speaking to Forces News, he said: "If we're saying we're looking for what might be 350,000 names, if we put that into archival terms and you try and visualise that in a paper sense, it's substantial.

"But we know now from recent research that the largest employer of military labour in East Africa... we know that they produced extensive card catalogues, we know that they had a ledger system in place during the war.

Dr George Hay at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission archive.

"Whether it survived we don't yet know, but if it does... it probably survives in east Africa still.

"If we can find that paperwork, then hopefully we can put some names to those who died."

Dr Hay will work with research teams, museums and universities around the world to try to find these forgotten individuals.  

Even if a list cannot be found, it may still be possible to find some of those who fought.

Journalist Shrabani Basu was also on the report committee.

She said: "Most of these soldiers were illiterate peasants, they were just people who lived in the hills, who tended goats, and they were all recruited.

"Those families still live in those villages.

"You can fund research grants, there are so many researchers out there, the one thing India has is manpower.

Watch: Last month's report found 'pervasive racism' as a reason behind a failure to commemorate thousands of World War One heroes.

"Do research projects, send these people to the villages because they're mainly oral histories," she added.

Dr Hay says the issue is not just "pervasive racism", and believes what is needed now is a complete overhaul of our approach to the World Wars.

"I would hope that this work shifts some of the focus away from the western front... not just in school curriculums, not just in formalised teaching, but actually people's general interest.

"These are global wars and they are not global wars because the world comes to Europe, they are world wars because they are fought across the world," he added.

Dr Hay says "rarely does history have such relevance" and he feels "pride" being involved in the research project "especially if we can find what we want to find".

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy last month said he welcomes the ongoing work of the CWGC, adding that "they have my commitment to work with them, in partnership where I can, to make this happen" in relation to education on the sacrifices of black and Asian service personnel.

The CWGC inquiry followed the Channel 4 documentary 'Unremembered', which Mr Lammy presented in 2019.