The British Empire in WW1
The effort and sacrifice of those who travelled from the colonies to fight
The First World War was named as such because of the true global representation of those who fought. Men and women from every corner of the world answered the call, although the support for Britain from her Empire was vital, it has been regularly overlooked throughout history.
Troops from Canada, India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean played a vital role in some of the most significant battles of the war. For all, the journey away from their homes was long and arduous. Some would suffer more than most, with non-white soldiers being discriminated against by the enemy and, in some cases, their own leaders.
One of the main issues held against non-white soldiers was that they should not be fighting a ‘white mans war’ on European soil. This attitude was of course small minded, with lots of fighting taking place outside of Europe. More than this, it highlighted the racism inherent within society at the time.
Within this was the implication that non-white soldiers should not be trained to use the new weapons of modern warfare, It was argued that they would lose all respect for the white man if they were allowed to participate as equals and experience their vulnerability, yet it was acceptable to throw these soldiers into combat the same as their white counterparts. Soldiers of the Commonwealth were treated as equals when it suited their British leaders.
There was at least some respect and support shown towards soldiers from the Empire. Indian soldiers, for example, were, in most cases, made welcome in England. Injured Muslim soldiers were given the opportunity to upkeep their religious acts. This kind of basic respect was the least the soldiers deserved for their efforts. It also helped to make the soldiers feel more at home, which must have felt a million miles away during the fighting in Europe.
There was, however, certain restrictions. For example, there were instances of white nurses being unable to treat non-white soldiers for fear of sexual liaisons damaging the reputation of the nurses. Even when fighting for the nation which occupied their homeland, many non-white soldiers would have been made to feel like outcasts.
The soldiers of the Commonwealth, whichever country they came from, travelled to Europe and further afield to fight for Britain; a nation which would not truly understand their contribution until years later. Their efforts helped Britain to win the war, and many would pay the ultimate sacrifice.
Over 200,000 soldiers from Britain’s Empire died during the war, with many more returning home with wounds both physical and psychological. It would have been forgiven if they had done so and thought their sacrifice wasn’t worth it, given the often negative impact Britain had inflicted on their homeland.
Each and every person who was involved in the First World War would have gone through unimaginable suffering. Yet the experience of going into a war which takes place thousands of miles from home and being made to feel like a non-equal amongst their own comrades is one which many Commonwealth troops experienced. Although their efforts are being recognised more, it still feels that, even a century later, it isn’t enough.