The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is expected to issue a formal apology on Thursday after it discovered that at least 116,000 – but potentially up to 350,000 – predominantly African and Middle Eastern first world war casualties may not be commemorated by name, or at all.
All fallen military service personnel are supposed to be commemorated identically with their name engraved on a headstone over an identified grave or on a memorial to the missing.
But, quoting racist statements such as a governor saying in the 1920s that “the average native … would not understand or appreciate a headstone”, the commission has concluded that soldiers were treated differently if they came from Commonwealth countries. Winston Churchill, when colonial secretary after the first world war, also said mass memorials would be adequate in Africa.
In the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria and Sierra Leone, no African death of the first world war is commemorated with a headstone.
In one 1923 letter quoted in the report, FG Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast in Africa, wrote: “The average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone.”
The first world war was a battle for control of colonial possessions, not least in Africa, where western powers including Britain, Germany and France embroiled about 2 million people in the conflict as soldiers or labourers. It is estimated that 10% of them died. Large numbers of conscripts in Africa were used as part of a human supply chain in “carrier corps”, which took a huge toll that the lack of adequate memorials can make hard to calculate.
In Egypt alone, it has been suggested by the historian David Killingray that three-quarters of the 327,000 men who served were recruited forcibly.