- Home Front
- The Cameroons
- Key figures
- Key documents
Sierra Leone was a crown colony in West Africa, bordered by Liberia to the south and French Senegal and Guinea to the north and west. The population in 1911 was 1,400,000, with 34,000 living in the capital and main port Freetown.
Sierra Leone was isolated from the direct effects of the war because it had no borders with German colonies, however Freetown rapidly became a key base for British maritime operations in the central Atlantic. Men from Sierra Leone also participated in the campaigns to capture the German colony of the Cameroons and even served as far afield as Mesopotamia.
At the outbreak of war there was some concern about the loyalty of the Muslim subjects in Sierra Leone. This concern was increased by the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers.
In response, the Muslim leaders wrote to the Governor, Sir Edward Merewether, to offer their support and prayers that ‘Allah may grant victory to England’. The Chief of the Nongowa Chiefdom also offered 100 bushels of rice and 14 bullocks for the use of the British troops, which was gratefully accepted. The issue of the loyalty of Muslim subjects was important enough that these letters were viewed at all levels of British government, including being shown to King George V (CO 267/560)
Doubts around the internal security of the colony remained. When in early 1915 the War Office proposed to send the remaining garrison to the Cameroons the Governor wrote to London to express his concerns that this left no troops to quell disturbances in Sierra Leone. This was immediately dismissed by the Colonial Office stating that ‘this is only the usual cry of ‘wolf’ which one always expects and gets from Sir E. Merewether’ (CO 267/564).
From the start of the war, the harbour at Freetown became a centre for maritime operations in the central Atlantic. On 30 July, 1914 an Examination Service was established and the port’s defences were put in place (CO 271/20) British warships regularly used Freetown to resupply, and German merchantmen captured in the region were sent there rather than going to Britain. This meant that a Prize Court was established at Freetown to judge whether the seizures were legal and to determine what to do with the ships and their cargo (CO 267/560; CO 271/20)
The most direct impact of the war on Sierra Leone came through the disruption of trade. The colony’s economy depended heavily on the export of agricultural products, particularly pine kernels, and 50% of the export trade was with Germany. By 1915, Britain and the United States had largely taken up the slack in demand for Sierra Leone’s produce, but trade was still impacted by the serious disruption of shipping. This problem was not fully overcome before the end of the war (CO 267/565).
Sierra Leonean troops from a number of different British units served in the campaign against the German colony of The Cameroons. The West African Regiment was the first unit to be deployed. The Sierra Leonean companies left Freetown in early September 1914 and took part in the capture of the port of Duala in 27 September (WO 95/5388). They were soon supported by two companies of the Sierra Leone Battalion of the West African Frontier Force, and the remaining two companies of this unit were also deployed in January 1915.
The Sierra Leone Battalion was involved in heavy fighting whilst attempting to capture a German position called Herman’s Farm. The first attack was made on 3 February 1915 and it was initially successful, only to be driven back by a sustained German counter offensive. The unit lost seven men and 47 were wounded, including Pte Monde Yeraia who was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his attempt to save his wounded officer, Lieutenant Parker (WO 95/5388; WO 372/22/114808).
The attack was renewed on 4 March without success, and the Battalion’s commanding officer Lt Col George P. Newstead was killed in the retreat (WO 372/14/211011). The Sierra Leone battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery and a company of Royal Engineers drawn from the colony also served with distinction throughout the campaign.
In 1917 large body of men was recruited in Sierra Leone to work as labourers for the Inland Water Transport Service to support operations in Mesopotamia. They were engaged as crews for river steamers, drivers of motor launches, and as labourers for dock construction and loading and unloading. Some of the men were even employed in manning the Fly Class river gun boats on the Euphrates. They did not return to Sierra Leone until January 1919 (WO 329/2330).
Sir Edward Marsh Merewether
Richard James Wilkinson
Lieutenant Colonel of Sierra Leone Battalion WAFF (1914-15)
- Sierra Leone Battalion African Field Force, Jan 1915 – Feb 1916 WO 95/5388
- Sierra Leone Dispatches, September – October 1914 CO 267/560
- Sierra Leone Dispatches, January – March 1915 CO 267/564
- Sierra Leone Dispatches, March – April 1915 CO 267/565
- Sierra Leone Gazettes, 1914 CO 271/20