The feet and arms of WW1

What you need to know:

  • The memories of these gallant men is commemorated in form of the World War Memorial statues and Pillar along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, in honour of “native troops” and “our glorious dead” who perished during both World wars
  • Carrier Corps were thus crucial full-colons in the narrative of resistance
  • Kariakor areas in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam were the Kiswahili corruption of “Carrier Corps”

Armistice (or Remembrance) Day was marked on Sunday in Commonwealth countries to mark the end of World War I, but only a few relatives of Carrier Corps ever mark it in the scattered war cemeteries in Kenya.

The memories of these gallant men is commemorated in form of the World War Memorial statues and Pillar along Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, in honour of “native troops” and “our glorious dead” who perished during both World wars.

The statutes were erected after 1918 and re-erected after the World War II ended in 1945. Lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee, writing in a local daily this time last year, lamented that “our politicians pay no attention to it (Armistice Day.)

They think we have nothing to do with it. It was the white man’s war. It was their war. But 44,500 black Kenyans died in it. That is not for nothing. The dead and others who survived, were in the Carrier Corps, a critical component in the logistics of the war.”

Indeed, they served as frontline porters, machine gun, ammunition and stretcher carriers who also dug drains, built bridges, made roads, erected huts and repaired the railway line. Others were drafted as interpreters, armed scouts, dressers, ward orderlies, cooks and personal servants in the “porters war”.

They had no uniform. Or boots. Their efforts were plagued by food shortages, inadequate medical care, pay hitches, mistreatment and harsh physical conditions.

In Kariakor: The Carrier Corps, historian Geoffrey Hodges notes that they were “vital as soldiers, carriers and intelligence agents”. “Without their participation,” he writes, “the European war effort would have been in vain.” After the war, Carrier Corps returned by train, boat and ox-carts, looking gaunt and dazed.

Their knowledge of field guns, firearms, ammunition and communication gadgets and rudimentary military tactics later came in handy in fighting the Imperial Army during Kenya’s war of independence.

Carrier Corps were thus crucial full-colons in the narrative of resistance. This is our tribute to these gallant soldiers of the nation, for, were it not for them, we (probably) wouldn’t be:

Strong, but not fat

The First World War ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour of 1918. The colonial government needed tens of thousands of foot soldiers, the so-called “feet and arms of the army”, who were selected among strong — but not fat — ones, and who then walked to Nairobi to become Carrier Corps in a war whose trigger, the assassination of an archduke in remote Europe, they couldn’t have cared two hoots about, let alone understand.


Kariakor areas in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam were the Kiswahili corruption of “Carrier Corps”. The Nairobi Carrier Depot was the staging area, centre of pay, administration and medical examination hub.

£5,600 (Sh761,600 at current exchange rates) was the unspent balance from the East African War Relief Fund earmarked for a medical college in Kikuyu and completed in 1926. It later became the Alliance Boys High School.

The ‘feet and arms of the army’

Be they special porters, carriers or casual labourers, Africans were conscripted through the Native Followers Recruitment Ordinance of 1915. Here is how Kenyan regions contributed the drafted.

A Remembrance Poppy

Has been used since 1920 to commemorate soldiers who died in the War.

Nyanza County has men who are biologically muscular and Col Ewart Grogan wrote to John Ainsworth, the PC of Nyanza, saying that “the porters you have sent are simply invaluable”.

Ainsworth, after whom Ainsworth Primary School in Nairobi is named, was the “best rag tag recruit”, the “ablest administrator in the Protectorate” who mused some of Nairobi’s impossible by-laws when he was promoted and transferred to the capital as Chief Native Officer.


Karen Blixen’s former cook was threatened with conscription to the Carrier Corps if he didn’t return to her former employer, the wife of a civil servant.

He fled and returned after the war ended. And the story goes that a Kisumu DC had a headman he hated drafted to the war.

The Maasai

No moran was conscripted to the Carrier Corps as the community chose to give livestock to feed the troops — who fed on beef and biscuits. This gave them a reason for cattle rustling across borders.

The Giriama and the Duruma

These two Mijikenda sub-tribes adept at using poisoned arrows and bravely resisted taxation and conscription as they were recovering from “the famine of the maize bags” of 1899.

The colonial government’s “fine” of 1,000 porters led to the Giriama Uprising, fronted by Mekatilili wa Menza, in 1913. While in jail, Mekatilili executed two prison breaks.

Praise for ‘gallant porters’

“With scant discipline, they have proved themselves on more than one occasion to be stout-hearted fellows and cheerful in adversity…. What some of these gallant porters have suffered will never be known.”

— Ruthless colonial officer Richard Meinertzhagen, in a letter.

Meinertzhagen mounted a spirited resistance against Kikuyu warriors who had ambushed an Arab caravan in 1902. The victory led the British to put up an outpost on a little hill that the residents called Kia-Nyiri, hence the name Nyeri, which later become a town.

In 1904, he wrote in his diary that people in Central Kenya “will be the most susceptible to subversive activities. They will be one of the first tribes to demand freedom from European influence and in the end cause a lot of trouble”.

Meinertzhagen also caused the Nandi Rebellion when he lured spiritual leader Koitalel Arap Samoei to sign a truce, only to shoot him while shaking hands in October 1905.

The Nandi were protesting against British occupation and the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway through their land.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence describes Meinertzhagen — an accomplished cattle-rustler — as someone who was...

“...willing to harness evil to the chariot of good…. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain.”

How the whole bloody thing started

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” Otto von Bismarck, the ruler of Germany, once remarked.

Twenty-six years later, Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavril Princip, a Serbian in June 28, 1914 after the Austro-Hungarian imperial forces invaded Serbia.

Serbia sought help from Russia. Germany attacked Russia and France, invading neutral Belgium in order to reach France. France declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Via a treaty, Britain had a moral obligation to protect France and Belgium and declared war on Germany.

By August 1, the World War I got bare knuckled when, honouring a treaty with Britain, Japan attacked the German-controlled port of Tsingtao (now Qingdao) in China.

The USA and Italy also joined what went down as one of the costliest conflicts in cash, scale and casualty. British dominions and colonies got involved, offering military labour to British troops.

That was how 160,000 Kenyans were conscripted as carriers as Britain battled the Germans commanded by the cunning Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in the present Tanzania and far-flung outposts in Ethiopia.

11/11/ 11

The hour, date and month when the Armistice was signed to end World War I between the Allies and Germany at Compiegne, France in 1918.

Rise of Harry Thuku’s bravado

The carriers who survived had to be paid their dues by the colonial administration, but they had to identify themselves for record purposes.

The Native Registration Ordinance of 1916 introduced the kipande for that purpose. Former Kenyan carriers opposed it, alongside the imposition of hut and poll taxes.

They were also a bitter lot as British soldiers were gifted with land while Kenyan servicemen were ignored. Most had their gratuity pending. Life was becoming economically harsh after the Indian Rupee was replaced by the stronger Shilling. Labour demands were cut by a third and agriculture production declined.

A baraza was convened in Dagoretti and a memorandum signed to press for resolution of the above issues.

Freedom fighter Harry Thuku forwarded the grievances to Britain instead of the colonial administration. He was arrested and detained for nine years in Kismayu in 1922.

A protest meeting of his arrest led to the shooting of demonstrators outside the Central Police Station. Thuku’s followers founded the Kikuyu Central Association, which sent Kenyatta to England to present their grievances.

Influence on a ‘primitive’ people

Change of tune

The Carrier Corps returned to their homes with not only scars and experiences of war, but also concertinas, harmonicas and accordions whose capacity for step-and-dance rhythm ushered in the Mwomboko dance among the Kikuyu in the 1920s.

The accordion’s reign lasted up to the 1940s due to its sturdy construction and portability, before servicemen during World War II returned with guitars.

Khaki shorts

The carriers returned clad in khaki shorts. That is how, when they later became chiefs, headmen... and on to District Commissioners... after independence, the short trousers became their uniform.

Kenya Defence Forces Old Comrades Association

This is an offshoot of The British Legion African Section that was established for the welfare of ex-servicemen of both World Wars.

The Legion was abolished and renamed The Kings African Rifles and East African Forces Old Comrades Association in 1960.

A meeting at the Kenya Army Headquarters resolved to re-name it The Kenya Defence Forces Old Comrades Association in 1961.

The “Old” in the name was omitted as active servicemen are members too. The Kenya Defence Forces Comrades Association has 21,858 registered members, according to the Ministry of State for Defence.

Lady Northey Dispensary, State House Road

Was named after the wife of Edward Northey, a Lieutenant Colonel in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps when World War I broke out.

He was later appointed Governor of British East Africa Protectorate, which became Kenya in 1920.


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