Mobilising empires for war

IssueMarch 2014
Feature by Milan Rai

In terms of economic mobilisation, Dr Glenford D Howe notes that, in the West Indies alone: ‘Gifts [in kind] to the value of several thousand pounds were contributed by the colonies to the war effort; these included sugar, rum, oil, lime, cotton, rice, clothing, logwood, and nine aeroplanes. A total of 11 ambulances and adequate funds for their maintenance were donated, and approximately two million pounds sterling was given to the British government and charities.’

According to one estimate, Britain’s colonial empire contributed £23.3 million in gifts and £10.7m in interest-free loans, as well as £14 million in low-interest loans.

The allies deployed 650,000 colonial soldiers on European battlefields

This does not count colonial payments for their own armed forces deployed overseas, and other aspects of the war effort. British-controlled India is said to have contributed an astronomical £146 million to British war costs between 1914 and 1920 – as well as supplying important products such as cotton, jute, paper and wool.

An even more critical imperial resource was oil – particularly the concession in Iran (then Persia) owned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and now BP). After converting its key ships from coal in the years 1912-1914, and signing a secret 20-year supply contract with Anglo-Persian in May 1914, the British imperial navy, the largest sea-going military force in the world, was dependent on Persian oil. Thus the considerable investment by British military forces during the First World War in the Iraqi city of Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf, developing a modern port, a railway and a metal road, to help maintain British control of Persian oil.

In terms of non-European combatants, the Entente powers (Britain, France, Russia and their allies) deployed about 650,000 colonial soldiers on European battlefields.

The single biggest contribution from the European colonies to the fighting came from British-occupied India, which sent soldiers to the Western Front before the end of 1914 (they took part in the first battle of Ypres). India contributed 1.5m soldiers (all volunteers) to the war effort: 800,000 fought for Britain outside of India, in every theatre of combat. The fifth Indian division, to take one example, fought in the Sudan against the Italians and in Libya against the Germans, before being moved to Iraq to maintain British control of Persian oil – and then onto Burma and finally Japanese-occupied Malaya. More soldiers died fighting for the British empire from India (74,000) than from either Canada (64,000) or Australia (62,000).

Apart from supplying combatants, the colonies also contributed war workers – Britain imported 215,000 civilian war workers into Europe to support its war effort. Most came from British possessions, but the largest contingent came from a semi-colonial area, China (92,000 indentured labourers). France imported a slightly larger number of colonial workers (220,000), with the largest contingents coming from Algeria (75,900) and Indochina (49,000), as well as a large group of indentured labourers from China (36,700) that later became the nucleus for Paris’s Chinatown community.

Some workers were mobilised in their own territories. In Kenya in East Africa, the British Carrier Corps conscripted or recruited over 400,000 African men for porterage and other support tasks. In West Africa, over 56,000 were conscripted – officially they were all volunteers, but, as historians David Killingray and James Matthews remarked in 1979: ‘British methods of compelling Africans to serve as carriers took several forms: political and economic threatening of chiefs and headmen, intimidation and extortion of individuals and kidnappings en masse.’

In East Africa, military authorities seized wives or cattle to stop resistance to labour conscription.

Well over a million labourers were forced to serve French and British forces in Africa; death rates (including those classified as ‘missing’) may have been as high as 20 per cent.

In terms of the actual fighting, military engagements between the two power blocs took place all over the world. The entente powers (Britain and its allies) attacked and conquered fledgling German colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific – including Micronesia, Samoa and New Guinea. British colony South Africa took over German South West Africa (now Namibia) quite rapidly, by May 1915.

The conquest of German East Africa, in contrast, took the entire length of the war. The longest naval engagement of the war (and in history) was fought in a river delta of German East Africa, where it took 255 days and 27 British ships to locate and sink a single German cruiser, the Königsberg.

The naval war stretched across the Atlantic to the battle of Coronel in November 1914, off the coast of Chile, followed by the battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, where the German squadron that had won at Coronel was destroyed.

One critical battleground was the Middle East, where, as well as deploying its own colonial forces, Britain encouraged an Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire, using false promises of national self-determination after the war.