David Lammy: 'Indignities Of The Past' Must Be Remedied After War Graves Failure

Commonwealth soldiers who fought for Britain in the First World War must no longer be kept out of the history books, a Labour MP has said.

It comes after an investigation by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which focused on when the organisation was the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), found it did not commemorate many minority troops from the four-year conflict in the same way as their white comrades.

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

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said he welcomes the ongoing work of the CWGC and, said "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.

He told Forces News: "I think that this is a good moment.

"You cannot easily erase the indignities of the past, of course you can't do that, but what you can do is be honest about what happened, to seek to remedy it as far as you can in a spirit of reconciliation if you like, and ensure that future generations understand the lessons and understand what really happened.

"I think that's the opportunity that we're presented with, moving forward, and I have no reason to believe that we won't take it."

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

Soldiers during the Battle of the Somme during World War One in 1916 (Picture: PA).
Soldiers during the Battle of the Somme during World War One in 1916 (Picture: PA).

Referring to a disparity between the conditions of graves in the programme, Mr Lammy said: "It was very moving, very emotional, and made me feel very, very sad.

"There is no greater honour, sacrifice, in any country in the world, than to die for your country in time of war. Full stop."

Mr Lammy said many only think about the Western Front in the First World War, with images of the Somme and "poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling", unaware the first bullets were fired in east Africa.

He has urged ministers to provide resources for better education in schools.

Mr Lammy said: "Something fundamental came out of the First World War and it was that that business of equality in death and commemoration that makes the Commonwealth War Graves Commission a beloved institution, really, across the globe, was established.

"It set up a common treatment of people, whatever your working-class or middle-class background, but it didn't extend to black and brown people.

"I think it's important that that's corrected, that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission fesses up to that and uses it as a teaching moment, if you like, for young people and populations, but most importantly, that where names can be found they are found in the archives in those countries, and, appropriately, we commemorate in villages and towns, listening to communities as to how they want to do that."

Watch: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace issued an apology over failures to properly commemorate many black and Asian service personnel. 

Speaking about how the CWGC has only now acknowledged the failures, Mr Lammy told Forces News: "The issue is not just that this is a historic thing, that goes back 100 years, it's the fact that the unremembering went on for so long and it's taken so long to get them to this point."

When asked about what needs to be done to commemorate those lives that went 'unremembered', and move on from those failings, Mr Lammy said: "It would be different things in different places.

"I think the thing that really cut across to me when I went to a university in Kenya, was that the young people said 'we don't know this history, and because it's wrapped up in a history where we were colonised by the Brits, we feel a bit ashamed of this history, but we want to understand it better', and I really want those young people to get that education.

"I'm really, really sad that I never learned about this in history lessons at school.

"My shoulders would have been lifted up, I would have felt empowered to know that I might have had ancestors in the First World War."

A Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the French city of Bayeux.
A Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the French city of Bayeux.

He added: "That when I was laughing at Blackadder [Goes Forth], it wasn't just a white European story. I'd love to have known that.

"But I suppose I'm a bit angry that even today, for my three kids in school, they're not learning this history. We've got to correct that, we need to do that swiftly."

In its response to the report, the CWGC said it "acknowledges that the commission failed to fully carry out its responsibilities at the time and accepts the findings and failings identified in this report and we apologise unreservedly for them".

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."

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