[This article is by Matthew Cogan aged 19, and is based on his essay which won the Colin Hardy Memorial Prize. Matthew is now (2020-2021) in his first year studying history at the University of Oxford.] 

The First World War was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen when it ended in 1918. It was a truly worldwide conflict; both the first and last shots were fired in Africa, thus men and women from all over the globe served and died for their countries. This included over one million from the British Empire[1]who fought all over the world, from the Western Front to East Africa. The role of commemorating the fallen from the war was given to the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC - later renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960), founded by Royal Charter in 1917. The IWGC was founded upon the principles of one man, Sir Fabian Ware, who wrote in 1937 that there were “Three general principles: permanence, uniformity and no distinction of military or civil rank”[2]. The Kenyon Report, written by Sir Frederick Kenyon in 1918, stated that there should be equal treatment in terms of “military rank and position in civil life”[3]. This is still advocated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) today who say that no distinction should be made on the grounds of “race, rank or creed”[4]. However, whilst across the Western Front this seems to be the case in what Thomas Laqueur describes as “commemorative hyper nominalism”[5], the act of the endless listing of names of the missing on memorials, Michele Barrett states that “outside Europe the numbers were sufficient”[6].  Upwards of 200,000 Africans died during the war[7], but only a fraction of these is commemorated by the CWGC. It is such inequality that Michele Barrett has explored through her works that led to the 2019 Channel 4 documentary “The Unremembered”, presented by David Lammy MP, which has inspired this essay to further investigate the subject.

When looking at only the Western Front, there is no doubt that the commemoration of Empire troops reflected equality. The Somme, the Ypres Salient, Loos and other sectors have countless Commission sites all containing the same uniform headstones and most have the Cross of Sacrifice and/or Stone of Remembrance designed by Reginald Blomfield and Edward Lutyens respectively. This concept was set out by Kenyon in 1918 when he wrote “The Commission has already laid down one principle… the principle, namely of equality of treatment.”[8]However, this was something that the IWGC had to work extremely hard to achieve in practice. The idea of equal treatment for all war dead was groundbreaking at the end of the Great War.  In previous conflicts commemoration had taken the form of battle monuments or monuments to a great leader such as that to Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. Given that this was such a radical idea by the IWGC, it was met with fierce resistance by some, especially in the United Kingdom, who were pushing for their loved ones’ bodies to be repatriated or for them to be given permission to erect a personal memorial at the point where the soldier’s body was discovered, rather than being concentrated into larger cemeteries. This led to what Philip Longworth describes as “all-out war on the Commission”[9] as members of the House of Lords, including Lord Balfour, and the Commons, including Robert Cecil, created a campaign pushing for repatriation of bodies and for families to have a say in the design of individual headstones. One of the greatest issues that Cecil had with the Commission’s plans was the desire to use a headstone, rather than a Christian cross as the French would go on to use. The opinion across the United Kingdom was so split that a debate was scheduled in the House of Commons. The IWGC’s case was argued vehemently by the MP for Westminster, Burdett Coutts, who, in his speech, said that those who fought for the Empire were “ready to die for one common cause that they all understood. It is that great union, both in action and in death, that the Commission seeks nobly to commemorate and make perpetual by its policy in design”[10]. This was a critical moment for the IWGC in underlining its commitment to commemorate all the fallen equally, as it was the first time many members of the public heard of its plans and, as Longworth states, it quickly gathered “overwhelming support for the principles it had laid down”[11]. The IWGC’s work began in earnest and there are now 15,881 sites across the world that commemorate at least one soldier from the Empire who died in the First World War.[12]

It is the cemeteries across the Western Front that best embody the ideals of the IWGC. When visiting any cemetery, whether Tyne Cot containing almost 12000 Commonwealth soldiers, or a smaller site with only 10 graves, the unique Commission headstone is instantly recognisable. Not only this, but when looking at the headstones en masse it is impossible to make any distinction between the race, rank or creed of the soldier buried underneath an individual headstone, exactly the aim of the IWGC when designing the headstones and cemeteries. Men and women from across the Empire are commemorated side by side, no matter whether a Canadian lieutenant-colonel or an Indian follower, testament to the IWGC’s commitment to equality. It is only upon closer inspection of a headstone that one can discern the nationality or rank of the soldier that it commemorates. The IWGC also gave considerable thought to ensuring religious equality throughout their Western Front sites. The option was given to families as to what religious emblem they would like to be included on the headstone of their loved one, be it the Christian cross, the star of David or no religious emblem at all. Such symbols can only be distinguished in close proximity to an individual headstone, unlike in French military cemeteries where the distinction can be made far more easily. Religious equality also extended to the treatment of Indian soldiers. As Longworth writes, “India Office advisers drew attention to Muslim disapproval of exhumation and Hindu preference for cremation”[13].  This was something that the British Army and the IWGC tried to follow wherever possible, and wherever such preferences could not be followed Indian soldiers were given appropriate religious symbols and texts placed on their headstones depending on their religion, whether Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. There were even discussions within the IWGC about Indians whose religion was given as Animist, and Arthur Browne, the Principal Assistant Secretary of the IWGC, suggested that it might be right to put up headstones without any religious emblems for those who identified as Animist[14]. This great attention to detail was shown by the IWGC across the Western Front in the commemoration of the Indian soldiers and there is no distinguishable difference based upon religion or rank of soldiers in almost all cases. Further equality was shown towards the graves of the British Chinese Labour Corps found in several cemeteries, such as Lijssenthoek Cemetery near Poperinghe. Around 100,000 Chinese men served in the British Chinese Labour Corps during the First World War[15].Many of them stayed on in the years directly after the war to aid in battlefield clearance and many died due to the poor conditions and the dangers of their job.  The decision was made for members of the British Chinese Labour Corps to be buried alongside the men who died in combat, thus treating them equally. The gravestones used are identical to all those used to commemorate the soldiers of the Empire and are only distinguishable due to the Chinese script used on the headstones.

If one of the defining characteristics of the First World War is that of commemoration of the fallen by name, nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the tens of memorials across the world listing the names of the “Missing”. The IWGC took an early decision to commemorate all by name, whether in a known grave by a headstone, or with their name on a memorial. Thomas Laqueur suggests that the need to name all these men, known as “commemorative hyper nominalism”, arose as people could not agree as to what their sacrifice had achieved.[16]The commitment shown by the IWGC at the time to commemorating every soldier by name was unparalleled. The building of such great and iconic structures such as the Thiepval Memorial and the Menin Gate to act as eternal monuments to the soldiers who died and have no known resting place was a crucial part of the commemoration of the Empire’s soldiers. Although the men were commemorated by rank on such memorials, this was done for the ease of finding names of comrades or relatives rather than to discriminate based upon rank. When looking at the Menin Gate as an example, men from across the Empire were commemorated in the exact same place and in the same way, no matter their race, rank or creed. This included a small but significant number of black soldiers from the British West Indian Regiment. Now in 2020, many of the dominion countries have their own monuments and memorials to those lost on the Western Front, with the Canadian one at Vimy Ridge being the most famous, but the Australians and South Africans having theirs at Villers-Brettoneux and Delville Wood, respectively. The South African commemoration at Delville Wood is an interesting example as recently there has been a greater focus on the role that black South Africans played during the First World War.  However, this has only gained more attention from the South African Government over the last couple of decades.

A great example of commemoration on the Western Front is the Indian memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. At the outbreak of the war the Indian Army was split, based on caste lines.   British men of upper class and privilege provided the officers, but local soldiers, sepoys as they were known, were not eligible for commissioning. As Rozina Visram states, this was not something that began to change until after the war[17] at which point the “Indianization” of the officer corps was made a reality.[18]The Indian Corps was in France for 15 months, and one of its most famous moments was the recapturing of the village of Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915, after it had been lost by the British the previous October. It was therefore decided that this would be the place to build a memorial to those soldiers. There was a lot of debate within the IWGC over the design of the memorial in order to reflect the preferences of Indian culture, and a conscious effort was made to treat each of the three main religions, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism equally. Every stage of the design was extensively discussed.  The India Office was asked “Is it necessary to have anything more than English, and one other Indian language”, and Sir Herbert Baker discussed whether or not the imperial crown could be used in the design[19]. Eventually, it was decided that native opinion should be sought on the design of the memorial with Sir Frederick Kenyon stating “We ought not to put up anything which may offend the sentiments of any large section of the population if India”[20]. The IWGC therefore put much time and effort into the Neuve Chapelle Memorial, Michele Barrett stating that “the cultural politics concerning religion and ethnicity were seen, then, as sensitive and important”[21].  It illustrates how important the IWGC regarded the contribution from the Indian soldiers on the Western Front, and this was shown through the creation of such an extraordinary edifice with the names of each soldier, no matter their race, rank or creed, carved into the memorial and commemorated in perpetuity.

However, in looking further afield from the Western Front inequality of commemoration becomes more evident. Whilst a small part of the Indian forces fought on the Western Front, a far larger number fought and died in Mesopotamia and are commemorated on the Basra Memorial situated in modern day Iraq. Barrett writes that “Approximately 8000 British soldiers were commemorated there, by name, in the usual way. But for the Indian soldiers the Commission had…taken a decision that departed significantly from the principle of equality of treatment.”[22]In 1928, a telegram was sent by the IWGC to the Indian Army which stated, “Basra Memorial. Total number of missing from Indian army commemorated by name officers 665, numerically other ranks 33222”[23]. The distinction was made based on race and rank, something that the IWGC vehemently opposed in its own principles. The decision was taken at a high level within the IWGC to commemorate all the missing British soldiers by name on the memorial, no matter their rank, in keeping with the standards set across the Western Front. However, the choice was made not to commemorate all missing Indian soldiers by name on the memorial and instead have their names recorded in the associated register. For each regiment, the memorial showed the names of all missing British soldiers and Indian Army officers followed by the phrase “other Indian soldiers” with the exact number given. This was a clear difference from the memorial at Neuve Chapelle, where each missing Indian soldier was given an identity rather than being lumped together as a total number of missing on the memorial and a name in the Register book.  The inequality here was clear. It seemed that the IWGC’s core principle of equality of race, rank and creed was only important across the Western Front as that was the focus of most of the western world when commemorating and learning about the First World War.

This trend was even more evident with the commemoration of African soldiers. Most people are unaware that there was fighting on the continent of Africa throughout the period of the war. Education in Britain and the western world does not cover the war in its entirety but instead focuses on the Western Front, with some mention of the Gallipoli campaign. It is estimated that “upwards of 200,000” Africans died in the First World War, a number that includes both soldiers and labourers.[24]This was a huge number and was approximately the same number of casualties as those suffered by the Indian, Australian and Canadian armies collectively (according to the statistics on the CWGC website for deaths). Countless records in the Commission archives detail meetings between IWGC staff and Governors of African territories. One such meeting was with the Governor of Tanganyika Territory (Tanzania today), when the IWGC were gauging opinion as to whether individual commemoration of native African soldiers should be sought. The Governor stated that the cemeteries for the Carrier Corps “should be allowed to revert to nature as speedily as possible”[25]. This sentiment was echoed by the Principal Assistant Secretary of the War Graves Commission, Arthur Browne who, in 1923, wrote to the Governor of Nigeria that the reason for the decision not to commemorate native African soldiers individually was partly down to a lack of records, but “also because it was realised that the stage of civilisation reached by most East African tribes was not such as would enable them to appreciate commemoration in this manner”[26]. The failure to implement the policy of equality in commemoration began at the top of both Government and the IWGC itself.

The decision was instead made by the Commission to build central memorials to the native African soldiers rather than to commemorate individually. Undoubtedly as Victoria Wallace, Director General of the CWGC, states in the television programme “The Unremembered”, there was a lack of records regarding the men who served in the British forces and therefore that made it impossible to commemorate them all by name. However, Michele Barrett writes “There is undoubtedly no complete record today, but in the years following the First World War the argument about inadequate records often functioned as a screen for discrimination.”[27]There was certainly no complete list of all Africans who served, but neither was any attempt made to try and discover as many identities as possible of the dead and missing in order to commemorate each of them by name.  The decision was made to commemorate these men with central memorials in large cities across Africa, and Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in modern day Tanzania were chosen. These monuments contained no names of the fallen or missing, only an inscription by Rudyard Kipling. The inscription on the Mombasa memorial read, “This is to the memory of the Arab and Native African troops who fought; to the Carriers and Porters who were the feet and hands of the army; and to all the other men who served and died for their King and country in Eastern Africa in the Great War, 1914-1918. If you fight for your country, even if you die, your sons will remember your name.”[28]The memorial shows four figures, two soldiers from the King’s African Rifles, one Arab rifleman and a porter. If, as Hew Strachan suggests, over 200,000 Africans died in the war, each of the three memorials in eastern Africa represents upwards of 50,000 missing or unknown soldiers. That is a huge number. The Menin Gate represents just under 55,000 missing from the Ypres Salient and the Thiepval Memorial just over 72,000 from the Somme. These numbers are similar to those missing who are represented by the memorials in Africa but the memorials themselves are worlds apart. The Menin Gate and Thiepval Memorial are huge structures that are world famous points of commemoration, whereas the memorials in Mombasa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are largely unknown and far less grand than their European counterparts.

Throughout the archives of the Commission there are clear examples of what today would be considered deep-rooted racism towards the native African soldiers, much of which centres around the figure of Arthur Browne. In one report from 1925, Browne wrote that “It has always been the view of the Vice-Chairman that identical treatment should be accorded to British and native troops so far as circumstances permit”[29].  However, he then went on to say that native soldiers who were known to be buried in a cemetery looked after by the Commission but who had not been given an individual memorial, like a headstone, should not have their names recorded in the cemetery register.  Browne’s reasoning was that “if we were to include all the names of the latter class in the cemetery register, I think we should be unnecessarily drawing attention to the fact that we have neglected to commemorate by a headstone.”[30]This was a stark acceptance by one of the most high-profile men in the IWGC that unequal commemoration was a conscious decision.  White soldiers had their graves concentrated into large cemeteries under the IWGC’s care, whereas those of native soldiers were left to become bushland. In the documentary “The Unremembered”, David Lammy heard that a huge cemetery for native African soldiers now lies under a modern-day carpark (a decision, it must be said, that was taken by the Dar-es-Salam city authorities).  Lammy also received a hearsay report that in scrubland just outside the walls of one of the Commission’s cemeteries laid the bodies of forgotten natives. It seemed that the only time native soldiers received equal commemorative treatment and were laid to rest in a Commission cemetery was when they were believed to be of the Christian faith. Barrett writes that it “was quite clear that their Christianity could overrule their African native status and make them worthy of a headstone, which would mean that they would be entered on the cemetery register.”[31]The fact that native Christian soldiers were treated differently from their non-Christian comrades throws the inequality of commemoration into even sharper relief.

In conclusion, the British Empire’s troops were commemorated equally on the Western Front, but on other fronts it was, almost entirely, only the white soldiers that were commemorated to the same standard. On the Western Front, the IWGC went to great lengths to commemorate every man and woman by name on grand memorials or in well-kept cemeteries. Here, the Commission’s ideal of equality of commemoration, no matter race, rank or creed, as set out in the Kenyon Report, was steadfastly upheld. The great memorials in France and Belgium act as focal points for commemoration and education about the First World War.  Away from the Western Front, the differences between the levels of knowledge and commemoration of the war become clear. The Basra Memorial only named high ranking or British soldiers on the memorial itself, whereas the low-ranking Indian soldiers were only represented by a number and had their names recorded in a register.   The huge memorials of the Western Front stand in even greater contrast to the small and anonymous memorials to native Africans in East African cities that very few people worldwide even know exist. The disparity in commemoration of some of the Empire’s dead and missing has lasted over 100 years since the end of the First World War. It remains a sad failure set against the IWGC’s otherwise excellent commemorative work to ensure that ‘their name liveth for evermore’.


Barrett, Michele: “Death and the afterlife: Britain’s colonies and dominions”, Race, Empire and First World War Writing p.301-320(Cambridge 2011)

Barrett, Michele: “Subalterns at War”, Interventions, 9:3, p. 451-474 (2007)

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website found at https://www.cwgc.org/

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Archives found at http://archive.cwgc.org/default.aspx

The Economist: “Strange Meeting” Unknown author (2010) found at https://www.economist.com/asia/2010/04/22/strange-meeting

Ellinwood and S.D. Pradhan (ed): “India and World War I” (1978)

Laqueur, Thomas: “Memory and Naming in the Great War” in John R. Gillis, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, p.150-167 (Princeton University Press 1994)

Longworth, Philip: “The Unending Vigil”, (Leo Cooper 2003)

Kenyon, Frederick: “The Kenyon Report” (1918)

Strachan, Hew: “The First World War, vol 1 To Arms”, (Oxford University Press 2001)

Visram, Rozina:“Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947”, (Routledge 1986)

Ware, Fabian: “The Immortal Heritage”, (Cambridge University Press 1937)


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website (https://www.cwgc.org/)

[2] Fabian Ware The Immortal Heritage (1937) p.30

[3] Frederick Kenyon The Kenyon Report (1918) p.6

[4] Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website (https://www.cwgc.org/)

[5] Thomas Laqueur Memory and Naming in the Great War (1994)

[6] Michele Barrett Subalterns at War (2007) p.454

[7] Hew Strachan First World War Volume 1: To Arms (2001) p.497

[8] Frederick Kenyon The Kenyon Report (1918) p.2

[9] Philip Longworth The Unending Vigil (1985) p.48

[10] Burdett Coutts Speech in House of Commons (1920) File WG 999- Found in the archives of the War Graves Commission

[11] Philip Longworth The Unending Vigil (1985) p.55

[12] Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website (https://www.cwgc.org/)

[13] Philip Longworth The Unending Vigil (1985) p.37

[14] File WG 1267- CWGC Archives

[15]The Economist: Strange Meeting (2010)

[16] Thomas Laqueur Memory and Naming in the Great War (1994)

[17] Rozina Visram Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (1986) p.114

[18] Dewitt Ellinwood and S.D Pradhan India and World War 1 (1978) p.199-200

[19] Information found in the CWGC archives- File WG 861/2 (The Neuve Chapelle Memorial)

[20] Letter from Sir Frederick Kenyon to the Commission (1926)-CWGC archives-File WG 861/2 (The Neuve Chapelle Memorial)

[21] Michele Barrett Subalterns at War, Interventions, 9:3 (2007) p.459

[22] Michele Barrett Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011) p.309-310

[23] File WG 909/5- CWGC Archives

[24] Hew Strachan The First World War, vol.1 To Arms (2001) p.497

[25] File WG 122 Pt 2- CWGC Archives

[26] File WG 243/1 Pt 1- CWGC Archives

[27] Michele Barrett Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011) p.306

[28] Mombasa Memorial Inscription, quoted from Michele Barrett Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011) p.306

[29] File WG 290- CWGC Archives

[30] Ibid

[31] Michele Barrett Subalterns at War, Interventions, 9:3 (2007) p.468