Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds I’m Robert Fletcher, lecturer in Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter. In this video, we’ll be exploring some of the tensions between opportunity and constraint that characterise the British Empire in the era of the two World Wars. We can talk about the period between the Boer War and the first World War as one of imperial globalisation. A period in which the communications revolution– with its steam ships, railways, and the telegraph– increasingly connected Britain’s territories. But these flows of people and goods would be checked when, in August 1914, the British Empire declared war on Germany and her allies. Britain was fighting to safeguard her global position, and battles were to be fought across the world.
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds The numbers of soldiers mobilised from across the Empire from Canada to New Zealand are striking. More than a million soldiers came from India, for example. And at the war’s end, a weary but victorious empire looked in many ways to be as irrepressible as ever. The war had been a very powerful manifestation of imperial unity. Its major enemies had been defeated. The empire was not only intact, but had actually grown through the course of the war. It is in the 1920s, in fact, that the British Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. But victory had a price. Fighting the war ran up substantial debts, particularly to the United States.
Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds Many British territories would now demand some kind of reward for their contributions and sacrifice, and had increasing expectations of political autonomy. And some began to wonder if the Empire’s reach had not become overextended, especially in light of the pressure to demobilise the troops which had supported this global war effort. Now, nowhere were these possibilities and constraints, these contradictions, felt more acutely than in the Middle East. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new Ark of Empire opened out for the British in the Middle East. And this new empire would span from Egypt and Palestine through what became the new states of Transjordan and Iraq, and into the Persian Gulf.
Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds A fresh sense of imperial mission animated this new empire too. There was talk of restoring the glory of ancient civilizations, of building new communications routes between the Mediterranean and the Gulf, and the search to discover and exploit the oil resources that fuelled imperial trade, communications, and power. And yet, the Middle East also proved to be an incredibly difficult environment for Empire. Its vast and challenging physical geography and its complex political landscape drained not only imperial resources, but also the British public’s enthusiasm for Empire. In particular, the struggle to maintain control of Iraq in the early 1920s came to symbolise a politics of ‘waste’ that took hold in Britain at this time.
Skip to 3 minutes and 4 seconds Not only in Iraq, but all over the empire, political and economic problems were rammed home by a succession of crises. Britain faced increasing unrest and nationalism in Ireland and Egypt; its gains in the Middle East appeared threatened by the rise of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey; in China, anti-imperial feeling culminated in the May Fourth Movement; and in India, uprisings led to the infamous Amritsar Massacre. In the 1930s, Britain responded by renegotiating its imperial relationships. Diplomats and officials tried to raise the profile of political moderates with whom they felt they could do business, negotiating political and economic concessions. The hope was that whilst the form of Britain’s imperial relationships might change, the essence of Empire could, in some way, be preserved.
Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds But the nature of those relationships was also changing in ways the British did not anticipate. The era of free trade, so beneficial to imperial expansion, was giving way to one of barriers and protectionist blocks in the 1920s and ’30s. The creation of the League of Nations pointed to a spirit of internationalism, which did not necessarily sit comfortably with Empire, though historians are still very much exploring the relationship between the two. The system of the Leagues mandated territories, for example, was dismissed by many as imperial rule in all but name. And the mandates for Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq did indeed form the backbone of Britain’s new empire in the Middle East.
Skip to 4 minutes and 41 seconds But there was also a clear expectation that, as the mandatory power, Britain would advance these territories towards self-government under the League’s supervision. Imperial rule, in that sense, was judged to be finite. So with all these constraints acting upon it, what gave Britain the wiggle room it needed during this difficult, interwar period? A key factor was the absence of serious geopolitical rivals. After the first World War, Britain had been able to focus its efforts on containing anti-colonial nationalism and unrest wherever it developed. Strikes, protests, and boycotts were all dealt with in turn, including through recourse to violent suppression. The return of international rivalry in the later 1930s threatened these arrangements.
Skip to 5 minutes and 30 seconds With the rise of Italian Fascism in the Mediterranean, German Fascism in Europe, and Japanese expansion in East Asia, the British Empire would face the ordeal of a catastrophic war on three fronts.
The price of victory
Following Andrew Thompson’s exploration of the British imperial psyche, Rob Fletcher examines the imperial price of winning a World War.
Victory in World War One presented opportunities for further expansion, but what was the cost? What were the signs that the Empire might simply be getting too large to handle?
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