Imperial call mobilised the dominions for global battle

The British Empire and the Second World War
June 30, 2006

Conventional wisdom has it that the Second World War, despite the name, was really all about Europe. The peace settlement at Versailles that ended the 20th century's first great European civil war had in fact settled nothing; and the subsequent rise of the Italian and German dictatorships destroyed European harmony. The ruthlessness with which they embarked on expansion required correction - peaceful if possible, but by force if need be. Progressively during the 1930s Europe stumbled towards war, and at the end of the decade Germany's imperialism in Europe and Italy's drive for dominance in the Mediterranean led to armed conflict with France and Britain. But within a few months France was defeated. The US, which had with some reluctance come to the rescue of Europe in the earlier struggle, remained neutral; the Soviet Union had temporarily formed a pact with Germany. Britain stood alone against the enemy. It was a dark hour indeed.

In this huge book, The British Empire and the Second World War , Ashley Jackson unsettles the accepted view. Jackson argues that so far as the British were concerned, the whole conflict fought between 1939 and 1945 was "a war fought in imperial theatres by imperial forces, all of which were dependent upon sea power and Britain's capacity to move food, goods, munitions and troops from one side of the world to another". In July 1940, the cartoonist Fougasse drew two soldiers looking out to sea. "So our poor Empire is alone in the world," remarks the first soldier. "Aye, we are", replies the second, "the whole 500 million of us." From the beginning, therefore, this was indeed a "world war", with Britain not only drawing on the manpower and resources of her empire but exposing that worldwide entity to attack.

Jackson sets out in compelling detail the British Empire's involvement in the war and what a remarkable achievement it was to mobilise support for the war effort from such a diversity of peoples and places, held together but loosely within the constitutional framework of the Empire-Commonwealth.

It might have been expected that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, even South Africa - the more-or-less independent dominions - would have contributed troops and supplies to "the mother country" in her time of need. But the Indian Army grew in strength from about 200,000 at the outbreak of the war to more than 2.5 million at its end; the African colonies contributed more than half a million men to the war effort. Volunteer forces were raised in Jordan, Fiji, Ceylon and innumerable other places; the inhabitants of Tonga put themselves out to be part of the great imperial war effort. Many a dominion, colony and dependency were changed as they responded to the demands of war. Across Asia and the Middle East, through north, west and east Africa, into Australasia, New Zealand and the islands of the Pacific, the effects of war were felt: this, Jackson stresses, was a truly global operation extending far beyond the European theatre, and it represented an enormous managerial triumph on the part of the British in bringing it off.

As he puts it: "Hundreds of years of British imperial history and tradition, and the networks, infrastructure, contacts and institutions that it had forged, were called to life by a decision taken at the imperial centre in London. This sent a current running throughout the overseas power centres of Empire from Cairo to Colombo to Canberra, and they sprang into life alongside Britain and mobilised their respective regions for war. It was a breathtaking spectacle, and remains so to this day."

Besides showing just how important the Empire was to Britain's role in the war, Jackson seeks a further correction to existing historiography. Again, it is usual to accept that Britain ended the war bankrupt; that the effort of fighting in Europe, and of defending an imperial system on which the sun never set, was too much to bear. Economic and political considerations at home, coupled with the changing configuration of international arrangements abroad, set the pattern for the dismantling of the imperial system that had achieved so much during the six years of conflict. An anti-imperial rhetoric took hold - not least among the most important of the Allies.

Consequently, India would be independent within a couple of years, and then during the 1950s and 1960s Britain's moment in the Middle East would have passed and her other colonies would take their independent places in the General Assembly of the UN. Britain would be shown for what she was: no longer an empire but merely a European power, which in Dean Acheson's unkind characterisation had lost an empire and had yet to find a role.

Jackson warns against an easy acceptance of the view that the Second World War precipitated decolonisation. After all, it was in 1945, and not before, that the Empire-Commonwealth reached its greatest territorial extent. And the rise of empire, so visible during the war, seemed set fair to continue as the British re-entered their lost colonies in the East, in the words of Jack Gallagher, "like a bridegroom coming into his chamber", while the Attlee Government sought to develop Africa even as it reached a new accommodation with India.

The great merit of this well-researched book is that it provides page after page of documented detail supporting the main proposition. Jackson handles the subject, on the whole geographically, each chapter taking a particular slice of territory, locating it within the imperial system, then describing that region's contribution to the war effort and in some cases elaborating the implications for the future of the mobilisation of its resources. The book will appeal massively to readers who enjoy the simple possession of facts; and any study that encourages scepticism of too Eurocentric a view of history, especially of British history, is greatly to be welcomed. But, with all this wealth of information, the reader is entitled to a little more guidance - some hint of what the plot might be, of why all this fact matters and is of interest and importance.

In the Ford Lectures delivered at Oxford University in 1974, published in 1982 as The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire , Gallagher, last century's most perceptive historian of imperialism, set out some broad arguments about the British and their wider role in the world. In his account, British expansion was propelled by a dynamism that combined economic growth with a capacity to deploy power in pursuit of international dominance. The imperial system thus constructed was pragmatic in form: from rule to "mere influence". Britain was adept at deploying trade, finance, politics and culture to establish connections and networks that strengthened its global position. While never reluctant to use force when circumstances warranted it, the British system depended crucially on co-operation and being able to pay for itself. The Empire-Commonwealth was no monolithic, centralised, economic and political entity, and it changed over time.

Come the 20th century, some of the certainties that had hitherto underpinned it began to dissolve. Economic connections between some of the parts weakened; imperatives of British domestic politics and those of the colonies required readjustment of relationships; changing balances of power across the world - not just within Europe - altered some of the calculations. Nothing is easy to track because the effect of one change here could have unforeseen consequences elsewhere. It was hard to comprehend and manage the complexity. British politicians had to be realistic about the resources at their disposal and the pressures they came under to deploy them. In fact, they presided over a fragile imperial system, and their policy options were limited. They were constrained by economics, by the demands of the British electorate, by the need to make concessions in the colonies and by shifts in international relations.

Throughout the 1920s this meant a retreat from formal rule: a loosening of bonds and a resort to influence to maintain Britain's interests.

By the 1930s, British analysts were fearful of the future. The British were always wary of the US. In East Asia, Japan's expansion unsettled the position of formal colonies and of Britain's hitherto extensive spheres of influence. A revitalised Italy threatened Britain's positions in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East - and, of course, the routes to Asia. Germany's rise on the Continent pointed to another deadly European war. For this, Britain was not prepared, and did not have the resources to remodel her military to make it fit for 20th-century warfare on the Continent.

The politics of appeasement were, therefore about keeping the more pressing European problems at bay by diplomacy, while effort was made to reinvigorate the imperial connections. From 1937, the British government determined that its priorities were to protect the country from attack; to safeguard the imperial connections; to defend imperial possessions; and, finally, to support any allies in war, but only after all other objectives had been met. In other words, the world was to be brought in to rebalance Europe. Thus began investment by Britain in the modernisation of the Indian Army and the call on the dominions and colonies to mobilise their resources for the coming conflict. The success in doing this was remarkable, but it encouraged the trend to make this conflict a global one. This raised the stakes and not only exposed Britain's imperial possessions to attack but drove forward social and economic changes within them. In the longer term, it ushered in a much more radical re-arrangement of global affairs than any could have foreseen, even as they celebrated victory in 1945. What had been a declining empire had experienced the most remarkable revival; and that, in turn, set in motion changes that led to its further transformation and fall.

It has to be said that to re-read the 80 pages of Gallagher's elegant and witty text comes as a much-needed tonic after reading the 600 pages of The British Empire and the Second World War .

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge and the editor of Modern Asian Studies .

The British Empire and the Second World War

Author - Ashley Jackson
Publisher - Hambledon Continuum
Pages - 604
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 85285 417 0

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments