A friend of mine here has started writing his own blog, The Civilising Mission, dealing with British imperial history. And he uses charts. Lots and lots of charts. Something sorely missing from history books these days, though I can usually rely on Niall Ferguson.
In November of 1914, the once-mighty “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, entered the war to end all wars as a Central Power. Having concluded a secret alliance with Germany against her long-time rival Russia, the conditions for war were met, and on November11 Sultan Mehmed V declared jihad.
As with so many other empires, the jump into war would prove to be the downfall of Turkey as a Mediterranean power, and in fact as an empire at all. The terms of their alliance with Germany pulled the Ottomans into the war, but the real question remains: what led them to sign it? The answers can be found in two places: the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the arrival of the SMS Goeben.
On behalf of France, La Coloniale and the Armée d’Afrique performed admirably in both combat and occupation duties during World War I.
The French Africans who served in Europe came from all across the empire—Tirailleurs from Senegal, spahis from Tunisia and Algeria, and goums from Morocco, 175,000 in all. Other local regiments of Tirailleurs from equatorial French Africa were in turn deployed to the French colonial possessions in North Africa, and many others (about 160,000 in total) joined the Armée Métropolitaine in France on an ad hoc basis.
Moroccan goums, 1914.
In combat, the colonial troops proved themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt. Many succumbed to the illnesses brought on by the radical change of climate, and for the most part, the harsh European winters meant that the African units would winter in the south of France. To some, this was reason enough to doubt the effectiveness of Africans in combat, but it was always ignored that these ‘deficiencies’ had nothing to do with the fighting skill of men from the tropics.
World War I was more global in scope than is often realized.
World War I belligerents; Allies are green, Central Powers orange, and non-aligned are gray.
The colonial forces of both Britain and France were tried and tested in theaters throughout the globe, perhaps most surprisingly in India itself. Thanks to the Anglo-Japanese Pact of 1902 there was no direct threat across the frontier – as the Japanese would pose in World War II – but the fighting in the Middle Eastern theater often spilled over in the Punjab, and nationalist revolts there and in Bengal threatened to destabilize the Raj. In Mesopotamia, there were three mutinies by Muslim soldiers unwilling to fight their fellow believers, but for the most part native troops remained unwaveringly loyal. Even the horrific casualties in the various African campaigns did not dissuade colonial troops from fighting alongside their occupiers and preserving their own subjugation.
In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, whether the Indian Army was exclusively for garrison purposes (at its furthest extent, the invasion of bordering states), or if it could be deployed overseas was a matter of some concern.
The British Expeditionary Force towing artillery across Ethiopia, 1868
Trust in the native infantry regiments reached its nadir in the wake of the Sepoy Rebellion, but when the Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia began holding British nationals hostage in 1866, they were the nearest available option for the British to deploy. Thanks to the telegraph, a force of 13,000 led by Lieutenant General Robert Napier that included four Native Cavalry regiments and ten Native Infantry regiments (with only a single cavalry squadron and the artillery fully manned by Britons) arrived within two months of receiving Queen Victoria’s orders.
After a brutal three-month, 400-mile trek through mountainous jungle and desert, the expedition reached Tewodros’ stronghold. The brief battle of two hours resulted in 700 Abyssinian deaths and 1,200 more wounded. The British (including native troops) suffered twenty wounded. Not one was killed. The Indian Army had proven itself more than capable of serving outside the provinces from where it was raised.
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 can be attributed to many factors, but foremost was the British persistence in attempting to alter the traditional culture of India, particularly the ‘civilizing’ efforts of modernizers and evangelical Christian missionaries.
Sati (Suttee) in practice
The three practices of female infanticide, thagi (a supposed cult of assassin-priest highwaymen), and sati (ritual self-immolation by a widow) were the most heinous in the eyes of British. While these attempts at eradication did not even enjoy the pretense of East India Company legitimacy, it was nevertheless believed by many Indians that every Briton had come to stamp out Hinduism and Islam alike.
Part 1 of 5. Adapted from “For Love of Country? Britain, France, and the Imperial Multiethnic Army, 1815-1919.”
The British and French Empires at their greatest territorial extents (British in red, French in blue).
AT THE HEIGHT OF EMPIRE, nearly thirty percent of the peoples of the world and more than a third of its surface area were controlled by only two nations. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ruled a quarter of the earth’s population and a quarter of its landmass. As the saying went, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and indeed, for nearly two hundred years it never did.
By far the most expansive and successful empire in history, Britain consolidated and expanded its holdings through wars of conquest and a military might unmatched by any other power on the planet. Britain was not the only globe-spanning empire, though. France controlled much of Africa (to an even greater extent than Britain), as well as holdings in Indochina, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.
French and British Empires alike were kept in power by the violent repression of rebellions, mutinies, and ‘uprisings’. In large part, however, the armies participating in the repression were not composed of all-white formations. The sheer size and scope of the global empires required the imperial powers to recruit heavily from among local populations, and the manpower demands of the two world wars necessitated their deployment to the Western Front.
In many cases, the colonial troops performed even better than their European counterparts. The French Tirailleurs Sénégalaise in particular enjoyed a widespread reputation after the war as both peaceful and respected occupation forces, and as daring and highly successful soldiers. Many other French colonial troops garnered equal praise. The British ANZAC and colonial troops also earned warm words for their bravery (Erwin Rommel was quoted as saying, “If I had to take Hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it”).
It is no exaggeration to state that both French and British Empires alike were founded on the backs of the native populations. But this went beyond local labor forces and resource extraction.