British Empire

Page 1 – Introduction

In 1914 the British Empire was at the height of its power and global influence. At its heart lay the United Kingdom, an industrial and financial juggernaut whose engineers and businessmen had been at the forefront of the industrial revolution for more than a century. From the adoption of railways and gas lighting to steel-hulled ships, Britain had led the way in the 19th century. While the United States and Germany were, by some measures, beginning to eclipse Britain’s industrial and commercial primacy, most Britons remained confident that the empire could meet any challenge to its leadership. They took comfort in the fact that Britain had an apparent advantage that the United States and Germany did not – a large, resource-rich and manifestly loyal overseas empire that spanned the globe.

Underpinning this empire was the world’s largest navy – the Royal Navy – and its biggest civilian merchant fleet, which connected its far-flung territories. British steamships brought raw materials produced by the dominions, colonies and overseas territories to the factories of the British Isles – ‘The Mother Country’ – and in turn delivered manufactured goods to the dominion and colonial markets. This system had worked well enough over the preceding century to make the British Empire the wealthiest of all the great powers.

But it was not just the wealth produced by its overseas empire that allowed the government of the United Kingdom to take its seat as a great power in any international forum worthy of the name. The grandeur of its geopolitical status was undeniable. From Mauritius in the Indian Ocean to British Honduras in Central America, the British Empire reached across the entire planet, with territories in all major continents and oceans. Leading the way in terms of population and wealth was India, followed by the dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland. The dominions had long histories of British settler migration and by 1914 all, apart from South Africa, had European majority populations. The British Empire offered inspiration and hope for these settlers and their descendants, most of whom thought of themselves as loyal British subjects first and New Zealanders, Australians or Canadians second. Even the indigenous populations of the lands under its control often displayed a remarkable loyalty towards the British Crown and Empire – if not always to the immediate local colonial or settler authorities ruling over them.

The only serious unrest the British faced in the summer of 1914 was in Ireland, where the issue of home rule was unresolved and tensions between its supporters and opponents remained high. But even here a serious confrontation appeared to have been avoided as the focus shifted to the rapidly developing diplomatic crisis arising from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June.  

When the government of British Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, it automatically committed the rest of the empire to war. Even so, Britain could not have anticipated the enthusiasm with which its empire would embrace the war effort from the outset, and its stoic commitment as the war dragged on. Nor could the British government have foreseen just how crucial a role some components of the empire – notably India and the dominions – would play in the British Army’s battles on the Western Front and elsewhere.