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Going Over The Top: The Death of Empires, Part 5 - The Mysterious End of the British Empire

By David Flin


“Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli, Canadians at Vimy Ridge, and that was about it for the Empire’s involvement.” It’s a common enough assessment, with a more academic expression being that WWI exposed the fault lines in the British Empire, as the component parts of the Empire were unable to provide much support to Britain and that, in the end, their contribution to the defence of the whole was disproportionately small, and Britain’s contribution was disproportionately high.

Stop laughing. It’s a view that I’ve seen expressed. Oh, all right, laugh. It’s what that view deserves.

It’s perhaps interesting to note that in both France and Britain, the component parts of their respective Empires “did their bit.” About 1 million Africans from the French Empire fought on the Western Front and elsewhere; from Algeria and Senegal and Somalia and Morocco and elsewhere. Units weren’t kept separate from metropolitan French units, but were amalgamated; a regiment of troupes colonials, consisting of metropolitan French, included one or more battalions from West Africa; North African troops were amalgamated into régiments mixtes, with European settlers from North Africa.

There is a whole area of study into the experience of colonial troops in the French Army in WWI. All I intend to cover of it here are the numbers. Around 1 million colonial troops served, and around 100,000 died.

In this article, I’ll be looking at the experience of the British Empire forces. The number tell a simple story. Over 3 million Empire and Commonwealth soldiers served during the war. They served in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Far East, at sea, and – inevitably – on the Western Front.

Caribbean

The British West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert - Amiens Road, September 1916

Jamaica, for example, had a population of around 750,000. From this, it sent around 15,000 troops to the Western Front, along with support personnel. Were it not for those, you wouldn’t be reading this article. One of my grandmothers was a nurse from Jamaica who stayed in London after the war, and married the man who became one of my grandfathers.

Although a few men from the Caribbean served in regular British Army units, most served in the West India Regiment and the British West Indies Regiment (raised in October 1915). They served in France, Italy, Africa, and the Middle East. Twelve battalions of the British West Indies Regiment were raised.

Africa African troops were heavily involved. Unsurprisingly, most of them saw action in Africa, in particular in East Africa and West Africa. Around 200,000 African troops, excluding those from South Africa, served. The units involved were the West African Frontier Force, drawn from Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sierra Leone; and the King’s African Rifles, recruited from Kenya, Uganda, and Nyasaland (Malawi).

In addition to these, around 180,000 Africans served in the Carrier Corps, providing logistical support. The majority of these served in the East Africa campaign, but around 10,000 served on the Western Front, many as stretcher bearers and drivers. Around 5000 learned to drive trucks and ambulances.

South Africa Over 60,000 labourers came from South Africa. Black South Africans were restricted to a logistical role because the South African Government feared arming them, although the British Government had requested it. In addition, another 25,000 black South Africans were recruited to the South African Native Labour Contingent that served on the Western Front. Those trenches don’t dig themselves.

In 1915, an expeditionary force of 67,000 white South Africans invaded German South West Africa (Namibia), and later fought in East Africa.

White South African units were also sent to the Western Front. The South African Overseas Expeditionary Force (SAOEF) was made up of volunteers, and consisted of a brigade of infantry of four regiments, one from each of the four provinces. It also supplied a brigade of heavy artillery, one of field artillery, along with 12 battalions of dismounted cavalry (and I’m afraid I can’t explain what the difference between infantry and cavalry without mounts is), along with engineers, signallers, medics, vets, and transport units.

The SAOEF had served in North Africa in 1915 before being transferred to the Western Front.

Canada

Canadian soldiers on a Mark IV tank, 1918

Around 620,000 Canadians enlisted, with most of them fighting on the Western Front. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was almost entirely volunteers. Conscription was introduced in August 1917, but was not enforced until January 1918, when call-ups began. Just over 24,000 conscripts ended up going to France.

This was despite the many rumours that circulated of potential German attacks on Canada through the neutral USA. Most of the rumours were false, but one German plan was considered, and the first steps undertaken before sanity prevailed. What follows is a genuine plan. Seriously. The plan was for 100,000 German military reservists living in the USA to join forces with 250,000 German Americans and 300,000 Irish Americans to form an army 650,000 strong. They would acquire personal weapons. To maintain secrecy, the army of 650,000 would dress as cowboys. The German foreign office ruled that a cowboy costume would not be considered a military uniform under international law. It was at this point that sanity prevailed, and the operation was called off. Obviously, it wasn’t called off because of any suggestion that the plan might be impractical, but because the German Government did not wish to damage relations with the USA by violating American neutrality.

Newfoundland At the time, Newfoundland had not yet joined the Canadian federation, and was a separate entity. A total of 8707 men enlisted in the dominion’s services, and another 3296 joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. These 11,988 men represented nearly 10% of the dominion’s total male population, or 35.6% of all men of military age.

New Zealand The total population of New Zealand in 1914 was just over one million. Of this, over 120,000 New Zealanders enlisted, with around 100,000 serving overseas. This includes over 2200 Maori and around 460 Pacific Islanders who volunteered for the New Zealand forces.

It’s not really necessary to add anything. The numbers speak for themselves.

Australia

Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery viewed from the top of the tower in September 2009. Photograph Andy Cooke.

Australia was one of the few countries in the war that never introduced conscription, and every serviceman volunteered. The population of Australia was just under five million. From this, over 410,000 Australians served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the war.

Again, comment is superfluous. The numbers say all that needs to be said.

Fault lines There seems to be a section of opinion that holds that the dominions and crown colonies of the British Empire were only peripherally involved in the First World War, and that this led to fault lines developing within the Empire, and initiated moves towards independence.

If I’m honest, that’s a view that seems to be more what people would like to have thought happened rather than bearing any great connection with what happened. The reasoning seems to be that:

  1. The British Empire was a Bad Thing.

  2. The countries within the British Empire should have opposed the British Empire.

  3. Therefore, the countries within the British Empire didn’t support the war.

  4. This led to the Empire fracturing and ending.

In fact, this reasoning is pretty much 180° out of kilter. The constituent elements of the Empire dug deep; nearly everywhere sent roughly 10% of their population to the war, some a bit more, some a bit less. It was the very fact of contributing, and then business-as-usual seeming to be restored after the event that gave impetus to movements pressing for self-determination to various degrees.

I feel quite strongly about the tendency among some to come up with an explanation of historical events based on a particular viewpoint, and ignoring evidence from the event in question if it doesn’t fit the narrative. The evidence is there, and to try and pretend that it isn’t is just plain wrong.

The astute reader will have noticed that there is one big absence in the regions I have discussed: India. That’s because the Indian contribution to WWI is the subject of an article by itself, which I will be covering in my next article.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow