Content warning: Historic use of racist language and stereotypes. War.
Author: Dr Karen Lockney
You may have seen the following Facebook post from the British Legion which states, ‘This rumour circulates every single year, and every single year it has been completely untrue. No communities have banned the selling of the poppy at Remembrance or any other time.’
How sad it is that a sombre symbol of remembrance of the dead, and peaceful respect for millions of lives lost, is hijacked by an agenda of hate, a lie which is widely circulated on social media each year. When fighting racism, we need to able to counter this misinformation. The British Legion’s own website makes it clear that there is no truth whatsoever in this rumour.
As Black History Month coincides with the time poppies are sold, as we approach Remembrance Day on the 11th November, this is also a fitting time for us to remember the many many Black and Brown soldiers who died in World War I, II and other conflicts, along with the communities affected.
Earlier this year an independent inquiry commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reported that huge numbers of Black and Brown soldiers, primarily from African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern countries were not commemorated by name, nor had formal commemorations. The Prime Minister offered an apology on publication of the report which shows that between 45,000 and 54,000 war dead were commemorated ‘unequally’ and between another 116,000 to 350,000 were not commemorated by name or possibly not at all. The report was compiled by a Special Committee for the Imperial War Grave Commission (IWGC). Recommendations have been made which the Imperial War Grave Commission has said it will act upon, including permanent headstones or memorials for each of the ‘Commonwealth dead’.
The Imperial War Grave Commission was founded over a century ago to commemorate the First World War dead of the then British Empire. From the outset their work was defined by the principle of ‘equality of treatment in death’. Whatever an individual’s rank in social or military life, whatever their religion, they would be commemorated identically – with their name engraved either on a headstone over an identified grave or on a memorial to the missing. In the Commonwealth War Graves report they found this hadn’t happened outside of Europe. Unsurprisingly, the report does not use the word ‘racism’, rather it uses words like ‘prejudice’, however the damning facts are laid bare. In their own words they stated;
“This report finds that the IWGC is responsible for these shortcomings – either because of its own decision making or its complicity in the decision making of other authorities. In certain circumstances the IWGC did not stand by its principles or insist upon them being upheld. This would not have happened in Europe.”
Despite clearly making this argument, this report also shines a light on wider administrative errors and prejudiced attitudes that influenced or played a role in bringing about these issues. Ultimately, many of these errors and attitudes belonged to departments of the British Imperial Government, including the War Office and Colonial Office.
The report offers a shocking indictment of the racist attitudes of those in power both during and after WWI, and these make at the very least, upsetting reading. That it has taken one hundred years to mark these lives is indicative that those attitudes have not disappeared overnight.
Back then a British governor said, ‘the average native of the Gold Coast would not understand or appreciate a headstone’, an office said that it would be a waste of money to erect headstones as, ‘most of the natives who died are of a semi savage nature.’
These racist attitudes were more baldly stated back then but the underlying beliefs are still embedded in our systems today. We have shared in previous articles how racism not only provided an excuse for slavery but also paved the way for colonialism. Allowing for the ransacking of not only natural resources but human resources too, young men were forced to fight in wars for their colonists. Young men whose lives mattered so little that even their deaths were not recorded properly or marked officially.
We learn from the report that well over 3 million ‘British colonial and Dominion subjects’ served, and potentially over half a million died. We ask that you note the word ‘potentially’, it evidences that these people’s lives were not even properly counted. The Indian Army provided more than 1.2 million men, their soldiers making up two thirds of the man power in Mesopotamia. 100,000 men were ‘raised for British service’ in the Chinese Labour Corps, serving mainly in France. In Nyasaland (now Malawi), it is estimated a huge 83% ‘of the available manpower’ served as soldiers or carriers in the East Africa campaign. It is also possible many men serving were coerced into serving, in some cases with ‘mass kidnappings’, a chilling echo of the worst of imperialist crimes.
The wearing of a poppy is a personal choice. Many wear their poppy with pride. Some people choose not to wear one. Some people choose to wear a white poppy as they believe this better symbolises a desire for peace. In 2016, the well-respected war correspondent Robert Fisk wrote a controversial column in the Independent where he called the poppy a ‘symbol of racism’. His father, a veteran of the third Battle of the Somme, had long ago turned his son against the poppy as he had learnt of what he called the ‘lies’ of the Great War, fuelling his anger for his many lost comrades. By 2016 Fisk railed against the lack of remembrance for millions killed in the Middle East, including in the Iraq War. The intention of this blog post is not to judge the rights or wrongs of these individual positions, rather to illustrate the spectrum of opinions on the symbol of the poppy itself.
Since this is the first Remembrance Day since the publication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission report, whether or not an individual chooses to wear a poppy, it is fitting to remember those millions of Black and Brown soldiers who also served, many it seems under coercion, hundreds of thousands who lost their lives, marked not even with a name.
Traditionally at this time of year, many people take a moment to reflect on the horrors of war through the power of war poetry, particularly that of World War I. War poems are also often chosen to study in our schools curriculum, but rarely (if ever) feature the voices and experiences of Black and Brown people. The Indian poet and political activist Sarojini Naidu wrote ‘The Gift of India’ (available here https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-gift-of-india/) to commemorate the million plus Indian soldiers who served. Many of those fighting for Indian independence believed it might be granted if India proved its worth during the war, but this was not achieved until 1947. As we read Naidu’s lines, they provide some remembrance for the men many of whose deaths went unrecorded,
‘They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France. ‘
Poetry and poppies. Ways we reflect on the tragedy of war, ways we remember.
Poppies are widely for sale, people can choose if that is a way they want to show their respect and remember the dead. We remember those lives lost from all communities, across the world, and remember all who served. Most Cumbrian villages have a war memorial where the names of the fallen are preserved, tragic reminders of loss. Alongside these names, we can take a moment for the nameless dead, those huge numbers of Black and Brown men whose lives are unrecorded. We will remember them.