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By Sir Nicolas Bevan
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We must commemorate the brave sacrifice of our forgotten service personnel

Render of planned Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial (Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

3 min read

Each November we acknowledge and honour the suffering experienced during global conflicts by those who gave their lives defending our country, the Commonwealth, and our freedoms.

To commemorate and honour more than 1.7 million service personnel from all over the world, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has built up considerable experience to learn lessons from the past. 

What is being done today to correct historic non-commemoration? 

After the First World War the deaths of more than 100,000 African service personnel were not commemorated.. Colonial Administrations and the Imperial War Graves Commission did not consider some ethnic groups in the same way it did Europeans. On learning this, the CWGC apologised and began its restorative programmes, the first of which started in Kenya.

A multi-disciplinary team including heritage, digital, education and research specialists are investing expertise to rectify non-commemoration. Teams scour archives and examine former battlefields and burial sites in search of forgotten people and stories, interviewing descendants and veterans to preserve their history.

After the First World War more than 100,000 African service personnel were treated unequally

To date, the CWGC has recovered the names of over 9,000 personnel who died serving alongside British and Commonwealth troops during the First World War, but have never been commemorated by name. These names are now part of CWGC’s official records. An endangered archives programme grant administered by the British Library and awarded by charitable fund Arcadia has enabled CWGC’s historians to uncover material previously thought to be lost. Over 90 boxes of military service files are being digitised, including paperwork for personnel of the Kings African Rifles from the 1890s through to the 1960s.

Reacting to intelligence sourced from the archives and working alongside teams from the National Museums of Kenya and the British Army’s Royal Engineers, they have used ground penetrating radar to identify likely burial sites. 

The Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial will be the first memorial to the missing built through the non-commemoration programme. It will honour over 1,700 Black South Africans who died during the First World War, serving in the country’s military labour 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 alongside heritage trails at key memorial sites in Sierra Leone and Malawi. CWGC maintains 38 sites in Kenya, one of which is Nairobi’s Kariokor Cemetery, adjacent to one of the spaces in which the Carrier Corps was known to have been based. 

Many of the carriers or porters serving in the First World War campaigns in Africa were not adequately remembered. It is believed close to 26,000 Kenyan carriers died during the war.

Due to the site’s deep legacy, there are plans for a community-centric heritage point and memorial to honour the African personnel who served and died in the two world wars. 

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

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

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