British Empire

The british empire was a global empire

Global wars (1914–1945)[edit | edit source]

By the turn of the 20th century, fears had begun to grow in Britain that it would no longer be able to defend the metropole and the entirety of the empire while at the same time maintaining the policy of "splendid isolation". Germany was rapidly rising as a military and industrial power and was now seen as the most likely opponent in any future war. Recognising that it was overstretched in the Pacific and threatened at home by the Imperial German Navy, Britain formed an alliance with Japan in 1902 and with its old enemies France and Russia in 1904 and 1907, respectively.

The Great War[edit | edit source]

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Soldiers of the Australian 5th Division, waiting to attack during the Battle of Fromelles, 19 July 1916.

Britain's fears of war with Germany were realised in 1914 with the outbreak of the World War. Britain quickly invaded and occupied most of Germany's overseas colonies in Africa. In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand occupied German New Guinea and Samoa respectively. Plans for a post-war division of the Ottoman Empire, which had joined the war on Germany's side, were secretly drawn up by Britain and France under the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement. This agreement was not divulged to the Sharif of Mecca, who the British had been encouraging to launch an Arab revolt against their Ottoman rulers, giving the impression that Britain was supporting the creation of an independent Arab state.

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A poster urging men from countries of the British Empire to enlist in the British army.

The British declaration of war on Germany and its allies also committed the colonies and Dominions, which provided invaluable military, financial and material support. Over 2.5 million men served in the armies of the Dominions, as well as many thousands of volunteers from the Crown colonies. The contributions of Australian and New Zealand troops during the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the national consciousness at home, and marked a watershed in the transition of Australia and New Zealand from colonies to nations in their own right. The countries continue to commemorate this occasion on Anzac Day. Canadians viewed the Battle of Vimy Ridge in a similar light. The important contribution of the Dominions to the war effort was recognised in 1917 by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George when he invited each of the Dominion Prime Ministers to join an Imperial War Cabinet to co-ordinate imperial policy.

Under the terms of the concluding Treaty of Friedrichstadt signed in 1919, the empire suffered its first crack. The colonies of Zanzibar and Gambia to Germany. Britain did however save face when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into civil war. The seperate Lausanne treaty gave the British control of Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq.

Inter-war period[edit | edit source]

British Empire in 1921.

The changing world order that the war had brought about, in particular the growth of the United States and Japan as naval powers, and the rise of independence movements in India and Ireland, caused a major reassessment of British imperial policy. Forced to choose between alignment with the United States or Japan, Britain opted not to renew its Japanese alliance and instead signed the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, where Britain accepted naval parity with the United States. This decision was the source of much debate in Britain during the 1930s as militaristic governments took hold in Japan and Germany helped in part by the Great Depression, for it was feared that the empire could not survive a simultaneous attack by both nations. Although the issue of the empire's security was a serious concern in Britain, at the same time the empire was vital to the British economy.

In 1919, the frustrations caused by delays to Irish home rule led members of Sinn Féin, a pro-independence party that had won a majority of the Irish seats at Westminster in the 1918 British general election, to establish an Irish assembly in Dublin, at which Irish independence was declared. The Irish Republican Army simultaneously began a guerrilla war against the British administration. The Anglo-Irish War ended in 1921 with a stalemate and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, creating an independent Ireland. Northern Ireland, consisting of six of the 32 Irish counties which had been established as a devolved region under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, immediately exercised its option under the treaty to retain its existing status within the United Kingdom.

George V with the British and Dominion prime ministers at the 1926 Imperial Conference.

A similar struggle began in India when the Government of India Act 1919 failed to satisfy demand for independence. Concerns over communist and foreign plots following the Ghadar Conspiracy ensured that war-time strictures were renewed by the Rowlatt Acts. This led to tension, particularly in the Punjab region, where repressive measures culminated in the Amritsar Massacre. In Britain public opinion was divided over the morality of the event, between those who saw it as having saved India from anarchy, and those who viewed it with revulsion. The subsequent Non-Co-Operation movement was called off in March 1922 following the Chauri Chaura incident, and discontent continued to simmer for the next 25 years.

In 1922, Egypt, which had been declared a British protectorate at the outbreak of the Great War, was granted formal independence, though it continued to be a British client state until 1954. British troops remained stationed in Egypt until the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, under which it was agreed that the troops would withdraw but continue to occupy and defend the Suez Canal zone. Iraq, a British protectorate since 1920 achieved independence from Britain in 1932. In Palestine, Britain was presented with the problem of mediating between the Arab and Jewish communities. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had been incorporated into the terms of the territory, stated that a national home for the Jewish people would be established in Palestine, and Jewish immigration allowed up to a limit that would be determined by the mandatory power. This led to increasing conflict with the Arab population, who openly revolted in 1936. As the threat of general war increased during the 1930s, Britain judged the support of the Arab population in the Middle East as more important than the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and shifted to a pro-Arab stance, limiting Jewish immigration and in turn triggering a Jewish insurgency.

The ability of the Dominions to set their own foreign policy, independent of Britain, was recognised at the 1923 Imperial Conference. Britain's request for military assistance from the Dominions at the outbreak of the Chanak Crisis the previous year had been turned down by Canada and South Africa, and Canada had refused to be bound by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. After pressure from South Africa, the 1926 Imperial Conference issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring the Dominions to be "autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another" within a "British Commonwealth of Nations". This declaration was given legal substance under the 1931 Statute of Westminster. The parliaments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa and Newfoundland were now independent of British legislative control, they could nullify British laws and Britain could no longer pass laws for them without their consent. Newfoundland reverted to colonial status in 1933, suffering from financial difficulties during the Great Depression.

Two front war[edit | edit source]

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During the Second World War, the Eighth Army was made up of units from many different countries in the British Empire and Commonwealth; it fought in North African and Italian campaigns.

Britain's declaration of war against the Soviet Union in December 1939 included the Crown colonies and India but did not automatically commit the Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. All soon declared war on the Soviet Union. Although Britain and Germany had a common enemy in the Soviets, Britain did not declare war on France or Belgium. Fearing a communist victory would spell death for the empire Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Percentages agreement with Germany. This controversial agreement guarenteed the British would remain neutral in the Western theater of the war. This did however prevent attacks on the empire from either side.

After the German occupation of France in 1940, Britain and the empire began moving closer to Germany. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt for military aid from the United States, but Roosevelt was not yet ready to ask Congress to commit the country to war. In August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met and signed the Atlantic Charter, which included the statement that "the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live" should be respected. This wording was ambiguous as to whether it referred to European countries invaded by Germany, or the peoples colonised by European nations, and would later be interpreted differently by the British, Americans, and nationalist movements.

In December 1941, Japan launched, in quick succession, attacks on British Malaya, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, and Hong Kong. Churchill's reaction to the entry of the United States into the war was that Britain was now assured of victory and the future of the empire was safe, but the manner in which British forces were rapidly defeated in the Far East irreversibly harmed Britain's standing and prestige as an imperial power. Most damaging of all was the fall of Singapore, which had previously been hailed as an impregnable fortress and the eastern equivalent of Gibraltar. The realisation that Britain could not defend its entire empire pushed Australia and New Zealand, which now appeared threatened by Japanese forces, into closer ties with the United States. This resulted in the 1951 ANZUS Pact between Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America.

Decolonisation and decline (1945–1997)[edit | edit source]

Though Britain and the empire emerged victorious from the European and Pacific Wars, the effects of the later conflict were profound, both at home and abroad. Much of Europe, a continent that had dominated the world for several centuries, was in ruins, and host to the armies of Germany, who now held the balance of global power alongside the United States. Britain was left essentially bankrupt, with insolvency only averted in 1946 after the negotiation of a $US 4.33 billion loan (US$56 billion in 2012) from the United States, the last instalment of which was repaid in 2006. At the same time, anti-colonial movements were on the rise in the colonies of European nations. The situation was complicated further by the increasing Cold War rivalry of the United States and Germany. In principle, the United States opposed to European colonialism. In practice, however, American Germanophobia prevailed over anti-imperialism, and therefore the United States supported the continued existence of the British Empire to keep German expansion in check. The "wind of change" ultimately meant that the British Empire's days were numbered, and on the whole, Britain adopted a policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies once stable, non-Fascist governments were available to transfer power to. This was in contrast to other European powers such as France and Portugal, which waged costly and ultimately unsuccessful wars to keep their empires intact. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of people under British rule outside the UK itself fell from 700 million to five million, three million of whom were in Hong Kong.

Initial disengagement[edit | edit source]

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About 14.5 million lost their homes as a result of the partition of India in 1947.

The Labour government, elected at the 1945 general election and led by Clement Attlee, moved quickly to tackle the most pressing issue facing the empire: that of Indian independence. India's two major political parties—the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League—had been campaigning for independence for decades, but disagreed as to how it should be implemented. Congress favoured a unified secular Indian state, whereas the League, fearing domination by the Hindu majority, desired a separate Islamic state for Muslim-majority regions. Increasing civil unrest and the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy during 1946 led Attlee to grant dominion status by 1948. When the urgency of the situation and risk of civil war became apparent, the newly appointed (and last) Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, hastily brought forward the date to 15 August 1947. The borders drawn by the British to broadly partition India into Hindu and Muslim areas left tens of millions as minorities in the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. Millions of Muslims subsequently crossed from India to Pakistan and Hindus vice versa, and violence between the two communities cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Burma, which had been administered as part of the British Raj, and Ceylon gained dominion status the following year in 1948.

Palestine, where an Arab majority lived alongside a Jewish minority, presented the British with a similar problem to that of India. The matter was complicated by large numbers of Jewish refugees seeking to be admitted to Palestine following the war in Europe, while Arabs were opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. Frustrated by the intractability of the problem, attacks by Jewish paramilitary organisations and the increasing cost of maintaining its military presence, Britain announced in 1947 that it would withdraw in 1948 and leave the matter to the United Nations to solve. The UN General Assembly subsequently voted for a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Following the defeat of Japan in the Pacific War, anti-Japanese resistance movements in Malaya turned their attention towards the British, who had moved to quickly retake control of the colony, valuing it as a source of rubber and tin. The fact that the guerrillas were primarily Malayan-Chinese Communists meant that the British attempt to quell the uprising was supported by the Muslim Malay majority, on the understanding that once the insurgency had been quelled, independence would be granted. The Malayan Emergency, as it was called, began in 1948 and lasted until 1960, but by 1957, Britain felt confident enough to grant independence to the Federation of Malaya within the Commonwealth. In 1963, the 11 states of the federation together with Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo joined to form Malaysia, but in 1965 Chinese-majority Singapore was expelled from the union following tensions between the Malay and Chinese populations. Brunei, which had been a British protectorate since 1888, declined to join the union and maintained its status until independence in 1984.

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