Impacts of Two World Wars on the British Empire

Impacts of Two World Wars on the British Empire

Impacts of Two World Wars on the British Empire

“The British ULTIMATUM to Germany on the 4th August 1914 committed the whole British Empire to war on the sole authority of the government in London. With Ireland on the verge of civil war, India in a state of ferment and the Dominions maturing as individual nations, it seemed to the Germans that the British Empire had come to the brink of dissolution and that a British declaration of war would push it over.”1

Despite the past experiences, the Germans still failed to realise that Britain would make all efforts to defend itself. As we have already said, “being a small island Kingdom lying close to the continent of Europe where from time to time through modem history, great military powers had arisen that would have overwhelmed her, had they been able to transport their land forced across the narrow intervening area of the sea”2, Britain had to maintain the following general principles of policy and strategy towards continental Europe:

“i) The Strategic Unity of the British Isles.
ii) The Command of the English Channel and the North Sea.
iii) The Independence of the Low Countries.
iv) The Balance of Power.”3

Great Britain sought to prevent any part of the British Isles, including Ireland, from passing into the control of another power. Second, the United Kingdom sought to commend the narrow seas which come between her and continental Europe. This is to control the maritime trade routes, to ensure that food supplies into the country from overseas will not be interrupted, and above all to prevent invasion. Thirdly, she sought to prevent the coast of continental Europe opposite the Thames estuary, particularly the mouth of the Scheldt and Rhine, from passing into the control of hostile power. Finally, Great Britain sought to prevent any continental European power from acquiring the undisputed hegemony, which endanger the independence of the Low Countries and might result in a Continental coalition against her.

The co-operation between Britain and the empire reached its highest and closest level during the First World War. This fact was accepted by the Dominions in different degrees. Joseph Cook, the Prime Minister of Australia, said, ” ‘Australia is part of the Empire. When the Empire is at war, so is Australia.’ “4 New Zealand acted similarly, and Canada too became involved, although there were some reservations as the Liberal leader in Canada emphasised that the extent of this engagement was a matter for the Dominions alone. As for South Africa there was a more ambiguous response. “Pro-German and anti-British feeling among a section of the Afrikaner people led to a not inconsiderable rebellion. The rising was crushed by the ex-Boer War general Louis Botha (the Prime Minister) and Jan Smuts (Minister for Defence).”5 Ireland even the Irish Nationalist MPs at Westminster indicated their support, and thousands of Irishmen from the southern volunteered for active service. Not only did the extreme nationalists in India not oppose the war but more conservative elements wholeheartedly supported it. “The non-European Empire also contributed handsomely to war that was mostly far-removed from their immediate interests, British East Africa raised about 34,000 fighting troops, losing approximately 2,000. The British West African colonies raised 25,000 men and lost 850. Tens of thousands from other possessions served in non-combatant units; 82,000 Egyptian; 8,000 West Indians; 1,000 Mauritians and even 100 from Fiji.”6

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