chapter  8
13 Pages

Danger or opportunity? The Great War and its impact

Britain declared war in August 1914, not only on her own behalf but as the head of a large and diverse empire. The latter remained a collection of widely different territories without overall coherence: the self-governing dominions, the Indian Empire, the Crown colonies, protectorates and other dependencies. The various government departments whose responsibilities touched on it-the India Office, the Colonial Office, the Admiralty and the War Office —all had different views of the empire and its needs. After the second Anglo-Boer War the Balfour government had created a Committee of Imperial Defence. This, however, fell a long way short of providing a co-ordinated defence mechanism for the whole empire. Nor had any significant steps towards imperial economic integration been taken by 1914. Joseph Chamberlain’s proposals for a system based upon preferential tariffs had won support within the Conservative Party but failed to persuade the wider electorate. Indeed, the divisions wreaked by the tariff debate had contributed to the catastrophic Conservative electoral defeat of 1906, helping to exclude the professed party of empire from government for the next eight years. Nonetheless, the empire entered the war on Britain’s side with virtual unanimity. Joseph Cook, the Australian Prime Minister, echoed the sentiments of his counterparts in the other dominions when he declared that ‘when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war’.1 Only in South Africa, where not all Afrikaners had reconciled themselves to the outcome of the war of 1899-1902, did a dominion government face significant opposition to its decision to go to Britain’s aid. In terms of the numbers who served in the armed forces during the conflict, the war was a practical demonstration of imperial loyalty.2 Of the white male populations of the dominions, 13.48 per cent of Canadians served, along with 11.12 per cent of South

Africans, 13.43 per cent of Australians and 19.35 per cent of New Zealanders. The Indian Army supplied 1.5 million of its members to the war effort. In all, 2.5 million colonial subjects fought for King and Empire in 1914-18. They saw action in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. The participation of Australian and New Zealand troops in the campaign against the Turkish Empire, for example, ensured that the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, 25 April 1915, was permanently commemorated as ANZAC Day.