John Simmons shares a timely reflection on our Armistice 100 Days project in light of last week’s apology from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Last Thursday morning I woke up to the news on the radio. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) were apologising for not commemorating the deaths of a quarter million military personnel of black and Asian origin. These were soldiers who had fought and died in one of the world wars, but whose deaths had not been marked by the respect of a gravestone.
The issue had been raised by a documentary presented by Labour MP David Lammy a couple of years ago. The CWGC had belatedly realised the terrible, racist nature of their behaviour, in which immaculate cemeteries filled with headstones for fallen European soldiers were often neighboured by overgrown, unmarked mass graves for black victims of war.
I remembered 26’s Armistice 100 Days project where I had written a centena about my grandad killed in 1917 – whose grave I had visited in a Belgian cemetery beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. My working-class grandad was privileged with a gravestone because he was white.
Whereas others of a different skin colour were neglected by history and by basic human feelings. I remembered three centenas in particular from the Armistice project. Pulling the book down from my shelf, I reread three centenas that commemorate black participants in the first world war, fighting for the British empire and losing their lives without proper commemoration.
They did not have the commemoration they deserved at the time, but we should remember them now. You can read about them in the national archive, on our project website, and in the 26 book that marked the 100th Armistice.