WW1: Spotlight on British East Africa Carrier Corps

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The Carrier Corps were a logistical support labour force created in, and recruited from, the British East Africa Protectorate, now Kenya and Uganda, during the First World War. It was a section of the British armed forced which helped the British in the fight against the German Military powers in East Africa, led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Von Lettow-Vorbeck used guerrilla tactics and Fabian tactics to inflict maximum damage on British and Belgian territories. Fabian tactics are when frontal assaults are avoided in favour of wars of attrition, destroying farms, destroying plantations, launching ambushes, attacking logistics support, wearing down the opponent and misdirection. This had disastrous consequences for East Africans. Pursuing Von Lettow-Vorbeck into areas unfavourable to beasts of burden increased the need for people to carry the equipment, injured and supplies of the British and the Belgians. The British recruited more than 400,000 men who were to provide support to the army as porters to carry the supply during the war.

carrier corps - african troops
African Troops dragged into European War (source)


On the outbreak of the World War 1, Britain found itself completely overstretched, as it was not expecting a conflict in East Africa. Initially, draught animals were utilized to move supplies, but this was hampered by tseste-fly: the transporter of the savage malady trypanosomiasis, ordinarily known as sleeping sickness. Also, the absence of a solid transportation framework in East Africa obstructed work of these animals, particularly amid the blustery seasons where the narrow pathways would end up becoming mud-pools, impossible to cross.

To solve these issues of the transportation of the war supply, the British made the Carrier Corps, exposing individuals to the extreme climatic conditions and the outrageous physical work of carrying the goods for the British army on their backs. Although, employing men for porterage and support task was common in Eastern African military history, the degree of their utilization amid the East African battle of the First World War against Germany was unparalleled.

Porters had to cover on foot, without boots an area the size of France, Germany and England. They had to do this on half-rations to European servicemen in East Africa. Porters carried the injured back to came, ammunition and supplies. Porters were not provided with enough beds, medical supplies and vaccinations, leading to a high mortality rate. (i)


Three methods were used to raise manpower for the war – volunteers, quotas for African chiefs to meet and conscription. The main method Britain used to raise men for its carrier service was through press-ganging, or conscription – giving Africans no choice. Britain conscripted the porters in the Carrier Corps not just from its own settlements of Kenya, Nyasaland, Uganda and Northern Rhodesia but also from German East Africa, Portuguese East Africa and the Belgian Congo.

The recruitment plan for the corps appears to have been concocted after the flare-up of war and in an incredible scurry. O. F.Watkins, one of the district commissioners of the Seyidie Province, was placed in control. He had couple of points of reference for guidance to form the Carrier Corps. As an initial phase in the recruitment plan, provincial commissioners in different provinces were asked to generate the number of men who could be recruited as porters in the Carrier Corps. The Chief Secretary followed this up. There was no particularly defined procedure for the actual recruitment; in fact it was left to the district officers to make courses of action for the supply of the required number of men. The manner by which selections were completed fluctuated from locale to region, contingent upon the accessibility of staff and the individual inclinations of the district commissioners. However, the general strategy pursued was that the administrative officers would personally visit each sub district or area and set up a quota, for the number of men to be recruited from the respective district with the government appointed head of that territory, depending on populace. The accomplishment of this method relied on the authority of the district, i.e., the chiefs due to indirect rule, and the individuals who accomplished great outcomes were given a special mention in the yearly reports from the areas.

Difficulties Faced during the Recruitment

The difficulties of colonial administrators in influencing the already unenthusiastic African populace to join the British Carrier Corps were further intensified by the demeanour of the European people there. Some government officials were offended by negative comments of the Europeans on the administration, who accused them of being inefficient in raising the of the carrier corps. At the time, this acted as a spark both for a more aggressive war effort and for more coercive methods. It appeared to the colonists that, after the flare-up of war, the campaign in East Africa was not being pushed with adequate vigor.


By the end of the First World War more than 500,000 Africans had served with the British Army amid the East Africa campaign, of who just 60,000 were soldier troops. Most of the Africans required on the British side were porters who made up the Military Labour Bureau, later renamed the Carrier Corps, of whom almost more than 95,000-100,000 lost their lives – around 25% percent of the aggregate labour contingent utilized.

The campaign became a carriers’ war in which, the principle trouble was not in vanquishing, but rather in reaching the enemy. For these undertakings Carriers Corps were enrolled either from the seaside Swahilis or from close-by people groups for the span of the battle.

Moreover, the feelings of trepidation of the African populace were most likely affected by the demise rate among the porters and the poor health of the men coming back from the war zone. The further the military campaign moved into German East Africa, the more inadmissible the routers, were (for instance in the Kenyan Highlands) and this combined with insufficient nourishment, attire and billets. With regret, Watkins conceded that this seriously affected the health of the porters.

The demise rate was not all that high amid the initial 3 years of the war. But it was horrendous during the long periods of 1917. The reality of porter deaths made the African populace unwilling to work in the Carrier Corps, and the state of a large number of the individuals who returned home did nothing to comfort the people.

Furthermore, the porters were sent to unhygienic reserves where insufficient sanitary measure was taken to prevent any kind of health issues. This led to a spread of diseases, which later became an epidemic. For example, more than 100 unique flare-ups of dysentery happened in the Meru District in which the District Commissioner Meru gauges the aggregate number of deaths to have surpassed 2,000. Under the fiery endeavors of John Ainsworth, Oscar Watkins, and others from late 1917, the working states of the porters were incredibly, although very late, improved.

carrier corps - pic2 bcc
British Carrier Corps (source)

Death-toll hotspots

Almost 163,000 Kenya Africans and 183,000 from Uganda were enrolled into the Carrier Corps. In any case, while Uganda misfortunes were 3,870 dead and 4,650 missing (trusted dead), the Kenya figures were 25,891 dead and 13,748 missing. Clans, especially from Nyanza and the Kikuyu territories suffered the most. They were then visited by the awful influenza pandemic as soon as the war ended. The entirety for Tanganyika was considerably more noteworthy – with 13,129 porters dead.


As a recruited workforce, the Carrier Corps was not paid close to what might be viewed as a reasonable wage for the work it attempted. The 1915 “Native Followers Recruitment Ordinance” stipulated that the wages for Carrier Corps individuals would be Rs 5 every month including food and nourishment, ascending to Rs 6 every month after three months. This derisory wage implied the Carrier Corps were not considered to be very important for the army. While absolutely constrained to work for the British forces, the way that the porters were paid their wage is one of only factors keeping the Carrier Corps not being eluded as slave work.


The Carrier Corps is celebrated on the War Memorials in Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi and Jomo Kenyatta Avenue, Mombasa. The 14,000 men of the Northern Rhodesian troop of the Carrier Corps are honoured on the War Memorial at the entry to the town of Mbala in Northern Zambia. A few East African towns have quarters named after the Carrier Corps probably in light of the fact that individuals from the corps were given lodging in these spots. For instance, “Kariakor” in Nairobi and “Kariakoo” in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma are 2 such quarters.

carrier corps - pic3 statute commemoration
Statue commemorating the Carrier Corps in Nairobi (source)

The Carrier Corps played a very significant role in the First World War, to provide every possible aid the British army against the German forces. Despite the fact that they were not considered to be an important component of the British army and were not even remunerated with a sufficient amount of money to lead a healthy life, they worked hard and very dedicatedly even in unsuitable climatic consider and getting hit by fatal epidemics.

Economic Impact

As ww1 set in, Europe dropped its purchase price for all African exports to Europe. In Uganda the price of imports went up 50% overnight. Sierra Leone exported 80% of its goods to German West Africa and Germany but was forced to blockade German territories due WW1. Although Egyptian cotton went up to £E8 from £E3, colonial administrators made sure producers only received a capped price. A massive number of Africa’s men were redeployed to Europe’s war efforts, given less leave than their white counterparts, less medical support, less pay and less pensions after the War. Women and men who protested against conscription were violently suppressed, with the financial consequence this imposed on orphans and children who lost brothers, sisters, parents, uncles or aunties. (ii)

Estimates of Africans and African Diaspora in Labour Corps

Colonial corps Number of Africans
African Americans in non-combat roles 200,000 (iv)
Belgian Colonial Carriers 260,000 (ii)
British Carrier Corps 400,000 (v)
Cameroon Carriers 10,000 (vii)
Cape Coloured Labour Corps 1,200
Egyptian Labour Corps 55,000
French Labour Colonial workers 200,000 (iv)
Northern Rhodesian Carrier Corps 14,000
Other Southern African labour workers 35,000 (v)
South African Native Labour Contingent (deployed in Europe) 25,000 (v)
West Africa inland water transport services 1,800 (vii)
West African Carrier Corps (Sierra Leone and Nigeria) 14,000 (vii)
Subtotal 1,216,000

 Estimates of Africans and African Diaspora in Combat Roles

Colonial corps Number of Africans
African-Americans (deployed to Europe) 200,000 (iv)
Belgian Force Publique 17,000 (v)
British West Indian Regiment 16,000 (vi)
French Algeria 140,000 (iv)
French Madagascans 46,000 (iv)
French troupes indigènes (already serving at outbreak of war) 90,000 (iv)
French Tunisia 47,000 (iv)
French West Africa (deployed in Europe) 190,000 (iv)
German East Africa Schutztruppe 3,000 (>1 million rounds of ammunition)
German Ruga-Ruga irregular troops 12,000
German Southwest Africa Schutztruppe 5,000
German West Africa Schutztruppe 10,000
Kings African Rifles 60,000
Moroccan Spahis (deployed in Europe) 24,300 (iv)
Rhodesian Native Regiment 17,000
Royal West African Frontier Force 65,000
Somali Camel Corps 700
Subtotal 961,000

Sub-Saharan Civilian deaths

1.5 million. (iii)

Other Non-African Colonial Regiments

1.5 million Indians and 50,000 Chinese were enlisted. 140,000 contract Chinese contract labourers were also hired by British and French governments. Gurkhas, and Maori personnel were also enlisted in the armed forces.


  • Murphy, Mahon: Carrier Corps, in: 1914-1918. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2015-06-15.
  • Donald C. Savage and J. Forbes Munro; Carrier Corps Recruitment in the British East Africa Protectorate 1914-1918; Published by: Cambridge University Press; The Journal of African History, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1966), pp. 313-342;
  • Geoffrey Hodges; Kariakor: The Carrier Corps: The Story of the Military Labour Forces in the Conquest of German East Africa, 1914-1918; Published in 1997 by Greenwood Press; Pp. 100 -200;
  • Alison Metcalfe; “A look inside the First World War”; Manuscripts Curator, National Library of Scotland; 2015.


(i)               Alison Metcalfe (2015), pp 10-11

(ii)              UNESCO (1990). General History of Africa, Vol 7, Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880-1935, pp132-142

(iii)            Paice, E. (2009) [2007]. Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa (Phoenix ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-7538-2349-1.

(iv)            British Library (Retrieved 22 November 2018). “Colonials Troops” https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops

(v)             National Army Museum (Retrieved 22 November 2018). “Colonial Troops”

(vi)            Imperial War Museum “Research the British Empire in the First World War”

(vii)           David Killingray and James Matthews “Beast of Burden: British West African Carriers in the First World War”. Canadian Journal of African Studies. Vol. 13 p5+7-23.

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WW1: Spotlight on British East Africa Carrier Corps

by Editorial Team time to read: 9 min