Impacts of Two World Wars on the British Empire

Impacts of Two World Wars on the British Empire

As time progressed it became evident that the imperial system could not long continue to resist the pressure of nationalism in various empire zones. As India still lacked self-governing status and nationalism continued in Ireland it looked clear that not only the  British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George’s, efforts to sustain the spirit of co-operation and the practice of centralisation  were not successful but the unity of the British Empire was already set upon a course of steady decline.

The impact of the Second World War also a further push in the British Empire’s process of disintegration. Unlike the First World War, Britain’s plunge into the Second World War did not itself commit the whole of the Colonial Empire and the Dominions. Although, in 1939, the Colonial Empire and the Dominions together were larger in terms of territory and population than in 1914 they were also much more fragile and disaffected. “With the exception of India, whose central government was still controlled by London, the other members of the empire had each to make the supreme decision. Eire unhesitatingly took its stand as a neutral, Canada and South Africa waited a few days until their parliaments voted for war, while Australia and New Zealand declared that they were at war simultaneously with the mother county.”11

During the Second World War, however, the contribution of the empire was training and food supplies. From September 1939 until mid 1940 when France fell and Italy entered the War “Canada and Southern Rhodesia became the hosts to air crew training schemes far from the battlefield. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa provided reinforcements for Egypt, the major base for British power in the Mediterranean, where in 1939 there were only 50,000 British troops, compared with 200,000 Italians on either side in Libya and Ethiopia. In the early  fighting  in Europe the British expeditionary force in France and the British  force in Norway included some Empire  volunteers who had been students  in Britain at the out-break of war. One Canadian battalion went to the West Indies and others went to Newfoundland. In the Battle of Britain in August-September 1940 a few Empire volunteers flew with the Royal Air Force.”12

But from June 1940 there were two successful offensives in which the empire played a significant part. “First in Libya, the Eighth Army (which included Australian and Indian divisions and a New Zealand reserve brigade) won a series of victories which took them to Beda Fomm, almost on the borders of Tripolitania by February 7, 1941. Second, in  Ethiopia  the Empire  forces entered Italian Somaliland from Kenya in February 1941, crossed  into  Ethiopia  in March, and entered  Addis  Ababa,  the capital, on April 6, South  African, Indian and East African units fought alongside the British.”13

As for the Far East, “the Japanese air attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 effectively won the war for the British Empire. The immense military potential of the United States was now thrown into the balance against Germany, Italy and Japan. The Grand Alliance between Britain, Russia and the United States seemed assured of ultimate victory.”14

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