Over 98,000 Kenyans bravely served under the British Crown during World War II. What motivated those men to fight in a war largely dominated and controlled by colonial powers? How are those people remembered? Kisumu War Cemetery is a tribute to World War II Commonwealth soldiers, and represents an important time in Kenyan history.
The Kisumu War Cemetery in Kisumu is an important historical site as it represents the sordid history of Africa’s military service in World War II. While the Commonwealth Graves Commission established the cemetery in 1915 for war burials that occurred during World War I, the vast majority of those buried there served in World War II. More than 98,000 Kenyans served under the British Crown in some way during World War II. Because such a significant number of Kenyans participated in the War, World War II served as a catalyst for the more triumphant Kenyan narrative of nationalism and independence, but what motivated Kenyans to join the British army in a foreign war? What were the realities of serving within the army? And what were the larger effects of World War II on Kenya both immediately and presently in Kenyan memory? The World War II Cemetery in Kisumu carries with it the legacies of the answers to all of these questions. These legacies include its physical location, the reasoning behind the fact that no Kenyans have been buried at the cemetery, as well as the general place of World War II within Kenyan memory.
Throughout the modern era the wealthy, powerful nations in Europe sought to control the rest of the world in order to secure natural resources for their own selfish benefit. This process is now known as colonialism. The implications and effects of colonialism are found deep in every culture that the institution affected. At its height, the British Empire controlled 25% of the landmass on earth, including the country now known as Kenya. Britain not only subjected its colonies to complete social, political, and economic control, but the empire also involved its colonies in primarily European wars. The continent of Africa served both as a source of manpower as well as a physical landscape for the war to take place. While in theory fighting in the King’s African Rifles for the British government provided Kenyans with the opportunity to advance themselves socially, politically, and economically, the reality of military life for African Kenyans was extremely different. The British government outwardly projected World War II as a unifying phenomenon that Africans joined by choice when in reality African soldiers were overwhelmingly conscripted against their own will, subjected to lesser treatment and pay within the military, as well as fewer benefits once the war ended. However, while ultimately the African experience within the British army was negative, the knowledge and skills gained by Africans while in the army provided Kenyans with a lingering spirit of independent Kenyan nationalism.
At the beginning of the War the colonial government attempted to recruit soldiers from ethnic groups they saw as militarily inclined, this however did not provide the army with the number of soldiers necessary to fight in the war and the colonial government changed their tactics. Kenyans were simply, and understandably, not willing to fight and die for an oppressive colonial power. After legitimate recruitment failed, the British government tricked Kenyan solders into joining the army through a variety of ways. Occasionally the government would lie to “recruits” and load Kenyans onto a truck that they said was going to a place to do agricultural work, or they would sometimes simply force men onto trucks and bring them to remote locations to be trained to fight. Therefore, while the British colonial government presented the Kenyans who served in World War II as volunteers willingly fighting for the union of the British Empire and glory of the crown, soldiers were largely tricked and conscripted into fighting.
While recruitment processes were not noble and the average Kenyan soldier faced significantly more difficulties in the military than their white counterparts, the overall experience in World War II was not entirely negative. The experience of Kenyan soldiers in World War II and their dissatisfaction with government compensation after the war ended greatly spurred Kenyans to united beyond ethnic boundaries in order to advocate for a larger say in their government, and eventual independence.
Kenyan contributions to World War II have been memorialized in a variety of different ways. While Kenyans largely opted to be buried in their traditional ethnic communities, there were those who were buried in cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. The commission maintains 15 gravesites within the country. These gravesites contain the remains of soldiers from a wide variety of countries, including South Africans, Britons, and Germans. The site in Kisumu contains 56 graves, but none of the graves belong to Kenyan nationals. Perhaps it is partially for the reason that the cemetery is located in a relatively difficult to get to location outside of the city. Compared to other sites, including the Gilgil War Cemetery in Gilgil and Kitale Cemetery in Kitale the Kisumu cemetery seems to be maintained with less precision, and is more difficult to access. The grounds of the Kisumu cemetery do not contain the same perfectly maintained lawn that is pictured at the other locations, and when looked at comparatively the Kisumu cemetery is clearly a less attractive and cared for compound. Compared to photos of the Gilgil cemetery, the Kisumu cemetery seems to be lost in time, and relatively forgotten.
Officially, the cemetery should be accessible Monday through Friday, but when our colleagues attempted to access the cemetery for the purpose of this project, access was restricted and difficult to obtain. This is a major problem that greatly prevents the cemetery from serving its intended purpose. If people are unable to physically reach the cemetery, how are they expected to use it as a medium for respecting and reflecting on the Kenyan contribution to World War II? This is extremely unfortunate, as the contributions of those from Kisumu and the surrounding Luo community in World War II should be recognized and revered. Even though no Kenyan nationals are buried within the cemetery, it still holds the possibility of serving as a place of remembrance for Kenyan contributions to World War II. The cemetery’s status as a place difficult to access, and its lackluster maintenance suggest a lack of importance to the cemetery to the Commonwealth Graves Commission.
Perhaps these problems are exacerbated due to the fact that no Kenyan nationals is buried in the cemetery, so the community feels no real drive or urgency to preserve the cemetery, or perhaps the funding for the Kisumu cemetery from the Commonwealth Graves Commission is not enough to property maintain the grounds in the best way possible. Either way, the cemetery represents an important time in Kenyan history and should be respected and maintained as such. The cemetery should truly be open and accessible during the times stated on the sign, and the Commonwealth Graves Commission should be contacted and asked why the Kisumu cemetery, when compared to others within Kenya, seems to have suffered neglect. The legacy of World War II in Kenya should not be downplayed; experiences within the war also provided many Kenyans with the opportunity to learn how to read, write, and express grievances in a bureaucratic manner, aiding Kenyans in advocating in their independence two decades later. Of course, many Kenyans also gave their lives during the War, and while they are not physically buried in the Kisumu cemetery, their contributions are represented by it, therefore making the cemetery a space that should be more deeply respected and cared for than it currently is.
Plaque Detailing Kenyan Involvement in WWII: The plaque reads: "As in the First World War, when the country was the base for the earlier stages of the campaign in German East Africa, Kenya became an important base in the Second World War – this time in operations across her northern frontier for the conquest of Italian East Africa. Kenya was the assembly point for troops sent from other parts of the Commonwealth for the campaign, the site of base hospitals, convalescent centers and supply depots and, after the operations in Italian East Africa had been successfully concluded, the training ground for East African troops destined for other theatres. The Kenya battalions of the King’s African Rifles, which had fought with distinction in the First World War, were raised to many times their peace-time number and supporting arms and services were formed so that the East African brigades and divisions which subsequently took the field were complete and self-supporting. They took a full part in the campaigns in Madagascar and Burma, as well as in Italian East Africa, and their feats of arms will be remembered equally with those of the forces of other Commonwealth countries at whose sides they fought. All were volunteers and very many came from Kenya. African soldiers who fell in battle are buried in the war cemeteries or commemorated on memorials in the campaign areas. Many who died in Kenya are buried in war cemeteries but others, whose graves are in places where they cannot be properly maintained are commemorated on the memorial in Nairobi War Cemetery, which carries the names of 480 East African soldiers. KISUMU CEMETERY This cemetery contains 18 burials of the First and 47 of the Second World War. By forces they comprise 30 South African, 24 British, 2 Australian, and 9 German." ~ Meshack Owino, July 5, 2015
Loading Artillery: This photograph depicts Kenyan soldiers learning how to load artillery into an Ordnance QF 25 Pounder. ~ Imperial War Museum, © IWM (K 6757), http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205057440, May 1944
Lieutenant’s Headstone: The picture shows the detail of a lieutenant’s headstone in the Kisumu Cemetery. The inscription reads “Honi soit qui mal y sense,” which means “shame on him who thinks ill of it.” The phrase is a maxim of the order of the garter. ~ Elvis Otieno, Frank Masila, October 24, 2015
Sign Leading to the Kisumu War Cemetery: This is a photograph of the sign leading to the Kisumu War Cemetery. It identifies the cemetery as a site maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is dedicated to the eternal commemoration of those who died while serving the British Crown in the First and Second World Wars. ~ Meshack Owino , July 5, 2015
Entrance to Kisumu War Cemetery: This is the fence along the front of the Kisumu War Cemetery. ~ Mark Tebeau, July 5, 2015
Kenyans in the Royal Navy: Kenyans did not only serve in infantry units in the Second World War, they were also a part of the Royal Navy. This picture shows men who were a part of the volunteer navy reserve on a local river patrol in Kenya. ~ Imperial War Museum, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205189664, © IWM (K 2645), 1942
Headstones in the WWII Cemetery: The headstones appear the same as all other headstones in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. ~ Meshack Owino, July 5, 2015
African Troops in Burma: Burma was one of the places Kenyan soldiers most often fought in World War II. This photo shows Kenyan soldiers walking on a road in Burma. ~ No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit Watson E (Sgt), 1944, Imperial War Museum, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194934, © IWM (SE 1884)
South African Soldier’s Headstone: The inscription reads “eendrag maak mag” or “union is strength.” Referencing the South African coat of arms, this headstone marks the grave of one of the many South African soldiers that fought in Kenya during World War II. ~ Elvis Otieno, Frank Masila, October 24, 2015