Restoring ‘the iron men’

The Askari Memorials

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Did you know?

Location:
Mombasa, Kenya

Altitude:
21m

Biggest Challenge:
Restoring detailed statues without blueprints

Language:
English / Swahili

Rainfall:
999mm

Temperature:
22c - 33c

Some of the first and last shots of the First World War were fired in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of men from across the continent were mobilised by European powers on both sides and drawn into long and bloody  conflict.

These stories are often overshadowed by tales from the Western Front.

But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s commitment in Africa is huge. It spans 43 countries. It’s also the site of some unique memorials that, when unpicked, tell the nuanced task of remembrance on this vast continent.

In 2017 the appearance of 3D scanners in the centre of Mombasa drew crowds of curious locals as the CWGC began restoration of one of these memorials.

The Mombasa African Memorial – one of four to be built and the first to be restored – was unveiled in 1927. It features four tall bronze men – each representing the unique make-up of the forces who served; a vivid reminder of the Africans who died under the banner of the British Empire.

Along with similar statues in Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam and Abuja, these are the only places in the world where you will see something so lifelike at a Commission site.

They were created out of necessity.

By the time the Commission was able to gain access to East Africa and begin the difficult work of locating the First World War dead there was little to no information available about the majority of Africans who had served, including accurate death tolls or burial locations or even their names.

Without definitive proof of where, or even how many people had died, the model being drafted in Western Europe – giving every person a name on a headstone above a known grave or a memorial to the missing – would never be possible. Instead, something else was needed.

After much soul-searching, the Commission settled on bronze statues. Each one is unique, but similar in form and evokes a real sense of those being commemorated.

So much so that a mother in Mombasa was adamant that it was her boy who stood up on the pedestal and he had been transformed into “an iron man who could neither talk to her nor see her”.

To achieve this, sculptor James Stevenson studied specially commissioned photos of servicemen from the various regions to capture their likeness. Great attention to detail was paid, right down to the clothing, weapons and equipment each would have had; be they an Intelligence Corps scout or an Arab rifleman.

Such was the care, that restoration of these statues – which had no original designs or blueprints – posed a challenge. 3D scanning and careful comparisons of original photographs allowed damage and deterioration to be put right to within a millimetre.

And today, thanks to state-of-the-art technology, these striking memorials keep telling that story of those nameless men, for the next century.

The detailed parts of these statues were replaced within millimetre precision thanks to 3D scans.
3D scanning, combined with careful studies of original photographs allowed CWGC to meticulously restore every detail.
A young boy looks up at the Dar Es Salaam African Memorial in this photo from CWGC's archive.
The intricate restoration of the Mombasa African Memorial was completed in 2018.
Panels on the side of the Dar Es Salaam African Memorial tell more of the story of those commemorated.
The Dar Es Salaam African Memorial will be the latest to be restored, thanks to 3D scanning technology.
Posed photographs were commissioned to allow sculptor James Stephenson to make each sculpture as lifelike as possible.
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