The British protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria were united on 1 January 1914 to form a single Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Sir Frederick Lugard, who had wide experience of administration in West Africa, was made Governor-General. At the outbreak of war, Nigeria had a population of approximately 18 million.

The colony was rich in natural resources. Coal was discovered at Enugo in southern Nigeria in 1909. The industry was developed during the war, so that by 1918 Nigeria was a significant supplier. The German colony of The Cameroons lay immediately to the south east and the two colonies shared a border of over 1,000 miles.

At the beginning of the First World War, the defence force was made up of 2,000 police and the Nigeria Regiment of the West African Frontier Force. The Nigeria Regiment consisted of approximately 5,000 soldiers, organised into five infantry battalions under the command of Colonel C H P Carter.

Conquest of The Cameroons

CO 1069/65

Nigeria Regiment: Troops crossing river in Cameroon Campaign, 1914. CO 1069/65

On the outbreak of the First World War, the British and French ignored offers of neutrality by the German authorities in The Cameroons. Towards the end of August 1914, the British forces under Colonel Carter began an invasion of The Cameroons from the west, crossing the border at several points. The Nigerian Regiment was the major component of the force (WO 95/5387).

The two main targets were German bases at Garua and Mora, both in northern Cameroons, and within 60 miles of the Nigerian border.  Carter lacked information about these bases, which were in fact heavily armed and fortified. The Nigerian troops suffered heavy losses as they came under artillery fire. The German askaris forced them to retreat and were then able to conduct raids into Nigeria. In the south, the advance suffered heavy casualties at the battle of Nsanakong, just a few miles across the border. The contingent lost half of its 200 men, including most of the officers (WO 158/543).

In contrast, the British attack of September 1914 on the port of Douala was successful. The cruisers HMS Challenger and Cumberland enabled troops, including a Nigerian contingent under Major General Charles Dobell, to land. The German forces immediately retreated. However, at the end of 1914, the Germans were still strongly entrenched in the northern interior making the Cameroons campaign long and drawn out.

In September 1914 Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General) Frederick Cunliffe replaced Colonel Carter as commander of the Nigerian Regiment. He launched a further attack on the stronghold of Garua in June 1915, and captured it. The Nigerian Regiment moved further south to assist Dobell’s forces. They fought a number of battles and captured the German fort at Banyo in November 1915. The Germans found themselves in a weak position, but held out in their northern stronghold at Mora until their final surrender in February 1916 (WO 158/544, WO 158/545).

Nigerian Brigade

CO 1069/65 (1)

Nigeria Regiment in Cameroon campaign, 1914-1915. CO 1069/65 (1)

As the fighting ended in The Cameroons, the need for troops in the East Africa campaign increased. The government in Nigeria responded by calling for volunteers to form a Nigerian Brigade. The resulting force of over 4,000 troops made up a brigade of four infantry battalions and an artillery battery. The Nigerian Brigade sailed from Lagos in November 1916, around the Cape of Good Hope. They were in position near the Rufiji River in southern Tanganyika by the end of the year.

In the campaign that followed, the German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck tended to retreat and avoided large-scale confrontation. Nevertheless, the Nigeria Brigade fought skirmishes around the Rufiji River during January 1917. Fighting was suspended as the summer rains set in, and the troops suffered hunger and disease in monsoon conditions. In September 1917, the majority of the Nigerian Brigade came together at Kilwa, in the south east of German East Africa, to continue the pursuit of the German forces (WO 95/5332, WO 158/443).

Von Lettow-Vorbeck made an exception to his evasive tactics in defending the food and stores depot at Mahiwa. When the Nigerian battalions attacked Mahiwa, they met fierce resistance and found themselves isolated with limited supplies. A few days later the Brigade managed to retreat, but 149 men had been killed and 418 were wounded. By the middle of November, over a third of its men were casualties. When the Brigade returned home in January 1918, some 6,200 Nigerians had fought in the East Africa campaign (WO 95/5325, WO 95/5347).


CO 1069/71

British officers inspecting Nigerian Troops

CO 1069/71

Throughout the war, rebellions occurred in many areas of Nigeria. Some forced the British authorities to withdraw troops from the campaign in The Cameroons. In Egbaland, in southern Nigeria, riots took place in August 1914 which were linked to government demands for labour for road repair gangs (CO 583/33). Troops led by Lieutenant D E Wilson fired into a crowd at Ijemo, killing 35 of the demonstrators (CO 583/34 paper 32247).

The Ijemo massacre, as it became known, was the start of protests and rebellions that took place sporadically across many parts of Nigeria over the course of the war. In Muri province, which was near The Cameroons’ border, fighting caused alarm and instability. Fifty-nine officials and government employees were killed in an ambush (CO 583/50).

In October 1916, the widespread ‘Oke-Ogun’ rebellion took place among the Yoruba communities of southwest Nigeria. It only came to an end after battles with government troops. The rebellion followed the killing of an unpopular chief and his associates, who were seen by the rebels as Lugard’s collaborators. The British colonial authorities forcibly repressed the rebellion (CO 583/55 paper 10824).

Perhaps the most significant and largest rebellion took place in Egbaland in June 1914. This was in response to changes to the system of taxation and administration introduced under the Lieutenant Governor of Southern Nigeria, Sir Alexander George Boyle. 30,000 rebels attacked Abeokuta, the state capital, destroying infrastructure including railways and telegraph lines. In July, the rebels were defeated by government troops, who had returned from East Africa. Over 1,000 Africans were killed in the fighting (CO 583/67).

Key figures

Sir Frederick Lugard

Sir Frederick Lugard

First Governor General of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (1913-1918)

Detail of NPG x90369 , Frederick Lugard, 1st Baron Lugard, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Brigadier-General Frederick Cunliffe

Brigadier-General Frederick Cunliffe

Commander of the Nigerian Regiment (1914-1918)

Sir Alexander George Boyle

Sir Alexander George Boyle

Lieutenant Governor of Southern Provinces of Nigeria (1914-1920)

Key documents

CO 583/67

Nigeria sketch map, 1918. CO 583/67

  • War diaries, The Cameroons, 1914-1916 WO 95/5387
  • Nigerian Regiment: enemy raids on Manipula and Matum Biu WO 158/543
  • Nigerian Regiment: Garua, operational reports and telegrams with maps 1915 May 4-June 1915 WO 158/544
  • Nigerian Regiment: equipment of troops WO 158/545
  • War Diaries Lindi Force, Nigerian Brigade October 1917 – December 1918 WO 95/5325
  • War Diaries Norforce Nigerian Brigade, 1 Service Battalion Nigerian Regiment September 1916 - February 1917 WO 95/5332
  • War Diaries Nigerian Brigade: 1 Service Battalion Nigerian Regiment September 1916 - February 1917, March 1917 - August 1917 WO 95/5347
  • Nigeria Original Correspondence, 16 May 1915 - 15 June 1915 CO 583/33
  • Nigeria Original Correspondence, 1915 June 16 - July 31 CO 583/34
  • Nigeria Original Correspondence, December 1916 CO 583/50
  • Nigeria Original Correspondence, 1 January 1917 - 7 February 1917 CO 583/55
  • Nigeria Original Correspondence, 1 July 1918 - 30 September 1918 CO 583/67

Preview images