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Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Historical Inequalities Report

Volume 811: debated on Monday 26 April 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 22 April.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the special committee review into the historical actions of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, when it was the Imperial War Graves Commission and subsequently.

I start by placing on the record my thanks and gratitude to the committee that compiled this comprehensive report, especially its chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, and contributing academics Dr George Hay, Dr John Burke and Professor Michèle Barrett. I am also grateful to the right honourable Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) who, alongside the makers of the Channel 4 documentary on this subject, provided the impetus for the establishment of the independent committee.

Today the committee’s findings are published. They make for sober reading. The First World War was a horrendous loss of life. People of all class and race from all nations suffered a great tragedy, which we rightly remember every year on Remembrance Sunday. Just over 100 years ago, what emerged from that atrocity was a belief by the survivors that all those who lost their lives deserved to be commemorated.

When the Imperial War Graves Commission was established, its founding principle was the equality of treatment in death. Whatever an individual’s rank in social or military life and whatever their religion, they would be commemorated identically. Unfortunately, the work of this report shows that it fell short in delivering on that principle. The IWGC relied on others to seek out the bodies of the dead, and where it could not find them, it worked with the offices of state to produce lists of those who did not return and remained unaccounted for.

Given the pressures and confusion spun by such a war, in many ways it is hardly surprising that mistakes were made at both stages. What is surprising and disappointing, however, is the number of mistakes—the number of casualties commemorated unequally, the number commemorated without names, and the number otherwise entirely unaccounted for. That is not excusable. In some circumstances, there was little the IWGC could do. With neither bodies nor names, general memorials were the only way in which some groups might be commemorated at the time.

None the less, there are examples where the organisation also deliberately overlooked the evidence that might have allowed it to find those names. In others, commission officials in the 1920s were happy to work with local administrations on projects across the empire that ran contrary to the principles of equality in death. Elsewhere, it is clear that commission officials pursued agendas and sought evidence or support locally to endorse 67 courses of action that jeopardised those same principles. In the small number of cases where commission officials had greater say in the recovery and marking of graves, overarching imperial ideology connected to racial and religious differences was used to divide the dead and treat them unequally in ways that were impossible in Europe.

The report concludes that post-World War 1, in parts of Africa, the Middle East and India, the commission often compromised its principles and failed to commemorate the war dead equally. Unlike their European counterparts, the graves of up to 54,000 mostly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali casualties were not marked by individual headstones. Some were remembered through inscriptions on memorials. The names of others were only recorded in registers, rather than memorialised in stone. A further 116,000 personnel, mostly east African and Egyptian, were not named or possibly not commemorated at all.

There can be no doubt that prejudice played a part in some of the commission’s decisions. In some cases, the IWGC assumed that the communities of forgotten personnel would not recognise or value individual forms of commemoration. In other cases, it was simply not provided with the names or burial locations.

On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Government of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to the founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation. While we cannot change the past, we can make amends and take action.

As part of that, the commission has accepted all the recommendations of the special committee. In the interests of time I will group these into three themes. First, the commission will geographically and chronologically extend the search in the historical record for inequalities in commemoration and act on what is found. Secondly, the commission will renew its commitment to equality in commemoration through the building of physical or digital commemorative structures. Finally, the commission will use its own online presence and wider education activities to reach out to all the communities of the former British Empire touched by the two world wars to make sure that their hidden history is brought to life. Over the coming six months, the commission will be assembling a global and diverse community of external experts who can help make that happen.

There is also more the Government specifically can do. The Ministry of Defence I lead will be determinedly proactive in standing for the values of equality, supporting diversity and investing in all our people. There is always more to be done, and that is why I welcome the Wigston review into inappropriate behaviours and recently took the rare decision to let service personnel give evidence as part of the inquiry into women in the armed forces led by my honourable friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) through the Defence Committee.

Furthermore, to honour the contribution to our Armed Forces by our friends from the Commonwealth and Nepal, the Home Secretary and I will shortly be launching a public consultation on proposals to remove the visa settlement fees for non-UK service personnel who choose to settle in the UK.

The historical failings identified in the report must be acknowledged and acted upon, and they will be. However, recognising the mistakes of the past should not diminish the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s ground-breaking achievements today. The recommendations of the special committee should be welcomed by us all. They are not just an opportunity for the commission to complete its task and right historical wrongs; they point out what an amazing thing it is to serve our country and our allies.

The amazing thing I know from being a soldier is the relationships that are forged on operations. True soldiers are agnostic to class, race and gender, because the bond that holds us together is a bond forged in war. When on operations, we share the risk, share the sorrow and rely on each other to get through the toughest of times. The friendships I made in my service are still strong.

It was those common bonds that lay behind the Imperial War Graves 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 right by those who gave their lives in the First World War across the Commonwealth and to take what necessary steps we can to rectify the situation. The publication of this report is the beginning, not the end, and I look forward to working with my colleagues across the House to ensure that the CWGC receives the support and resources it needs to take forward this important piece of work.”

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for his apology on behalf of both the Government of the time and the commission. This is an important moment for the commission and the country in coming to terms with past injustices and dedicating ourselves to future action. The report is a credit to the commission of today, but its content is a great discredit to the commission and the Britain of a century ago.

It is estimated that up to 54,000 casualties—predominantly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali personnel—were commemorated unequally. As many as 350,000 were not commemorated by name or not commemorated at all. The report found that the failure to memorialise these casualties adequately was rooted in

“the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes.”

Today, belatedly, we aim to commemorate in full the sacrifice of the many thousands who died for our country in the First World War and have not yet been fully honoured. We will remember them.

In response to the report’s recommendations, I want to ask a few questions. Does the commission have sufficient resources to undertake the next stages of the work and continue the search for these men and women? What role will transparency play in order for today’s commission to be up front about former mistakes? How will Britain’s embassy staff, including our defence attachés, communicate this public apology widely? When can we expect the completion of the investigation into the way in which the commission commemorated the dead from these countries during the Second World War? No apology can atone for the injustice, indignity and suffering set out in this report. While we need an apology today, we need continued action tomorrow.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I have a few questions.

This report is clearly very serious and raises issues that need to be explored, perhaps in a wider context. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 2020s is hugely important and valuable. I have visited certain Commonwealth war graves that are exclusively linked to World War II in Europe, so I suspect that the memorialisation I saw was a fairly accurate reflection of what had happened. However, if the intention of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is to reflect everybody’s contribution equally, regardless of rank, nationality or faith, it is absolutely crucial that the war graves actually do that. In particular, if one visits war graves and assumes that what one is seeing gives a full picture of the loss of life that was incurred during the First or Second World War but we then find that that is not the case, it is a problem not just for those who were lost and their families but for everybody seeking to understand the contribution made, particularly in the First World War, by citizens of the Empire.

There is often a tendency to talk about the United Kingdom, or Britain, winning the war; that is, a tendency to talk about British history as if it is about servicemen—it was essentially men in those days—who came from the United Kingdom or mainland Britain losing their lives. However, many hundreds of thousands from across the Empire and the countries that are now part of the Commonwealth gave their lives. It is crucial that they are remembered.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I welcome the Secretary of State’s apology and this report. However, I also want to know what the Government are planning to do to ensure that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has the resources to try to rectify some of these inequalities. It goes beyond simply saying, “Have we managed to identify people or are we just going to put up another plaque saying ‘Plus 10,000 others, identities unknown’?” Will the Government help the commission to look for ways of being more creative about how we understand the past, how we acknowledge the gaps in our history and our understanding of history, and how we understand the debt that we owe to so many Commonwealth countries?

The reasons why so many people were not named and not commemorated are particularly shocking. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, pointed out, when you get into the depths of the report, it is not 54,000 or 170,000: it is potentially another 350,000 people. If we did not know who they were—if people had been buried in mass graves, for example—that is one thing, but if there was simply a sense that, somehow, some lives mattered less, that is another. Perhaps that was the view 100 years ago but it absolutely should not be the view now.

We need to look for ways to ensure that history, as it is taught in 2021, can be understood in its global context. Can the Minister tell us what the MoD plans to do? There are 10 recommendations, including going beyond statues and stone memorials to film and other things. Have the Government begun to think about how we can look again at our history and ensure that we pay honour to all those who gave their lives, regardless of their creed, colour, country of origin or rank in society? All those lives—all the fallen—matter equally.

My Lords, I am standing in for my noble friend Lady Goldie, who is busy with the next piece of business; as noble Lords can imagine, it is taking up quite a bit of time. I am very pleased to answer the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I acknowledge and note that they both accepted the apology that the Government have made. They are both right; this is an important report which makes for sober reading. The report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission special committee makes clear that in the aftermath of World War 1, in certain parts of the world, the Imperial War Graves Commission failed to live up to its core founding principle of equality in death for all, as was mentioned earlier, regardless of status, religious belief or ethnicity. Moreover, while the IWGC itself was at fault, the British Government at that time, together with colonial Administrations, also failed in their duties and were complicit in the decision-making that led to the outcome described in the report.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord mentioned the numbers involved. It is worth my reflecting as well that a further 45,000 to 54,000 casualties, predominantly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali personnel, were commemorated unequally, usually in registers or collectively on memorials but not by individual name. At least a further 116,000 casualties—and potentially as many as 350,000—predominantly but not exclusively east African and Egyptian personnel, were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all. This is sobering and absolutely needs to be addressed, as both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said. As she also said, we must remember all those who fell fighting for our country in World War 1.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about funding. I reassure him that the £52 million per year given by the UK Government via the MoD to the CWGC is in place. The Secretary of State will keep a very close eye on funding; if further funding is required, he will look at that with great care. On the role of transparency, which the noble Lord raised, I reassure him that there is a programme for regular reporting, as the Secretary of State for Defence outlined the other day when he made the Statement in the Commons. There will be quarterly updates to Parliament on progress and, as the chair of the commissioners, he will hold the CWGC to account on delivery.

As we may come on to later, many of the 10 recommendations laid out have specific timelines. This is an important piece of work; each of the 10 recommendations—all of which the Government have accepted, by the way—are rolled out with sunsets and timelines for work to be completed. I do not have an answer to the question on communication and embassy staff, but it is important. I am absolutely certain that those from our country who are based in countries where there is much work to be done, including in Egypt, Sierra Leone, west Africa and Nigeria, will be called on to help with this work and complete the investigations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke about the wider context and she is absolutely right. Going back to the point about equality in death for all, it is important that we remember each individual. This will be done through addressing the 10 recommendations, where there will be openness towards creativity; communities should engage in the areas that we want to look at, and countries themselves should engage with the war graves commission and the special committee to see what can be done to honour those who have fallen in defence of their country. That could be in the form of a physical memorial or—we are looking at this very carefully—a digital means. It is important to say this, and to be sure that we identify these means. One further thing is that certainly schools need to be included in this. Young people must recognise the importance of remembering their ancestors who have fallen in battle.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I would like to address an equal injustice. It is over 100 years since the death of Lieutenant Walter Tull. He is remembered with great affection by professional footballers and with enormous pride locally in Northamptonshire; he is also now a renowned figure throughout the Commonwealth. He broke through prejudice and precedent by becoming the first person of colour to command white troops. Such was his leadership and gallantry that Lieutenant Tull was recommended for a Military Cross. Through a combination of precedent and racial prejudice, he was denied that award. Will my noble friend address this ancient wrong with a view to awarding Lieutenant Tull a posthumous and well-deserved Military Cross?

I have taken note of my noble friend’s comments. The actions of Walter Tull in the First World War were no doubt very brave, and the Government have received many representations requesting that he be awarded an honour for his bravery along the lines of what my noble friend has said. However, it is a general principle of our national honours and awards system not to make retrospective awards. This policy dates back to the end of the First World War, when in 1919 an army order was published stating that no further awards would be given for services in that war. That principle remains in force today.

My Lords, only after my comparatively recent criticism on radio that millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had fought and died in the two world wars was it agreed by the Blair Government to invite other faiths to join Christians and Jews at the Cenotaph observance. Ignorance and prejudice pervade all societies. Does the Minister agree that, rather than showing periodic righteous indignation when racism hits the headlines, the Government and faith leaders should lead in ensuring that the dignity and equality of all human beings is made central to the teachings of both history and religion?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord, who makes an extremely good point. As we have said, it is important that we roll out solutions to the 10 recommendations. We must put right the wrongs from these historic failings.

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments just made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh. Like many others, I have stood in places such as the Menin Gate and been overawed by the reading of the names there. In seeing the names of the fallen from many parts of the then Empire, I had assumed that all such were indeed properly commemorated. I know now of course that I and many others were wrong in that assumption. I have present and past diocesan connections with Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. I have also visited memorials and cemeteries in those places where I have seen the names of some local nationals. I am now asking myself how many names were not there when I visited those places. Is the Minister able to give me confidence to assure my colleagues in those places that their fallen compatriots will be as fully commemorated as possible, as soon as possible? Is there anything they can do to help this process?

Indeed, one of the points made in the recommendations concerned looking at the evidence and having flexibility in the evidence criteria used. All new proposed commemorations must meet certain specific criteria, but the commission has for some time been working on new policies concerning the evidence required to prove status, allowing for flexibility where it is known that documentation is wanting, for example. It is very important to bear this in mind because we want to use every opportunity and every evidence that we can find to commemorate those who have fallen.

My Lords, I received the report we are discussing with great sadness and echo some of the disappointment—to say the very least—at its findings, but I want to move in a slightly different direction. I have visited a war cemetery in Kariokor in the outskirts of Nairobi, and found that all the graves of those who had fought in the Second World War were appropriately commemorated. Similarly, the 40,000 carriers and porters who were essential to the supplying of the troops are commemorated adequately in a scattering of cemeteries, from Mombasa up to the ridge in the highlands of Kenya.

I have also visited cemeteries in Karen and Asmara in Eritrea. It was most touching to see that the fallen in February and March 1941 saw Indians, Sikhs, Muslims, British Christians and whoever buried in the same yard and, as it says in the record, “According to the rites and ceremonies of their particular religion”. Could it be that this was general practice, the improvement that had been made by the time of the Second World War? Could the Minister give us some indication of when that picture will be fleshed out, so that we have a more adequate understanding of the process?

The noble Lord makes a very good point in focusing particularly on the Second World War. Of course the report focuses only on the First World War. I reassure him that, as the rollout of these recommendations continues—and we are making sure that we do roll them out—we will be looking at the Second World War later as part of an expanded plan, but that is some way down the line. The noble Lord is right: in the First World War, those who perhaps were not honoured were indeed combatants or perhaps carriers, those who carried the supplies that were needed to support the troops engaged in fighting. It is those individuals in the First World War who we want to focus on.

My Lords, two of my uncles died fighting for Britain. It is scandalous that it took a Channel 4 documentary to draw attention to the blatant failure to commemorate the brave, loyal black and Asian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Britain in World War I. Shamefully, films, television programmes and history books on both world wars have also neglected to portray this massive contribution accurately. Can the Minister assure us that this new determination to right wrongs and recognise the contribution of black and Asian soldiers, and to show them the respect and dignity that they deserve, will be robust and thorough, so that our children and future generations learn our true and accurate history?

Indeed. The noble Baroness makes several passionate points there, and she is absolutely right. I take this opportunity to pay my tribute to David Lammy, whose programme it was, linked with the history professor Michèle Barrett, that led to the setting up of the special committee with 14 members. I also reassure the noble Baroness that, as I said earlier, 10 recommendations have come out of that special committee and we have pledged to take them all forward. I hope that reassures her.

As honorary war graves commissioner for Iraq, I welcome the report, which has shone a spotlight on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s wonderful work. I am naturally particularly concerned that, despite the difficulties of working even in today’s Iraq, the war graves commission should be tasked and supported in its efforts to ensure that all the war graves in Iraq are properly recognised. I had the honour of visiting a number of these war graves, particularly the enormous ones in al-Amarah and Basra, which arrived because of the battles of Ctesiphon and Kut and the defence of Shatt al-Arab, and there is no doubt that those graves need further attention. Could the war graves commission be encouraged to do more in Iraq, with all the wonderful work that it has already done?

My noble friend is right to raise that issue. Our current policy in Iraq is to clear and secure our sites when it is safe and practical to do so as we await an opportunity for a more sustainable return. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission will slowly and steadily begin to rehabilitate the sites in Basra and al-Amarah, as my noble friend has mentioned, as it has done in other parts of the country such as Kut and Habbaniya. We reassure those connected to all the Commonwealth casualties buried and commemorated across all our sites in Iraq that our commitment to the fallen remains in perpetuity, and when we are able to we will restore them to a standard befitting the sacrifice of all those who lie there.

My Lords, I welcome the apology by the Government. In life, hundreds of thousands of African and Asian soldiers, many of whom were coerced into the British Army, were treated with little or no respect during the Great War. In death, those brave soldiers were treated with utter contempt. Professor Michèle Barrett, who worked with David Lammy on uncovering this monumental scandal, found documentation from the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1920 stating that

“Most of the natives”


“who have died are of a semi-savage nature and do not attach any sentiment to the graves of their dead.”

“Shocking”, “appalling” and “shameful” are just a few of the adjectives that you would put to that statement. You can see why our British history and curriculum need to be honestly reviewed and revamped.

What is also shocking is that it is a clear fact that in 2010, nearly 100 years later, with officials in full knowledge of the facts, nothing was done. We need to know why. Given the Windrush scandal and the outrage following the Sewell report, trust from black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities desperately needs rebuilding. Will the Minister therefore agree to meet me, along with senior Army officials, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and interested parties, to find a proportionate and decent response to put right this monstrous wrong?

The noble Lord makes some very important points and I agree with him. The words “appalling” and “shameful” came from the noble Lord, and I totally agree with that. As he alluded to, we are of course looking at what happened a long time ago, over 100 years ago, under the old IWGC, but now we have the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He is absolutely right, and I will certainly pass on to the MoD and my noble friend Lady Goldie his request for a meeting. I think it is appropriate to say that, even though it is over 100 years ago, good praise needs to be given to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission now, along with the Government —linking into DCMS, I should say—when it comes to looking really seriously at these past injustices and putting them right.

My Lords, Regimental Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, DCM, MM, of the Gold Coast Regiment, fired the first shot in World War I. His name is important and it is remembered. He lived—but many of his fellow regimental soldiers died and were buried in known graves on the Gold Coast. Their names in those cemeteries were obliterated in an appalling act of imperial racism, on the basis that to do otherwise would be

“a waste of public money”

and not “appreciated” by the native tribes. Direct descendants of those native tribes—and I am one of them—now sit on both sides of your Lordships’ House. This House is entitled, as are the descendants of those who fell in the First World War on the Gold Coast, in west Africa and throughout the Commonwealth, to a categorical assurance from this Government that money will be found to conduct the research and erect headstones on those graves that are known on the Gold Coast. We want not a promise to look at it with favour but a categorical assurance that it will be done. Without that, frankly, apologies do not count for much—or would that too be regarded as a potential waste of public money?

I was very moved by what I heard from the noble Lord. He is absolutely right to point to the people who have died and the person who fired the first shot of the war on the Gold Coast, who I think lived. That is indelibly on my mind. I reassure him that it is not just the Gold Coast but other parts outside Europe, all over the world. I mentioned some earlier: Mesopotamia, east Africa, west Africa, and so on. I could go on. It is very important that we look at each of these areas. Recommendation 4—which we have agreed with—in the special report is to establish a consultative committee. What is very important, and perhaps is the best reassurance I can give the noble Lord, is that we should be liaising with the local communities out in the Gold Coast to work out what we should do, how we should it and by when. This consultative committee has been pledged to be set up within the next six months.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a descendant of an Army officer who was at one time seconded to the King’s African Rifles. During World War I the regiment suffered over 5,000 casualties, with a further 3,000 dying from disease—more than 20% of the complement. It is thought that the regiment was supported in the First World War by some 400,000 native porters of the Carrier Corps. The information on the number who lost their lives and on their burial places is apparently unknown. In the commission’s search for historical inequalities will the Government press for the inclusion of the King’s African Rifles, together with the Carrier Corps, particularly at local village level? Will they prioritise engaging with the King’s African Rifles & East African Forces Association, whose regimental historian said:

“No regiment has ever been more intimately connected with the territory through which it marched and fought, or with the peoples from which it was recruited”?

Again, the numbers are sobering—I have picked up the figures of 5,000 and 3,000. I have taken very seriously what the noble Lord has said. One of the 10 recommendations is on the importance of engagement and education. The commission will develop a broader and more far-reaching range of relationships, working in partnership on projects, including, I would like to think, on the King’s African Rifles, to remember the sacrifices of all those who served and died in the First World War.

My Lords, I served for 10 years, some years ago now, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and I am deeply shocked—indeed, scandalised—that I was totally unaware of this petition. I believed the mantra that everybody was treated equally in death. I ask my noble friend: has any estimate been made of the cost of giving full restitution? I suspect it will be pretty heavy and I do not want to see this fall away as time goes on.

I alluded to this point earlier during the Statement. I reassure my noble friend that the UK currently contributes £52 million of the overall budget of £66 million a year. This new piece of work we have pledged to do is very important and the Secretary of State has not ruled out additional funding if it were to be required in the future.

My Lords, I declare two interests. First, I once had the honour and pleasure of serving with the King’s African Rifles and, secondly, as Adjutant-General I was an ex officio member of the council of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. When I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, I once noted in the chapel of a prison on the Isle of Wight a memorial to four people killed in the Great War. They were identified only by their prison numbers. In accordance with the motto of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—

“I will make you a name”—

I set about discovering their names, which I succeeded in doing. Will the Minister please assure me that these forgotten casualties will soon, like them, be made names?

Indeed, and so they should be. I am sure that this is an important part of the ongoing work. One thing is very clear and it is the first recommendation of the report—which we have accepted, as we have accepted them all—that there is ongoing commitment to search for those who fell and to recognise the dead and find the names of those who died.

My Lords, the time allowed for this business has now elapsed. I apologise to the five noble Lords whom I have not been able to call.

Sitting suspended.