Martyrs of the British Empire

The neatly manicured Nairobi War Cemetery is a reminder of the country's role in World War II, writes Ferdinand Mwongela

As the guns fell silent at the end of the Second World War, across the reaches of the British Empire lay the dead, some buried by their kith and kin, but more lay in war cemeteries.

Perhaps the story that has not been told is that of Kenya’s sacrifice at the altar of this world war, a story told by the people who lie buried in the war cemeteries around the country.

One of these is the Nairobi War Cemetery located off Ngong Road. Opened in 1941, the Nairobi war cemetery is largest war cemetery in East Africa. It is set in what was the headquarters of the East African Force during the war.

According to Common Wealth War Graces Commission (CWGC) records, the Nairobi War Cemetery contains 1,952 commonwealth burials of the Second World War, eleven of these unidentified. In addition, there are 81 non-war burials and one French grave, among other commemorations of soldiers who died in the different phases of the war, but have no known grave.

Hospital centre

The significance of Nairobi in Second World War is not lost, having served as the "base for the conquest of Jubaland and Italian Somaliland, the liberation of British Somaliland and the sweep north-westwards to open Addis Ababa for the return of the emperor," according to CWGC.

The CWGC website points out that at this time, Nairobi was also a hospital centre. However, despite being an original burial place, the numbers interred here swelled with the transferring of graves from several other cemeteries listed as African civil cemeteries and temporary army burial grounds. These were in Garissa, Gelib, Kinangop, Marsabit and Mega among others, making Nairobi War Cemetery the largest in the region.

From the names of the dead listed here, it is evident that Kenyans and East Africans paid a price for the war, with the majority of those interred here listed as soldiers fighting in units that drew soldiers predominantly from the region under British rule.

A lot of these come from the Kings African Rifles, the East African Artillery, the East African Arm Medical Corps and the East African Military Labour Corps among others. Majority of people today would be more familiar with the King’s African Rifles (KAR), a lot of who after the war turned their attention on the freedom fighters. They too drew soldiers from across the region and former Ugandan strongman Idi Amin was one of the high profile individuals to have served in the KAR.

There are also a few burials from beyond the region, among them the Northern Rhodesia regiment from further South, the Royal Airforce, the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the Royal Australian Navy among others.

Significantly, however, most of the locals buried here served in the lower cadres of the military and a majority of them have their ages listed unknown. This is especially so since at this time, officers were seconded from the British Army regiments where they served as foot soldiers. It was only towards the end of British Rule that more Africans were commissioned as officers.

Nairobi memorial

The war graves commission profile of the cemetery also points out that the cemetery contains the Nairobi Memorial, which "commemorates 477 men of the United Kingdom, South African and East African forces who died in the non-operational zones of Kenya while in training, or on lines of communication or garrison duty, and whose graves could not be located or are so situated as to be unmaintainable."

Thus, despite the little attention it attracts today, the Nairobi War Cemetery, just like the other cemeteries in the country, are an important part of history. They serve not only as a reminder of an event of historic significance but with time are also centres of curiosity for the younger generation.