Peaceful resting place for the men who fought the deadliest global war in human history
The remains of the men who fought in the 2nd World War lie quiet in the beautiful Nyeri Second World War Cemetery in Kiganjo amidst a lush green lawn with headstones standing in neat rows. The headstones are inscribed with the name, age, rank and regiment of the soldiers who fought in the East African Campaign during WW2.
WW2, fought between 1939 and 1945 is known as the deadliest conflict in human history claiming millions of lives. The estimate is between 50 million to 85 million. To put it into perspective, the lower estimate is higher than the current population of Kenya.
The makings of WW2
The war started in Europe with Germany invading Poland in September 1939. Britain and France then declared war on Germany.
In 1936, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proclaimed his Italian East African Empire that comprised of Ethiopia, the colonies of Italian Eritrea and Italian Somailand.
On 10 June 1940, he led Italy into WW2 against the British and the French to expand his East African Empire to include Sudan and British East Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
The East African Campaign
The East African Campaign was fought between June 1940 and November 1941, during WW2 in the Horn of Africa.
Fighting began in the remote town of Wajir in north-eastern Kenya with the Italians bombing the Allied forces. The Italians were driven off but fighting continued until the Armistice of Cassibile was signed, ending hostilities between Italy and the Allies.
Peace in The Present
James Willson, the world war historian and author of Guerrillas of Tsavo talks about the cemetery.
“The WW2 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Kiganjo is like all CWGC cemeteries worldwide,” he says. “They are immaculately cared for, in honour lest we forget their (the soldiers) noble sacrifice. It contains allied soldiers (lots of South Africans) who died of wounds and sickness at the start of the East African Campaign to drive the Italians out of Italian Somalia and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1940.
“The Police Training College at Kiganjo was originally a military hospital, and later became a Prisoner of War Camp for mainly Italians.
Brown-veined whites flutter around. James Maina the caretaker joins us.
“There are 372 graves here,” tells Maina. “8 South Africans, 6 British, 1 Indian, 1 French, 4 unidentified and the rest African volunteers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.”
I ask him what it is like working in a cemetery for he’s been here a decade. “It’s good,” he replies. “I’m never disturbed by anyone.”
It’s a light moment and l think to myself, that’s because they are all dead.
‘The Cross of Sacrifice’, a common feature in all the CWGC cemeteries worldwide takes centre stage.
The headstones are inscribed in English for the Christian soldiers and in Arabic with English translations for the Muslim soldiers – with the one exception of a 24-year-old Manohar Singh of the Indian Army whose headstone is in the Hindi script.
This l find most unusual for Sikhs and Hindus cremate their dead.
“His remains could well have been found much later and rather than burning the few remains the authorities may have opted for burial. It is similar to the cemetery at Maktau (Tsavo East) during WW1,” reasons Willson.
“On the same subject, Italian POW deaths and other battle casualty remains were collected by the Italian authorities after the war and the remains buried at the Consolata Mission Church by Nyeri Hill, together with the Italian General in command of all Italian forces in Ethiopia, the Duke of Aosta,” continues Willson. “This is the same catholic Mission Church that holds the remains of The Venerable Sr. Irene Stefani who was blessed by Pope Francis in 2015 for her work amongst the Kikuyu and the porters during WW1.”
We continue reading the headstones – of the African soldiers from the King’s African Rifles, the East African Army Corps, African Pioneer Corps, Northern Rhodesian Regiment – of so many young men in their late teens and twenties losing their youth to the horrors of war.
WW2 was the impetus for African countries to fight for independence. A famous quote by Kango Muchai, a KAR veteran sums it. “We Africans were told over and over again that we were fighting for our country and democracy and that when war was over we would be rewarded for the sacrifice we were making…The life l returned to was exactly the same as the one l left four years earlier: no land, no job, no representation, no dignity.”
Visit any of the Commonwealth War Graves – they are intriguing and make you question history – and work for peace.
Most Commonwealth War Graves are open to the public.