ZAID M. BELBAGI April 28, 2021
More than a century after the passing of events, the long shadow of empire still haunts governments today. In the same week that Turkey was pressured over the massacre of Armenians during the First World War, the UK found itself in hot water concerning imperial matters. The UK defense secretary was last week forced to apologize over the successive institutional neglect of British governments not properly commemorating black, Asian and Arab troops that fought for the allies in both world wars. The furor around this issue has once again highlighted how the history of both conflicts has been incorrectly recorded and how the role of Muslim troops in particular has been entirely underplayed.
It is estimated that some 400,000 Muslim soldiers fought for Britain in the First World War, along with 2.5 million for France and Russia, in a war not of their making. It is becoming increasingly clear that their role has been under-researched and poorly commemorated in comparison with the extensive accounts of Western troops in poems, diaries and histories. Compounded by the historical overlooking of the contribution of black troops, this issue has come to remind latter-day governments of the prejudices of their predecessors.
Last week’s great fallout came about due to a report by the special committee appointed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to probe the early history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) and “identify inequalities in the way the organization commemorated the dead of the British Empire from the two world wars.” Though it was not surprising that the IWGC had either incorrectly or not commemorated at all soldiers from certain ethnic groups, the scale of the report’s findings have shaken both the Ministry of Defense and the CWGC.
Where the rank of soldiers, whatever their religion, was meant to be commemorated identically — with their name engraved either on a headstone over an identified grave or on a memorial to the missing — the report 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.” This figure could potentially be as high as 350,000, with most of the colonial troops having only been commemorated by memorials that did not carry their names. The decisions that led to this disregard for the sacrifices of colonial troops have begun to see the light of day, and they highlight the impact of racist policymakers who saw native troops as man enough to fight, but not human enough to be commemorated.
In a 1923 communication between F.G. Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast colony (now Ghana), and the IWGC’s Arthur Browne, the individual commemoration of troops was deemed superfluous as “the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone.” The report documents that colonial troops were referred to as “semi-savage” and that “they are hardly in such a state of civilization as to appreciate such a memorial.” It was added that “the erection of individual memorials would represent a waste of public money.” Given the discovery of the pervasive racism that inspired these decisions, it is little surprise that Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week offered an “unreserved apology” over the findings.
The entire episode has left the government with a lot of questions and very few answers. The fate of 350,000 mostly Egyptian and East African servicemen a century ago may not immediately explain the current uproar but, put in the context of the consistent “whitewashing” of the history of the two world wars, it is unlikely this crisis will dissipate without a concerted effort from the government. At a time when Europe is struggling with how best to integrate its Muslim citizens, the stories of the respect and loyalty that existed between soldiers of all faiths and in the most gruesome circumstances are more pertinent now than ever. Given that the contribution of colonial troops was critical to the allies maintaining numerical superiority, raising public awareness of their involvement could really go some way to help counter growing anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and give immigrant communities a stronger sense of belonging.
This issue has come to remind latter-day governments of the prejudices of their predecessors.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The government, under pressure to recognize the role of colonial troops in light of the historical overlooking of their contribution, will be keen to act. With very little attention having ever been given to this issue, it is encouraging, therefore, that the National Muslim War Memorial Trust was recently established by Lord Sheikh, alongside Lord Lexden and Maj. Gen. Charles Fattorini. With a mandate to erect a permanent memorial to the Muslim troops who served in the British armed forces, it will aim to combat the generational undervaluing of their contribution while also educating young people about their role. To Lord Sheikh, the central importance of the project is “to combat Islamophobia to encourage people to realize the sacrifices Muslims made to keep the Union Jack flying.”
Whether the government makes a worthwhile contribution to this work remains to be seen. For now, the UK’s failure to properly commemorate the Muslim fallen remains a great stain upon the country.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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