Over 34,000 East African soldiers and over 600,000 porters and carriers served with British Empire forces throughout the campaigns against Germany’s colonial forces in East Africa during the First World War.

Nairobi African Memorial 

Nairobi African memorial

One of the earliest actions of the First World War took place off the coast of German East Africa (GEA) on 8 August 1914, when the British cruiser HMS Astraea shelled a German wireless station. The territory, today mainland Tanzania, was Germany’s largest colony in Africa.

In August 1914, two Expeditionary Forces from the Indian Army were dispatched to British East Africa (Kenya) to capture neighbouring GEA. But they were forced to retreat after defeat in the battles of Kilimanjaro and Tanga in November.

In March 1916, a larger force, including British Indian, South African and locally-raised troops invaded GEA. Dar es Salaam, the capital of GEA, was quickly captured but, despite being isolated and heavily outnumbered, German forces under the command of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck conducted a successful retreat into the country’s interior. Over the next two years Allied troops pursued the German forces in a gruelling campaign but failed to inflict a decisive victory. The war in Africa only came to an end after news reached von Lettow-Vorbeck of the armistice on the Western Front, and German forces in GEA formally surrendered on 25 November 1918.

In German East Africa, the British Official History of the Medical Services recorded 347,000 casualties amongst combatants, some 95% due to disease. Around 10,000 of these were deaths: 3,500 due to combat, and some 6,500 from disease. There were a further 287,000 casualties amongst the African porters and labourers. Over 43,000 are known to have died, although some estimates suggest the total may have been as high as 100,000.

Commemorating the dead

Nairobi African Memorial close up

After the war, the Commission faced considerable difficulties with the commemoration of servicemen who had died in East Africa. In 1920, the Commission received a report from an officer of the army’s Directorate of Graves Registration & Enquires, responsible for the recording and marking of graves. The report noted that the graves of Indian and African servicemen had either never been marked or that markers had degraded or become illegible over the years.

Few records had been kept during the war and no list of those East African servicemen who had died could be provided to the Commission by the army or colonial authorities. The Commission took the difficult decision not to mark the few graves of East Africans that were known about but would instead “allow them to revert to nature”. Instead the Commission commemorated them with memorials, which owing to the lack of available records would bear no names.

Where East African servicemen had been buried in military cemeteries and reliable records were available, the Commission commemorated them by name. At CWGC Dar es Salaam War Cemetery, the graves were not individually marked, but the names were inscribed on a wall alongside them.

For the many thousands of East Africans who had no grave, and for whom no reliable records existed, the Commission built three memorials – one in Tanzania at Dar es Salaam, and two in Kenya at Mombasa and Nairobi – to commemorate the servicemen of East Africa.

Work began on the memorials in 1923. And after some delay caused in part by some planned re-devolvement work to Nairobi, the Nairobi African Memorial was unveiled on 20 May 1928, by Her Highness Princess Marie Louise, in the presence of British officials and tribal chiefs.

In 2018 the Commission carried out restoration of the Nairobi African Memorial, utilising the latest computer 3D scanning technology to capture the exact likeness of the memorial. In 2019 these scans were used to manufacture replacement elements and assist in carrying out repairs, preserving the memorial for future generations.