1914-1918 - THE EMPIRE AT WAR
On August 14, 1914, Britain went to the help of Belgium and declared war on Germany. The decision was a remarkable act of faith in the Empire brotherhood, for Britain, had not consulted her dominions and without their manpower, surplus food and economic strength, she would have been threatened by defeat. The Royal Navy apart, her armed forces were only a fraction of the size of Germany’s and the military power of the other allies was uncertain. But the imperial response outshone all hopes, with an outpouring of blood and treasure which saved Britain in the opening months and sustained her right through the most terrible war then known to history.
In Britain it was Bank Holiday Monday, a warm sultry August afternoon.s straw-hatted men punted on the Thames while their girls lazed under parasols. Drivers in goggles hurled their roaring cars round the track of Brooklands. Bathing-machines trundled on the crowded beaches. Gin was 6d. A double, and cigarettes 5½ d. For 20. It was August 3, 1914.
In those days Britain was the greatest power the world had ever known; greater than the Romans, greater than the Mongols. Her empire covered a quarter of the earths land surface, and her influence reached to every part of the globe, from Pole to Pole, from Vancouver to New Zealand and into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. It was a world of British self-confidence and superiority. Little did they know that the impending War heralded the end of their Empire and their world.
The Cabinet met in London at 11 a.m. That August Monday and two ministers resigned in protest at Britain’s preparations for War. During the afternoon, the house of Commons met in special session, and listened to a long rambling speech by Sir Edward Grey, who had been Foreign Secretary since 1905. At 5.03 p.m. The Aldershot Command received a one word telegram:”Mobilise.”
Next day, August 4, was another fine warm day over most of Europe. The French Army, following a a master defence plan, perfected over many years, moved across France towards the German frontier. The French plan was acknowledged to be foolproof, and the main worry at the War Office in London was whether there would be time for the British Expeditionary Force to get to France before the fighting was over. Crowds waving British and Empire flags gathered at Westminster. In Whitehall, a young man approached a policeman, explaining that he was a deserter from the Royal Marines “I could not stand by ,” he said “I want to do my share if there is a war”.
At 2 p.m. A Belgian lieutenant named Picard, peering through his field glasses on his countries frontier with Germany, saw enemy cavalry crossing the border. Britain had a treaty with Belgium dating from 1839, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality and accordingly the British Government demanded the German advance should end by midnight, or it would mean war. No word of German withdrawal came. In fact a great mass of German Uhlans was already sweeping across the fields of Belgium on a journey which was to change the face of Europe for ever.
As German power in Europe had increased, the possibility of war had been simmering for years. Britain was in alliance with France and Russia: Germany with Austria-Hungary. After the assassination of the Austrian Arch-Duke Ferdinand at Sarajevo, the Austrians had gone to war with Serbia in July 1914. Russia was a ally of Serbia and thus Germany, through its alliance with Austria prepared for war with Russia. When Germany invaded Belgium, it brought Britain inevitably into the war, for it had long been British policy to keep the Lowlands free of great powers.
The British Empire was something of a mystery to many Europeans, who were inquisitive into just how strong the oft mentioned “family ties” really were between the self-governing Dominions and the mother country. Although Britain’s declaration of war was legally binding on all her dependencies, there was no reason whatever why countries such as Canada and Australia should actively participate in a quarrel between the Kaiser and the Tsar. Many thought that the far-flung colonials would show little loyalty.
The answer to this uncertainty was given with a speed and force which astonished all Europe, and which is the most remarkable demonstration in its history of the loyalty that did exist in the Empire. In Australia, the labour Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, declared “Our duty is quite clear; to gird up our loins and remember we are Britons,” He promised to fight “to our last man and our last shilling.” The Australian Minister of Defence said, Australia wants the rest of the Empire to know that in this momentous struggle for liberty and national honour, the vigour of her manhood, the bounty of her soil resources, her economic organisation, all she possess to the last ear of corn and drop of blood, is freely offered to maintain the glory and greatness of the Empire.
New Zealand, like Australia, was Socialist: she was considered to be the most socialist state in the world at the time. Richard Seddon, who had been Prime Minister for 13 years, was considered positively revolutionary in some quarters, yet he proved himself a staunch imperialist. New Zealand immediately announces the formation of an expeditionary force to Europe, charging itself with the whole cost, including transport. The first troops, nearly 8,000 strong, left New Zealand only 10 days. after the outbreak of war.
Australia and New Zealand had some personal interest, because of the presence of German colonies in the Pacific,at which both Dominions looked askance. Such considerations did not exist in Canada. But the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden had already cabled London, three days before the outbreak of war, promising support, and inviting suggestions as to how Canada could best help. A division of 22,000 men was offered and accepted
The other “white Dominion” was South Africa. The scars of the Boer War were still unhealed. Could the old enemy be expected to join forces with Britain only a decade and a half after one of the most bitter wars in modern history? The prime minister was an old general, of the Boer War, Louis Botha. But he and his right-hand-man Jan Christian Smuts, had become firm believers in the Empire, mainly out of pragmatism. In the eyes of many Afrikaner diehard nationalists, they had become “more British than the British.” Botha declared South African support for Britain, and promised to take the neighbouring German colony of South-West Africa, and to assist in the taking of German East Africa(now Tanzania). But he did not have all his countrymen with him, and there was even talk of rebellion.
German East Africa was by far the richest German colony overseas, and its conquest seemed the obvious responsibility of the Indian Army, stationed across the Indian Ocean. India was the Jewel of the Empire, and the Indian Army with its magnificent uniforms, its spectacle and display, was considered to be one of the most powerful weapon of the Empire. It had not been engaged in serious campaigning for generations. The response from India was encouraging. Politicians suspended their controversies. Princes made lavish offers of help. Thousands of Indians, swarmed to the colours.
The British Expeditionary Force of some 100,000 regular soldiers, under Sir John French, reached the front at Mons, in time to delay the German advance there, and at Le Cateau. But the British were obliged to fall back before the fury of the German onslaught, which was only halted at the Battle of the Marne, in September. The Germans retired and by the end of the year the Western Front had settled down, in a line of wire and trenches, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier; a line that was to remain substantially unaltered for nearly four years, although occasionally dented by great offensives. The Western Front, on which, most of a generation of British, French and German men died, was to haunt Europe for half a century.
Overseas, the German Empire was beginning to fall. Scattered between West, South-West, and East Africa, the Pacific and the China coast, it depended for its security on command of the seas. With this in mind, Germany had developed a powerful Navy, but Britain was also well prepared in this respect. The colony of Togoland, cut off from home on the west coast of Africa, soon fell to a small force from the Gold Coast. The nearby Cameroons fell in 1916 to a force which included Indian and West Indian troops.
The Pacific was primarily the responsibility of Australia and New Zealand. Germany held the Bismark Archipelago, German New Guinea, the Caroline, North Solomon, Marshall and some smaller islands, and Samoa, a total of nearly 100,000 square miles.
The invasion of Samoa, aided by the Royal Australian Navy, was undertaken by a New Zealand expeditionary force of 1,400 men. The expedition appeared unexpectedly and the island yielded without bloodshed. Ten Fijians were with the force, and it was one of them who hauled down the German flag.
The remaining German possessions in the Pacific and the Far East were taken by Australia, and by Japan, which had entered the war as an Ally of Britain. The large colony of New Guinea unexpectedly gave in without a shot. The Australians and New Zealanders had been of great assistance to Britain, destroying the outposts of the German Empire in the East, and thus freeing the Royal Navy for duties in the Atlantic and the North Sea.
Turkey, as an old foe of Russia, had joined the war against the Allies. The British felt that Russia, which had taken a fearful battering in the war so far, needed some support, and a naval demonstration against the Dardanelles, the straights connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, was suggested. A fleet passing up the Dardanelles would have Constantinople at its mercy. This project was enthusiastically championed in Whitehall by Winston Churchill.
The project was badly prepared. Planning had been based on poor and inaccurate maps, and on bad intelligence about the Gallipoli peninsula where the landings were to be made, and on the Turkish Army. The naval bombardment gave the Turks adequate warning; at some places the Turkish infantry merely quitted their trenches while the bombardment lasted then returned. The enemy commander was General Liman von Sanders, a German seconded to the Turks; he wrote later “From 5.00 a.m. Onwards on April 25 reports of great landings of enemy troops already begun or about to begin followed rapidly one on another. In the south, beginning on the Asiatic side, the 11th Division reported great concentration of enemy warships and transports. The roar of continuous open fire was soon plainly heard and reporting officers were filled with apprehension.”
From all over the Empire, from thriving young towns, lowering forests and sun-baked plains they came - Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians, Indians and South Africans - to fight a country which was only a remote threat to their own security. Unhesitatingly, they adopted Britain’s cause as their own, struggling out of flooded trenches and dying in shell-blasted battlefields to hold the thinly stretched lines of the Western Front
TROOPS OF GREATER BRITAIN
In August 1914, Germany launched seven mighty armies in the opening onslaught of four years of total war on the Western Front. Called the Battle of the Frontiers, it was waged along the Belgian, Luxembourg and German frontiers with France, from the Channel to Switzerland.
Neither Britain nor her colonies were ready. She herself had only just mobilised. Except for India, the Empire countries had had no big regular armies - only small defence forces 2,000 or 3,000 strong. To play their part in the war to which Britain had committed them, the Dominions had first to enlist raw civilian volunteers, supply their units with uniforms and equipment and transport their troops over to Europe. Throughout the Empire, poster and notices in support of the war effort (see example above) were placarded on street corners and splashed across newspaper columns.
In the first call to arms in their histories, the infant democracies of the Empire mobilised faster than autocratic Germany had done . Within two months of the outbreak of war, Canada had armed 30,000 men and embarked them for Britain in a flotilla of 32 ships. Australia at once pledged the aid of her small regular navy and an initial 20,000 troops. To these, New Zealand, with a population of just over 1 million, added a contingent of 8,000 men, later building up to a total of 46,000. These forces were the nucleus of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, popularly known as the Anzacs.
The distinction of being the first Imperial troops to fight on the Western Front went to the Indians. A well-trained British-Officered Indian Corps, arrived on the Ypres battlefield in Belgium just in time to reinforce the British at Messines, where two German armies, driving for the Channel, were on the point of breaking through. On October 31, the Indians threw back the enemy infantry and saved the Allied front. Their success was an auspicious start to an Empire War effort that led many to believe in the notion of a Greater Britain, a world-wide British family in which mother country and colonies were harmoniously united.
Among the battles fought by Indians on the Western Front was a cavalry action at the town of Cambrai in northern France. Barbed-wire entanglements on the front usually denied cavalry much chance of action, but here special circumstances gave the Indian Cavalry a fine opportunity to show its battle skill.
On November 20, 1917, British tanks cut great lanes in enemy wire, infantry broke through across a front four miles wide and, in the wide open spaces so created, the Indian cavalry made a dash for Cambrai - a dramatic though brief advance: the Germans blew up a canal bridge, stalled the attack and forced the British and Indian troops to fall back. Ten days later, when the British line had been broken by a German counter-attack, the Indian Ambala Brigade - including Hodson’s Horse, a unit formed in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny - scattered the Germans in a sharp engagement and subsequently, fighting on foot, took 300 prisoners in a action with the 1st Guards’ Brigade. For this valuable support, they were presented with a Guards’ bugle by the grateful British.
Passchendaele, a village lying on a ridge in western Belgium, near Ypres, has a particular place in Canadian memories. During October and November 1917, 16,000 Canadian troops were killed in the battle to take it and the two surrounding square miles of flooded shell-craters.
For three years, German guns had pounded the Allied trenches there, but on October 9, 1917, a major Anzac-British-French attack began. After a week four Canadian divisions were brought in to relieve the Anzacs, who had suffered serious casualties. Under heavy fire, these 20,000 men inched their way from shell-crater to shell-crater, and on October 30, with two British divisions, they began the assault on Passchendaele itself. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rain storm and for five days they held on grimly, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. By November 6, when reinforcements arrived, four-fifths of them were dead. Passchendaele had become a Canadian Calvary.
In the last two years of the war, Australians took part in some of the heaviest fighting on the western Front, as the Allies inched the Germans back across France and Belgium at extravagant cost in human life.
Their worst experiences came on the Somme sector of the front in 1916. Unending rain flooded the battlefield, trenched oozed yellow waist-high mud and the front line was cut off from the rear by swamps and lagoons. On November 5, the Australians together with the British and their fellow New Zealanders, in 1st. Anzac Corps, attacked the town of Bapaume 76 miles north east of Paris. It was the appalling weather as much as enemy action which cost them heavy casualties. Supply lorries foundered so that the guns had no shells. As the troops slithered and fell through a sea of mud, many found their rifles and machine-guns clogged and became easy prey to enemy fire. Others drowned in flooded shell-craters. The attack came to a halt, and after the costly failure of a further attack a week later, the Australian survivors were left to endure a long bitter winter in the shattered battlefield.
The New Zealanders, including native Maoris whose submission to white civilisation had begun barely 10 years before, made a forceful impact on the Western Front. On their first day of fighting - September 15, 1916 - they took part in the world’s first tank action. Joining an attack made by the British 4th Army in the Somme battle area, they advanced with the great steel monster lumbering beside them. When they were held up by wire and machine-gun fire a the second line of enemy trenches, two tanks broke through and knocked-out the guns. The New Zealanders went in with bayonets and seized the objective, laughing as the Germans fell back in consternation before the rumbling armour.
South African troops fought on the Western Front from the early part of the war, but they made their most significant contribution in the last year, during the German spring offensive of 1918. On March 21 the Germans launched a mass attack with 47 divisions and 7,000 guns on a critical part of the British line at Marrieres Wood. The British defences were smashed and part of the 5th Army fell back: but its South African Brigade held on grimly until the ammunition ran out, and all but 100 men out of 3,000 were killed or wounded. It was a sacrifice that blunted the enemy advance and saved the tottering British front.
South African soldiers arrive from Cape Town
No less than 8,000 Canadians served either in the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service, twin British air arms which became the R.A.F. The best known of them was Major “Billy” Bishop” who became the R.F.C.’S top fighter pilot. Bishop began the war in a Canadian Cavalry Regiment but, as he related in his autobiography, Winged Warfare, one day, aged 20 and knee-deep in mud outside the stables in a camp in England, he saw a trim little aeroplane land hesitatingly in a nearby field “as if scorning to brush its wings against such a sordid landscape, then away again up into the clean grey mists.” From that moment Bishop resolved to fight the war in the air, not in the mud.
Bishop began his flying career as an air observer. By March 1917, when he qualified as a fighter pilot, aircraft were numerous and efficient enough on both sides to affect the battle in the field, by “spotting” for the gunners, bombing and reconnoitring behind the lines. Bishop was outstanding at all these, and at aerial dogfights. R.F.C. communiqués credited him with 70 enemy aircraft destroyed during his 20 months of fighting.
Modest and humorous about his achievements, Bishop used to say that his best recollection of the war was how badly his boots squeaked when he was walking across the long hall at Buckingham Palace to receive his medals - V.C., D.S.O. M.C. - from King George V.
It had been the most terrible war in human history.Over 8,500,000 had lost their lives, more than half of them from the Allied Powers. The British Empire had lost 908,371 dead, the flower of a generation. The war had been won by the overwhelming manpower and economic strength especially after America’s entry.
The fine phrases of the Empire premiers, in 1914 seemed a long way off, and although common experiences in the struggle had strengthened bonds of loyalty on a personal level, the end of the war heralded a new age for the Empire. For now,the dominions were battle-scarred veterans wearing the honours of a major war. After their sacrifices, they at least believed themselves to be the equals of Britain. The Empire appeared to be more powerful than ever before, but its senior members would never again be subordinate to Westminster
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