34.5 Vertiefung: The British Empire and the First World War

From now on everywhere?

From now on everywhere?

In diesem Kapitel geht es um Großbritannien und den Ersten Weltkrieg. Warum? Weil wir oft nur die eigene, nationale Sichtweise auf Geschehnisse wahrnehmen und andere Sichtweisen dabei vergessen. Das folgende Kapitel hat eine britische Historikerin geschrieben. Worauf achtet sie besonders?
Sie fragt sich, was die britischen Kolonien zum Kampf Großbritanniens beitrugen. Wie waren Kolonialsoldaten zum Kampf  zu motivieren, selbst wenn sie vor dem Krieg gegen die Kolonialmacht gewesen waren? Welche Erfahrungen machten die Kolonialsoldaten im Krieg? Wie hat die Art, in der Großbritannien vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg Kolonialkriege führte, die britische Kriegführung im Ersten Weltkrieg beeinflusst? 
Und gibt es Auswirkungen dieser Erfahrungen auf den heutigen Umgang Großbritanniens mit den Ländern des Nahen Ostens oder mit der Türkei? 

1. Mobilization of the Empire

Gallery: Mobilization of Empire

By virtue of its position as the world's foremost imperial power, Britain's declaration of war in August 1914 brought hundreds of millions of people from the colonies to a state of war with Germany and the Central Powers. In the case of Britain, this also applied to the five self-governing states of the Empire, the White Dominions. When their head of state, King George V, declared war on the advice of his cabinet, they were in the fight whether they liked it or not. This included South Africa and Ireland (part of the United Kingdom rather than a Dominion). Men from all over the Empire were called upon to do their service in the British Army.

Economically, the imperial contribution was also crucial. Some of Britain's colonies made direct grants of money while others supplied significant material goods like shrapnel, shells, meat, dairy goods and minerals. 

Table 1: Source of imports to Britain, 1910-1920

Source of imports1910-19141915-1920
Sub-Saharan Africa2147
West Indies6


Value of imports = annual average in £million
Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004, Harlow, 2004, p. 229

Task 1

  1. What happens to the value of imports coming into Britain from its colonies during the course of the war?
  2. What does this tell you about the role of the colonies in the war effort?

Description 1

The historian Santanu Das about the degree to which Britain relied on its colonies for manpower during the war

Among the various colonies of the British Empire, India contributed the largest number of men, with approximately 1.5 million recruited during the war up to December 1919. The dominions (self-governing nations within the British Commonwealth) – including Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland – contributed a further 1.3 million men. New Zealand's mobilisation of more than 100,000 men may seem relatively small compared to India's, but in proportionate terms New Zealand made one of the largest contributions to the British empire, with five per cent of its men aged 15-49 killed. Indian and New Zealand troops fought together in Gallipoli, where out of a total of 3,000 Indian combatants, some 1,624 were killed, a loss rate of more than 50 per cent.

The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee produced this First World War poster in early 1915. The poster urges men from countries of the British Empire to enlist in the British army.
Arthur Wardle
The Empire Needs Men WWI.jpg
Stand: 06.07.2016

Task 2

Why did colonial troops agree to fight as part of Britain's war effort? What might have been their motivations?
Look at the following four sources and try to establish some reasons why.

Source 1

A nurse kept an autograph book in which Private Ernest White of the South African force wrote this poem on 13 March 1915

We're the same in far South Africa
As you are in London Town
And we're proud of dear old England
For her feats have won renown.
So we came along to help you
With mingling pride and joy,
And we've tried to do our duty
With our gallant Blighty Boys.

So hands across the sea boys
Feet on British ground.
Motherhood and brotherhood
All the Empire around.
I shall soon be sailing homeward
Far across the sea,
But I could never forget the Friendship
I made in Dear Old Blighty.

Jane Samson (ed), The British Empire, Oxford, 2001, p. 229.

Source 2

Letter from Murarao Shinde (Tandurwadi, Bombay) to a serving soldier, Havildar Krishna Shinde, 5 August 1915

What we all have to say to you is this – that you should serve the Government loyally and well. God will reward you, and you will increase the reputation of our people. The Marathas are as a mountain and cannot be moved. Do not show your back to the enemy, for your religious teaching forbids this. 

Marathas: a group of castes in India found predominantly in the state of Maharashtra. The Maratha group of castes is a largely rural class of farmers, landowners, and soldiers.

David Omissi (ed), Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers' Letters, 1914-18, Macmillan, 1999, p. 88.

Source 3

A recruitment song, commissioned, composed and sung to entice men from the Punjab Province of British India to enlist during the First World War

Here you get old shoes, there you’ll get full boots, get enlisted …
Here you get torn rags, there you’ll get suits, get enlisted …
Here you get dry bread, there you’ll get biscuits, get enlisted …
Here you’ll have to struggle, there you’ll get salutes, get enlisted …

Santanu Das, Responses to the War (Indio), http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/Responses_to_the_War_%28India%29 [24.1.2017].

Source 4

Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, summarises Irish nationalist camraderie with Belgium, 27 August 1914

The spectacle of a small nation making these heroic sacrifices in defence of their independence and honour against overwhelming odds appeals in a very special way to the sentiments and the feelings of Ireland … the people of Ireland are in sympathy with Belgium…and…they are willing to do what rests with them to assist her in the maintenance of her independence.

Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, Oxford, 2012, p. 179.

Task 3

  1. What are the common themes that link these four sources?
  2. Do you find reasons in the sources why troops enlisted?

2. Case-study: Indian support for the British war effort

Gallery: Indian troops

In 1914, the population of Britain's Indian Empire, which included present day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, numbered 315 million. From that population almost 1.5 million men served in the all-volunteer Indian Army and saw service on a variety of battlefronts including France and Flanders, East Africa, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and Gallipoli (Turkey). Over 130,000 Indian soldiers served in France during the war, the majority of which saw action in the first year of the war. At the end of 1915 the majority of infantry brigades were withdrawn and sent to the Middle East. A small number of the cavalry brigades (who fought as infantry) remained in France for the duration of the war, and were later supplemented by a Labour Corps. The Indian wounded from the trenches of the Western Front were hospitalised in Britain.

Over 47,000 Indians died on active service between August 1914 and November 1918 and over 65,000 were wounded. Indians received over 13,000 decorations including 12 Victoria Crosses. India also provided £80 million in military supplies and raised £100 million for war charities. In marked contrast to the Second World War, the Indian nationalist and independence movement was comparatively dormant during the war, although violence erupted after the armistice. India suffered greatly during the influenza pandemic that swept the world at the end of the war. It is estimated that 17 million Indians died (5 per cent of the population), which represented one third of the entire world's pandemic fatalities.

Task 4

At the beginning of the war, the British authorities were concerned that desires for national independence amongst Indian troops may undermine the imperial British war effort. As a result, they kept a close eye on letters written by Indian soldiers, both from the battlefronts and from the hospitals in England. They provide vivid testimonies of how Indian soldiers and civilian personnel saw the war, Britain and its ally France.

Take a look at the following source extracts and use them to form your own insights into the experiences of Indian soldiers in the First World War.

Short documentary about indian war veteran Darwan Singh Negi


Source 5

From a wounded Indian soldier at York Place Hospital, Brighton, 10 November 1915

Government has made excellent arrangements for the sick and wounded. There is no trouble of any kind. We pass our days in joyful ease while government showers benefits upon us. We bless God continuously and pray for his bounty.

British Library, Censor of Indian Mails [IOR: L/MIL/5/ 828].

Source 6

From another Indian soldier, wounded in England, dated 2 December 1915

Alas we are not free to go about at will. In fact we Indians are treated like prisoners. On all sides there is barbed-wire and a sentry stands at each door. Leave London out of the question; we cannot even get to see New Milton properly. If I had known that such a state of affairs would exist, I would never have come. If you ask me the truth, I can say that I have never experienced such hardship in all my life. True, we are well fed, and are given plenty of clothing but the essential thing – freedom – is denied.

British Library, Censor of Indian Mails [IOR: L/MIL/5/ 828].

Source 7

A Muslim Indian soldier explains his decision to adopt some aspects of Western culture

My own eyes have been opened since I came to Europe, and I have entirely altered the views which I held before. I wring my hands with regrets that I did not set myself to acquire learning, but regrets are of no avail now. I missed my chance and I am now well in years. If I live to return, and if God gives me children, I will fashion their lives according to new ideas. Please God, I will give them a good education, whether they be sons or daughters. When I was in Hindustan and used to hear of anyone going to England for education, or even of anyone setting himself to acquire complete education in Hindustani, I used myself to say 'these people lose their religion and return as Christians'. Now that I have come here, I realize how wrong I was in my ideas. There is no question at all of religion – it is education alone which makes them wise, and teaches them to hate and abandon those habits and customs in our country which are improper, and to live according to their new ideas.

David Omissi (ed.), Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers' Letters, 1914-18, Macmillan, 1999, pp. 324-5.

Task 5

Having read and discussed these three sources and the video, imagine that it is April 1915 and that you are an Indian soldier who has been wounded while serving in France. You are recovering from your injuries in hospital in Brighton. Write a letter back to a family member in the Punjab region of India explaining how you feel about the war and why you signed up to fight on the side of the British in 1914.