The British Empire and the Great War, 1914-1918
'The truth is,' Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman wrote in 1903, 'that we cannot provide for a fighting empire, and nothing will give us the power. A peaceful empire of the old type we are quite fit for.' 1 This classic Liberal statement of Imperial belief touched on the dominant question embedded in British political culture at the outset of the twentieth century. During the Great War of 1914-18 that question was reopened and its implications pursued more rigorously than during the localized South African conflict, which had formed the basis of Campbell‐ Bannerman's judgement. Could the vast but disaggregated resources of the Empire be brought to bear on the single, compelling objective of victory? Or would the pressures lead to its constituent parts flying off at tangents from the main goal? This chapter will trace the impact of the wartime experience on the British Empire as a system of power, and suggest where between these two extremes the Imperial or colonial outcome of the war came to rest.
In 1904 War Office planners in London predicted that a conflict between Germany and Britain would be 'a struggle between an elephant and a whale in which each, although supreme in its own element, would find it difficult to bring its strength to bear on its antagonist'. Whether Britain could transform itself into a continental elephant, instead of being constrained into an Imperial and aquatic role, was also profoundly at issue between 1914 and 1918. Meanwhile, it was significant that the first British shots on land were fired by a small British West African Force on 12 August as it closed in on the German wireless station at Kamina in Togoland. The rash of six colonial campaigns in Togoland, Cameroon, East Africa, South-West Africa, New Guinea, and Samoa marking the early phases of war has been attributed to the need to disrupt Germany's far-flung cable communications on which the effectiveness of her commerce-destroyers depended. The ensuing destruction of the Emden (sunk by HMAS Sydney, which came directly under Admiralty control on the outbreak of war) in the Indian Ocean on 9 November 1914, of Admiral Graf von Spee's elusive squadron____________________