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The Queen Mary academic who uncovered inequalities in the way Britain commemorated its war dead

Professor Michèle Barrett from Queen Mary’s School of English and Drama found a document which instructed that black and Asian troops from World War One were to be commemorated collectively whilst their white counterparts had headstones.

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Michèle Barrett is Professor of Modern Literary and Cultural Theory at Queen Mary
Michèle Barrett is Professor of Modern Literary and Cultural Theory at Queen Mary

Professor Barrett was also appointed to a special committee to probe the early history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC). The report, published in April 2021, found inequalities in the way the organisation commemorated the dead of the British Empire from the two world wars.

The IWGC’s work was defined by the principle of equality of treatment in death which meant that 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 Europe this aim was largely achieved but elsewhere the story was different.

Inequality in commemoration

This report found that in the 1920s, across Africa, the Middle East and India, imperial ideology influenced the operations of the IWGC in a way that it did not in Europe, and the rules and principles that were sacred there were not always upheld elsewhere. It is estimated that 45,000 and 54,000 casualties (predominantly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali personnel) were commemorated unequally. For some, rather than marking their graves individually, as the IWGC would have done in Europe, these men were commemorated collectively on memorials. For others who were missing, their names were recorded in registers rather than in stone.

A further 116,000 casualties (predominantly, but not exclusively, East African and Egyptian personnel) – but potentially as many as 350,000 – were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all. According to the report, this is partially because the IWGC were never given the names or places of burial by the military or colonial authorities due to the belief that these men came from communities that would not recognise or value such forms of commemoration.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Michèle Barrett, Professor of Modern Literary and Cultural Theory explained that she had found a document from the 1920s relating to graves in what is now Kenya. It read: “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.”

The report states that although in the vast majority of cases the IWGC did not make the decision to diverge from its principles of equal commemoration unilaterally, it should at least be considered complicit in all of them.

For the CWGC to engage positively with this history and to take steps in righting and explaining the wrongs of the past, the Committee made ten recommendations including digital commemorations to reach new generations and educate them about history, as well as adding names to existing memorials where possible.

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