We are all familiar with the story behind the outbreak of the First World War; what is less familiar is the response of the Dominions, India and other imperial colonies. The declaration of war obligated the Dominions to rally to the defence of the mother country. The Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland mobilised for war immediately and before long soldiers drafted into service were making long and arduous journeys across vast oceans bound for the western front. It must not be forgotten that a huge number of men were drafted from India and British colonies in Africa and the West Indies. Many of these men found themselves fighting a European war which had no direct impact on their homeland.
Public opinion in the Dominions fervently supported involvement in this distant war. There was a distinct attitude of solidarity with the United Kingdom; their ‘Mother Country’. The dominions were treated as ‘kith and kin’ in stark contrast to Indian and African subjects who were referred to as ‘natives. Perhaps the most famous battles fought by dominion troops are the Gallipoli campaign and the Battle for Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire is famous for being fought by troops of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps better known as ANZACs, but it must not be forgotten that soldiers from the Dominion of Newfoundland and British India battled alongside their ANZAC counterparts. Gallipoli has gone down in history as an unmitigated failure of military planning, handing the Ottoman Empire its greatest victory of the war. By the end of the campaign nearly 47,000 British and Empire troops had been killed and 106,000 injured alongside just over 27,000 French casualties.
In attempting to take the strategically vital high ground of Vimy Ridge, soldiers from Canada took casualties of over 10,000 men with 3,500 of those having been killed in action. This battle was ultimately successful with the capture of the ridge, but the scale of the losses meant the by the end of the war, though Canada was not a defeated nation, in common with other belligerents it was a disillusioned one. The failed campaign in the Dardanelles and the horrific battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge began to turn the support of the Empire. Public opinion in New Zealand increasingly touted that the country was merely being bled dry of its finest men.
Whilst many of the more famous battles were fought by Dominion soldiers, it is worth remembering that men and women were also drafted in huge numbers from India, Africa and the West Indies. At the start of the war the army in British India numbered more than 1.7 million soldiers, many of whom were stationed in Mesopotamia, Europe and the Mediterranean. During the war the independence movement in India became fully engaged in the war effort offering tactical support in the hope of securing the respect and ultimately a better home rule deal from London. The Indian Army took part in battles across the world including the Western Front, German East Africa and the German port of Tsingtao in China. In the course of the war 74,000 Indians laid down their lives and a further 67,000 were injured.
The war also spread to Africa, the result of the multitude of European colonies which had been divided among the great powers of Europe during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth century. The East Africa Campaign saw 13,000 South African and Rhodesian and 7,000 Indian and African soldiers join forces with Belgian and Portuguese contingents seeking to limit the involvement of Germanys east African colony of Tanganyika. By 1917 the German army was restricted to a small corner of the territory they once controlled.
Without the incredible response from the empire, the bravery of its soldiers and the vast material resources dedicated to the war effort the involvement of the United Kingdom in the First World War would have been very limited, The support of the empire was invaluable to Britain’s war in Europe and enabled Britain to take the war to the disparate colonies of Germany’s African empire, disrupting the ability of the enemy to utilise resources held there. The involvement of the Empire had far reaching repercussions; it was the beginning of the end for Britain’s control. The Dominions and British India had been given the opportunity to prove that they were the equal of the ‘mother country’ and thus set them on a journey to Independence.