Did you know Commonwealth War Graves maintains unique cemeteries and memorials in many countries across Africa? Here are five you should know about.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Sites in Africa
Africa and the World Wars
Men of the King's African Rifles on the march circa 1916 (© IWM Q 45778)
Many African nations were hotbeds of military activity during the World Wars.
All too often, the African story is overlooked when we look at the narratives of these globe-spanning conflicts; less so the Second World War, with North and East Africa being two key theatres, but many African nations and territories had their citizens perform military duties at home and overseas during the Great War.
Several campaigns were fought in North, East, and Southwest Africa during the First World War, ranging in scale from small border skirmishes to lengthy guerrilla warfare.
For instance, the East African Campaign of World War One stretched from Kenya to Mozambique, claiming the lives of some 11,000 combat troops and tens of thousands more labourers, carriers, and non-combat military personnel.
The East African Campaign alone accounted for 150,000 troops and some million Africans serving in support roles.
Unfortunately, historical inequalities in commemoration meant many of the labour and carrier troops who died in service went without proper commemoration. The CWGC Non-Commemoration Project is working to redress this by researching global archives to find names.
Working with communities, governments and heritage organisations we will create new memorials to ensure all those who lost their lives in the World Wars are commemorated.
As well as fighting, many locations across the continent became embarkation ports and medical hubs. For instance, Durban, South Africa was a huge medical centre, while Cape Town was a buzz with medical, shipping, and transport activity in both World Wars.
Several countries were also used as training hubs, particularly pilot training. British Commonwealth Air Training Plan flight schools were set up across South Africa and parts of Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe).
As with all training, accidents did happen so many of the casualties commemorated in Africa would have died in flight training and other incidents.
Because the war spanned a great span of locations, territories, and countries, Commonwealth War Graves war cemeteries and memorials can be found across the continent.
Here, we take a look at some of the sites that help tell the wartime experience of five different African countries. Read on to learn more.
Durban (Stellawood) Cemetery
Durban was a major medical centre during the First World War, replete with several medical centres and hospital facilities.
By May 1918, seven military hospitals and two convalescent camps had been built in the city, alongside No.3 South African General Hospital.
Here, sick and wounded from the East African Campaign, and other theatres of war, were treated or sadly succumbed to their illnesses or injuries.
Come the Second World War, Durban was an embarkation and disembarkation port. Troops headed for East Africa and Abyssinia travelled from Durban, as did those heading for later campaigns in Italy and the Middle East.
Hospital ships were also stationed at Durban, ferrying casualties between the city and the various theatres of war in the north.
Durban was also a centre for anti-submarine flights alongside convoy escort operations undertaken by the Royal and South African Air Force.
As such, an intriguing mix of personnel is buried at Durban (Stellawood) Cemetery.
Stellawood is the final resting place of just over 700 Commonwealth casualties of the World Wars.
Just over 190 are casualties from the First World War with around 490 representing Second World War casualties. Four non-war burials and 21 war graves of other nationalities round out the commemorations at Stellawood.
The Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial
The Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial is an ongoing project to commemorate 1,700 members of the various South African logistical units that fell in the First World War but as yet remain un-commemorated.
Unfortunately, the incredibly, dangerous but essential war service provided by South African labour units, such as the Cape Coloured Labour Regiment, Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport, Military Labour Bureau and South African Military Labour Corps, has historically been overlooked.
Once completed, the Cape Town Labour Corps Memorial will serve as a permanent point of commemoration for these casualties.
The design by South African architecture firm Dean Jay Architects was chosen from 58 entries of a South Africa-wide architectural competition. Each loss of life is represented by an African hardwood post, with the casualty’s name and date of death recorded on it.
The posts carry a metaphorical message: they represent a forest destroyed by the inferno of war; a skeleton/remnant of humanity stripped of life for us to contemplate the unbearable tragedy of war.
The design approach encourages movement around and through the site - between the markers of the other fallen - increasing the experiential engagement with the Memorial. It is intended to be an immersive experience allowing the visitor to contemplate the tragedy of war and understand the scale of loss in South Africa.
Finding the names of fallen South African Labour Corps members has been a long, ongoing task: one which CWGC teams have partnered with local organisations and projects such as In From The Cold.
Our work to commemorate those historically overlooked continues. Be sure to visit the Non-Commemoration page for more information.
El Alamein War Cemetery
El Alamein is a place steeped in Commonwealth military folklore. It was here in late October 1942 that British 8th Army under General Sir Bernard Montgomery, won an incredible victory against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps.
Referred to as the “end of the beginning” by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, El Alamein signalled a turn in the tide of the Western Desert campaign. After years of battlefield defeats at the hands of the Wehrmacht, El Alamein showed the German army could be engaged and beaten decisively.
Of course, such a battle was not without cost. The Commonwealth forces of 8th Army, including Indian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and British soldiers, suffered up to 9,000 dead or missing during El Alamein.
Many of those who fell on the hot sands of El Alamein are today buried in the cemetery that bears its name, alongside others from the wider Western Desert campaign.
Designed by Sir Hubert J. Worthington, the cemetery itself is a walled oasis of serenity set amidst the shifting deserts of Egypt. Shrubs and local trees provide small verdant slices of greenery while all the while the white limestone headstones stand sentinel over those buried here.
El Alamein War Cemetery commemorates 7,420 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. 815 are unidentified.
Four Victoria Cross winners are buried at El Alamein:
- Private Percy Gratwick – Australia
- Private Stan Gurney – Australia
- Sergeant William “Bill” Kibby – Australia
- Private Adam Wakenshaw – UK
Within the ground of the war cemetery lies the Alamein Memorial. A further 8,500 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave are commemorated on the memorial’s Land Forces panels.
A further 3,000 airmen are commemorated on the Alamein Memorial’s Air Forces sector, including those who were lost on campaign in various locations including North, West, and South Africa and parts of the Middle East.
Additionally, the Alamein Cremation Memorial commemorates some 600 men whose remains were cremated in Egypt and Libya and were cremated in accordance with their faith.
Nairobi War Cemetery & the East Africa Memorial
As we have touched on, East Africa was an important region and theatre of conflict during both World Wars.
Kenya, in particular, was an important hub for military and medical activity during the Second World War.
Capital city Nairobi, for instance, as the headquarters of the East African Force. From here, the attacks on Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and British Somaliland were planned and executed.
In addition to the Commonwealth troops in Kenya, including Indian, UK, and South African units, several formations were drawn from across Africa to serve in the East. For instance, the 1st (West Africa) Infantry Brigade from Nigeria and the 2nd (West Africa) Infantry Brigade) from the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) served in Kenya and various actions in East Africa.
Nairobi was also a hospital centre. No 87. British General Hospital was established in June 1943 and remained until December 1945. No.150 British General Hospital was also located in Kenya’s capital for a period in 1943.
Because of its importance to both World Wars, there a several CWGC war cemeteries and memorials in Nairobi.
Nairobi War Cemetery is focused on Second World War casualties. Some 1,950 WW2 casualties from across the Commonwealth are buried.
The Cemetery itself was opened by local military authorities in 1941. It became a place for the concentration of war graves, with burials taken in from sites at Garissa, Gelib, Kinangop, Marsabit, Mega and other locations that at the time were inaccessible.
Nairobi War Cemetery was designed by architect G. Vey.
A further point of commemoration, the East Africa Memorial, stands within Nairobi War Cemetery.
The memorial commemorates land forces who fell in the East African campaign, particularly the advance into South Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, but have no known grave.
The East Africa Memorial also commemorates men who died on operations in Madagascar in 1942, but with no known war grave, as well as those who died aboard the troopship Khedive Ismail on route to Ceylon on 12 February 1944. This includes a significant part of the 301st Field Regiment, East African Artillery.
The Nairobi Memorial also lies within the cemetery grounds. This commemorates just shy of 480 United Kingdom, South African, and East African Forces who died in Kenya’s non-operational zones. This could mean dying in training, or on garrison or guard duty. The graves of those named on this memorial were either unfound or in locations that meant they were unmaintainable.
Sierra Leone’s Freetown Memorial marks not only the men commemorated on its rugged bronze name panels – it also showcases how remembrance and commemoration of the nation's war dead is something CWGC is trying to change.
The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was unveiled in 1931 and originally held the names of around 230 soldiers of the West African Force’s Sierra Leonian component.
However, the names of 795 members of the Sierra Leone Carrier Corps (SLCC) were not originally included. Instead, these men were commemorated numerically with an inscription on the memorial and their names recorded in a memorial register.
Following the Second World War, Sierra Leonean men and women went overseas in military roles once more. The memorial was altered to incorporate the names of those who fell in that conflict.
Subsequently, the First World War dead were confined to a single panel. The reference to the carriers was removed entirely.
Over 5,000 Sierra Leoneans left Freetown to do carrier service in East Africa during the First World War.
The nature of organised combat in the varying landscapes and geographies of the East African theatre, which spanned seven modern-day states, meant mechanical and even pack animal transport was inefficient or unsuitable.
The dangerous but essential tasks of porterage and carrying vital supplies, like food, water, and ammunition, were instead taken by carrier corps members.
The Siera Leone Carrier Corps saw near continuous service in East Africa. Its job was to support the combat troops of the Gold Coast Regiment and Nigerian Brigade.
Casualties were sadly very high. The men of the SLCC fell vulnerable to disease. Malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery claimed many lives. It’s estimated that at least 850 SLCC men did return home.
Work is now well underway to ensure that Sierra Leone’s war dead, especially the SLCC carriers, are all given the commemoration they deserve.
Discover more African war cemeteries & memorials with Commonwealth War Graves Commission search tools
This is just a small selection of Commission war cemeteries and memorials commemorating casualties in countries across Africa.
Our search tools can help you discover the rest.
Use our Find Cemeteries & Memorial search function to find all our sites. You can search by country, locality, and World War.
For more granular detail, use our Find War Dead tool to search for specific African casualties by name or by country to learn more.
Don’t forget to check our Non-Commemoration Project to discover more about our work in Africa.