How the British Empire save Europe

It is an abiding British myth that after the fall of France in June 1940 Britain ‘stood alone’ against Nazi tyranny. That is untrue and unfair. Of the pilots who fought off the Luftwaffe that summer, one tenth were from occupied Europe, notably Poland, and another tenth from the Commonwealth, with New Zealand in the van. Up to 1945 the British Commonwealth and Empire provided men, women, bases, arms and other resources that played a crucial role in defeating the Axis: without them Britain would have had to give in.

As in 1914-18, Britain’s ability to resist depended on that world-wide network. In the summer of 1918, with British manpower resources greatly reduced it was the Dominions – as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland were known – that provided the ‘shock army’ that forced the Kaiser’s Germany to its knees. In the Second World War too Britain and the Allies owed an enormous debt to Britain’s overseas links. At El Alamein in 1942, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, white and black Africans were among many Empire troops vital to that victory, the ‘end of the beginning’, in Churchill’s words. Many of them went on to take part in the Italian campaign. Canadians went ashore in Sicily, and also in Normandy on D-Day on 6 June 1944, and fought through to the Nazi surrender the following year.

Europe’s debt to the British Empire is evident from military graves in Greece, Italy, France, the Low Countries and Germany that bear names from the far west of Canada, the West Indies, Africa, the Indian sub-continent, south-east Asia and Australasia. Such names from 1914-18 as Mons, Vimy, Poziéres, Flers-Courcelettte and Beaumont-Hamel in France, and Gallipoli and Kut further afield are remembered with mourning round the world. From 1939-45 such places as Crete, Dieppe, Juno Beach, Cassino, Imphal, Singapore and Kokoda evoke echoes to this day.

Apart from Britain’s own million who died in the two wars, more than half a million from the Commonwealth and Empire died under British command in both wars, mostly in France. One inscription on a British memorial on the Indian-Burmese border reads for all: ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’.

In both wars most of the Empire men and women who served were volunteers; only a few countries and territories had formal conscription. In Canada conscription was bitterly resisted by many French-speakers. In South Africa pro-German and hardened racial sentiment among some Afrikaans-speakers prevented the issue being even discussed. In the First World War the South African government had formed an armed Cape Coloured Corps of men of mixed race that fought in East Africa and Palestine, and in the Second War non-whites were confined to unarmed rear-echelon tasks.

In Australia sending conscripts to fight overseas was rejected in two referendums in 1916 and 1917. They were confined to home defence only, and again initially in the second war. But as the southward Japanese advance neared Australia in 1942 the dilemma was, what were the geographical limits of ‘home defence’? A clumsy compromise saw conscripts serving in some of the Dutch and British colonies in south-eat Asia but not in others. Among British colonies Bermuda and Malta conscripted men for home defence, while Mauritians were send to Madagascar and the Middle East.

In both wars volunteers’ motivation was as varied as their numbers. Some stepped forward from a sense of patriotism and of duty to the King-Emperor, some (notably in 1914) for adventure, some from peer pressure, others – in Africa and India in particular – joined up from family and tribal tradition or to escape poverty, to get regular food, pay and housing. Some were effectively forced into service by the imperial authorities. In Africa a white district officer would tell tribal elders that a certain number of men were wanted, and a certain number duly enlisted. In the East African campaign in 1914-18, porters were conscripted in large numbers by all the combatants to support their fighting troops: the porters ‘died like flies’ from disease and starvation, one observer recorded. Europe’s ‘civil wars’ left a bloody trail.

By whatever means they were recruited the imperial forces, whether in the ‘teeth’ arms or in providing ‘tail’ services, were vital. In the Second World War especially Canada, Australia, South Africa and India provided, besides men and increasingly women, large amounts of weaponry, including aircraft, ships and tanks. Empire foodstuffs and raw materials sustained Britain itself, and supplied Allied forces in many theatres of war.

For Europe generally, the British and the French empires were essential to Allied victory in both wars. Paradoxically those same wars also presaged the end of those empires, with decolonisation following rapidly in the two decades after 1945. Wars fought in the names of freedom and democracy led to demands that those aims should apply throughout Asia and Africa.

Those war years and the subsequent decades show how Europe and the wider world are inter-related, and that Britain cannot just cleave to one or the other. To imagine that Britain can now drift away (or worse, to savagely cut itself apart) from its own continent is folly; to welcome it demonstrates the criminal frivolity of the Brexiteers. With one of the ‘three circles’ of British interest, as Churchill saw it, the United States now facing an uncertain and risky future, the need for the other two being in close association is all the more necessary.

Roger Broad

Roger Broad’s Volunteers and Pressed Men: How Britain and its Empire raised its forces in two world wars is published by Fonthill Media –