We must commemorate the courageous sacrifice of our forgotten military personnel

by MMC
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We must commemorate the courageous sacrifice of our forgotten military personnel

Rendering of the planned Cape Town Labor Corps memorial (Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

3 minutes of reading

Every November we recognize and honor the suffering experienced in global conflicts by those who gave their lives to defend our country, the Commonwealth and our freedoms.

To commemorate and honor more than 1.7 million service personnel from around the world, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has accumulated considerable experience to learn lessons from the past.

What are we doing today to remedy the lack of historical commemoration?

After World War I, the deaths of more than 100,000 African servicemen were not commemorated. Colonial administrations and the Imperial War Graves Commission did not view certain ethnic groups in the same way as they did Europeans. Upon learning of this, the CWGC apologized and launched its reparations programs, the first of which began in Kenya.

A multidisciplinary team made up of heritage, digital, education and research specialists is investing its expertise to remedy the lack of commemoration. Teams scour archives and examine old battlefields and burial sites for forgotten people and stories, interviewing descendants and veterans to preserve their history.

After World War I, more than 100,000 African servicemen were treated unequally.

To date, the CWGC has recovered the names of more than 9,000 servicemen who died serving British and Commonwealth troops during the First World War, but their names have never been commemorated. These names are now part of the official CWGC records. An Endangered Archives Program grant administered by the British Library and awarded by the Arcadia Charitable Fund has enabled CWGC historians to discover documents previously thought lost. More than 90 military service records are being digitized, including records relating to Kings African Rifles personnel from the 1890s to the 1960s.

In response to intelligence from the archives and working with teams from the Kenya National Museums and the British Army’s Royal Engineers, they used ground-penetrating radar to identify likely burial sites.

The Cape Town Labor Corps Memorial will be the first memorial to the fallen built under the non-commemoration programme. It will honor more than 1,700 black South Africans who died during the First World War, serving in the country’s military units across Africa and at sea, in a contemporary space in the city’s Company’s Garden.

Plans are also underway to commemorate forgotten names along heritage trails at key memorial sites in Sierra Leone and Malawi. CWGC manages 38 sites in Kenya, including Nairobi’s Kariokor Cemetery, adjacent to one of the spaces in which the Carrier Corps was known to be based.

Many carriers or porters who served in the First World War campaigns in Africa are not sufficiently remembered. It is estimated that almost 26,000 Kenyan carriers died during the war.

Due to the deep heritage of the site, there are plans to create a community-centered heritage point and memorial to honor African personnel who served and died in both world wars.

Stories of war, sacrifice and loss extend beyond the boundaries of history and gradually take shape alongside contemporary spaces and settings, ensuring that all contributions are remembered equally.

By Commonwealth War Graves Commissioners, Diana Johnson, Labor MP for Kingston upon Hull North and Philip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow

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