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The British empire after the War

Whereas the First World War witnessed the disappearance of no fewer than four great empires - German, Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian - Britain emerged from the conflict with greatly extended imperial possessions that stretched unbroken from the Suez Canal to Singapore and from Cairo to the Cape.

However, the high noon of the British empire in 1918 was also the beginning of the end. In the post-war world, controlling and placating the various strands of empire became an increasingly difficult task. The expectations of Britain's colonial subjects had been raised during the war, which the empire and the Dominions had helped to fund. India, for example, paid £146 million towards the war effort. Imports of raw materials from the colonies had also been crucial to the Allied victory.

The Dominions

The white-run Glossary - opens new windowDominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa contributed significantly to the British empire's war effort. On the Western Front and at Gallipoli, their soldiers fought and died in large numbers. From December 1916 onwards, Dominion ministers participated in meetings of Lloyd George's Glossary - opens new windowImperial War Cabinet.

The Dominions each insisted on separate representation at the Paris peace conference in 1919, where new territory - in the guise of Glossary - opens new windowmandates awarded by the Glossary - opens new windowLeague of Nations - was awarded to Australia (Glossary - opens new windowGerman New Guinea ), New Zealand (Glossary - opens new windowGerman Samoa ) and South Africa (Glossary - opens new windowGerman South-West Africa). The First World War thus marked an important staging post in their gradual progress towards full autonomy within the 'commonwealth' of the British empire.

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Amritsar massacre - opens new window
Amritsar massacre
Almost 1.5 million of the 2.5 million men of the British empire who fought in the First World War were Indian volunteers. In Palestine and Mesopotamia, in particular, Indian army troops contributed greatly to the eventual triumph of the Allies. But the hardships and costs of the war for the Indian population - exacerbated by the Glossary - opens new windowinfluenza pandemic of 1918-19 - provoked discontent.

British promises of greater self-government, embodied in the Glossary - opens new windowMontagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, were contradicted by the fact that ultimate power still lay in the hands of the viceroy and the India Office in London. Anti-British sentiments were hardened by the events of April 1919, when British troops under Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Dyer shot dead 379 people at a political meeting in the town of Amritsar. The Glossary - opens new windowAmritsar massacre encouraged the first of the civil disobedience campaigns organised by Glossary - opens new windowMahatma Gandhi.

The British position in India thus began to unravel slowly after the First World War. However, it would take until after the Second World War for the tortuous process to be completed.

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As most of Africa was under European control in 1914, the continent was quickly sucked into the First World War. Fearful of the political implications of pitting black troops against white, Britain refused to deploy a large African army for service in Europe, though various groups such as the 20,000-strong South African Native Labour Contingent served as non-combatants behind the lines on the Western Front. African troops were used almost exclusively in the war in Africa.

Yet the rewards for such loyal service at the end of the war were minimal. The Paris peace conference concentrated on dividing up the spoils of Germany's African empire among the victorious Allies, who showed little interest in extending the principles of self-determination to black Africans.

With the exception of white-ruled South Africa, of the British-occupied territories in post-war Africa only Egypt made much progress in this direction. However, the 'independence' that it gained in 1922 was nominal, allowing Britain to maintain control of the Suez Canal. Elsewhere - in Glossary - opens new windowKenya, for example - white settlers continued to enjoy political and land privileges that were denied to the black population. This situation did not change greatly until after the Second World War.

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The Caribbean

Soldiers from the Caribbean saw service in several of the main theatres of war. The long-standing Glossary - opens new windowWest India Regiment fought in Cameroon and East Africa, while the newly formed Glossary - opens new windowBritish West Indies Regiment (BWIR) saw service in France and the Middle East.

In December 1918 soldiers of the BWIR stationed at Taranto in Italy mutinied in protest at being forced to carry out manual labour and at racial discrimination in pay and promotions. The Caribbean League, a nationalist body that was to campaign for independence from Britain, was formed in the aftermath of the mutiny. Nevertheless, as in Africa, this goal was not achieved until after the Second World War.

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The Middle East

In the post-war Middle East, with Russia and Turkey now largely removed from the equation, a new British empire seemed to be taking shape. Britain acquired as mandates two valuable territories: oil-rich Iraq (formerly the Ottoman district of Mesopotamia) and Palestine. It also established a protectorate in Glossary - opens new windowPersia (Iran) and occupied Afghanistan.

However, British dominance in the region was short-lived. British forces quickly withdrew from Persia and Afghanistan. Revolts took place in Iraq, where RAF air squadrons were eventually deployed to quell the unrest in 1922, and in Palestine, where great tensions existed between the Arab and Jewish populations.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, the legacy of the First World War was mixed. The prestige of an expanded imperial portfolio could not mask its costs and dangers.

RAF in Iraq - opens new window
RAF in Iraq(219k)

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by the The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at the The National Archives.

AIR 20/549-551: Iraq group RAF war diaries, Oct-Dec 1921.
CAB 21/140: British empire delegation at the Paris peace conference: representation of the Dominions and India.
CAB 24/156-157: War Cabinet: British empire reports, 1919-22.
WO 32/5310: Conference of British government ministers to discuss independence for Egypt, 1920-21.
WO 106/55: Various material on military operations and the political situation in Persia, 1918-19.
WO 106/58: General Monro's report on the Third Afghan War, Nov 1919.


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