Politics

Defence Secretary Admits 'Deep Regret' Over War Graves Failure

Ben Wallace acknowledged "prejudice played a part" in failures to properly commemorate black and Asian troops who died for the Empire.

The Defence Secretary has issued an apology over failures to properly commemorate many black and Asian service personnel who died fighting for the British Empire.

Ben Wallace spoke of "deep regret" and said "prejudice played a part" in the failure, which potentially includes hundreds of thousands of fallen personnel.

It follows an investigation that found the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), formerly the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), did not commemorate many minority troops in the same way as their white comrades.

The CWGC investigation, which focused on when the organisation was known as the IWGC, found that at least 116,000 predominantly African and Middle Eastern First World War casualties "were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all".

It also suggested 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.

Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Wallace said the report, which found that "pervasive racism" underpinned the failures, made for "sobering reading".

He also referred to examples of officials using 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, who is chairman of the CWGC, 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 their founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation."

The Cabinet minister explained how there were cases where the commission "deliberately overlooked evidence" that would have enabled it to locate the names of the dead.

Commonwealth Wars Graves Commission cemetery in the French City of Bayeux D-Day Credit BFBS 310519
A Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the French city of Bayeux.

Ben Wallace concluded his Commons address by speaking of his own experience as a soldier.

"True soldiers are agnostic to class, race or gender because the bond that holds us together is a bond forged in war," he said.

"When on operations we share the risk, we share the sorrow and we rely on each to get through sometimes the toughest of times.

“The friendships I made in my service are still strong.

"Those common bonds were what lay behind the Imperial War Grave Commission's principles and it is truly sad that on the occasions identified by the report those principles were not followed.

"I feel it is my duty as a former soldier to do the right thing by those who gave their lives in the First World War across the Commonwealth and take what necessary steps we can to rectify the situation."

The CWGC, too, apologised, saying the actions were "wrong then and are wrong now", and that officials would be "acting immediately to correct them".

Mr Wallace has also announced a public consultation over plans to waive visa fees for Commonwealth and Nepalese service personnel who move to settle in the United Kingdom, to honour their contribution.

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey described the CWGC report as "a great discredit … to the Britain of a century ago".

"This has been part of Britain’s blind spot to our colonial past and we’ve been too slow as a country since then to recognise and honour fully the regiments and the troops drawn from Africa and Asia and the Caribbean," he added.