9

The Empire, Right or Wrong

Flanders, Iraq, Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge

The Rajpath in New Delhi, like Whitehall in London, would soon be the scene of a still more poignant commemoration of mortality. As it happened Lutyens designed both the India Gate, which bore the names of the seventy thousand Indians who lost their lives in the Great War, and the Cenotaph, “the reverent salute of an Empire mourning its million dead.”1 The two monuments make a striking contrast. The colossal red arch, engraved with radiant suns and topped with a domed bowl to hold burning oil on anniversaries, is an exclamation. The empty white tomb on its tapered stone pylon, a work of such sublime simplicity that it seems to point towards the infinite, is an ellipsis. As this suggests, London was less emphatically an imperial city than New Delhi. The Anglo-Indian architecture there affirmed despotism, whereas the British capital was, in its very lack of grand design, an assertion of liberty. Admittedly, feeble municipal government and high property prices constrained comprehensive development in London. So did dyed-in-the-wool conservatism. “Do away with the congestion of traffic at Hyde Park Corner?” exclaimed Disraeli to the Commissioner of Works. “Why, my dear fellow, you would be destroying one of the sights of London.”2

Thus the city always resisted the drastic reconstruction that transformed Franz Joseph I’s Vienna and the “Haussmannisation” which destroyed the compact revolutionary faubourgs of Napoleon III’s Paris. The East End of London remained, in the words of one local newspaper, “a vile, malodorous irreclaimable thing, a dumping ground for undesirables, a dust bin, a forgotten garret, a neglected basement, creepy, smelly, stifling.”3 The West End was also unamenable to discipline. Despite the opportunities offered by the completion of the Thames Embankment in 1870 and the construction of the Mall before the First World War, state-sponsored schemes for a truly imperial metropolis came to nothing. Delay was endemic. The sculptor Thomas Thornycroft began his equestrian statue of Boadicea in the mid-Victorian period, using as models horses in Prince Albert’s stables (which made them far larger than the ponies that pulled the warrior queen’s chariot). But the tableau did not find a permanent home, near Westminster Bridge, until the Boer War replenished “the ancient fires of British valour and patriotism.”4 Diversity was ubiquitous. In fact, as one authority says, Queen Victoria’s London witnessed a uniquely “exuberant, even anarchic, proliferation of styles, materials, constructional techniques, colours, outlines, ethical and intellectual statements.” It was “a proud expression of the energies and values of a free people.”5

Nevertheless, there were piecemeal attempts to make the city worthy of a pre-eminence summed up in H. G. Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay (1909): “The richest town in the world, the biggest port, the greatest manufacturing town, the Imperial city—the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world!”6 To deserve such encomiums, London had to imitate Rome—Paris being usually deemed the heir of Athens. Thus in 1843 Nelson’s Column was modelled on a pillar in the Temple of Mars. In the mid-century new government buildings along Whitehall reflected imperial glory, notably the neo-classical Foreign Office. Its design was the subject of a celebrated dispute between the architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott, champion of Gothic, and Lord Palmerston, who rejected both his proposed “monastery” and a “mongrel” compromise. Palmerston also disallowed pleas for a genuinely indigenous style, asserting that “the real aboriginal architecture of this country was mud huts and wicker wigwams.”7

So he got an Italianate “national palace”8 replete with marble balustrades, majolica friezes, bronze medallions, mosaic pavements, ormolu chandeliers, Corinthian columns and statues of imperial heroes such as Clive dressed in Roman garb. It incorporated a noble quadrangle, a grand staircase flanked with effigies of previous ministers, a gilded dome with the sun at its centre and eventually allegorical frescoes in Venetian red and cobalt blue portraying the “expansion and triumph of the British Empire,”9 one of which appeared to depict a rape. There were vast salons such as the great barrel-vaulted Locarno Room (as it was named in 1925) and chambers so echoingly cavernous that they were suspected of being Scott’s acoustic revenge on officialdom. The new Colonial Office was similarly embellished, notably with representations of the continents and their explorers and proconsuls. The India Office was adorned with images of the rivers, cities and people of the subcontinent. It boasted the magnificent granite-pillared Durbar Court and the Muses’ Stair leading to an octagonal glass lantern decorated with goddesses of plenty supported by cherubs representing the Roman virtues. It also included nabob furniture, mahogany doors and a marble chimneypiece depicting Britannia receiving the riches of Asia, all taken from the East India Company’s headquarters in Leadenhall Street, together with Persian miniatures looted from the Red Fort.

Finally, the Mall, paved with wood on its completion in 1904, provided a “public axis of imperialism.” It was a huge proscenium on which majestic pageants were staged to dramatise the Empire’s sovereign institution. Each wing of this outdoor theatre was duly improved. Buckingham Palace acquired a Renaissance façade. And Admiralty Arch, an “essentially Roman”10 creation, was ornamented with figures representing Gunnery and Navigation. Imperial heroes such as Captain Cook took their proper places and, of course, the late monarch was ubiquitous. Yet the Victoria Memorial itself, on which colonies were characterised by cherubs carrying national symbols, was curiously muted about the Empire, though the watery basin was designed to suggest its maritime foundations. India was entirely absent, having its own (or rather Curzon’s) memorial to the Empress in Calcutta. Prominent were effigies of Courage, Constancy and Motherhood as well as Justice and Truth—The Times regretted that they were conventionally represented in angelic form since, as T. H. Huxley had said, the angel was “a morphological monstrosity.”11 The sculpture was more an accolade to regal virtue than to imperial victory. Unlike the bombastic Victor Emmanuel monument in contemporary Rome, it was neither the “national anthem in marble” nor the “Altar of the Fatherland.”12

In fact, the Victoria Memorial was an expression of eclecticism—like London itself. The capital was less than an imperial city because it was more than an imperial city. Like Washington, which modelled itself on ancient Rome yet cherished the structures of democracy, London was a megalopolis of varieties. Compared to the Rome of the Caesars, it was but sparsely furnished with the spoils of empire. It showed surprisingly few signs of attachment to Britain’s overseas possessions, which many still deemed burdens rather than assets. Nevertheless, as Henry James noted at the beginning of The Golden Bowl (1904), if one wanted a sense of the imperial city to which the world paid tribute it was to be found in contemporary views of the Thames not the Tiber. Such comparisons were commonplace. The ghost of imperial Rome haunted London, sometimes as a hopeful spirit of unity, sometimes as a grim portent of disintegration.

The Festival of Empire, for example, which took place at the Crystal Palace in May 1911, was the most elaborate attempt hitherto devised to strengthen the tenuous bonds holding together the worldwide British family. George V opened it, the first public event he attended as King, and received a rapturous welcome. It included a ceremonial greeting from Maori warriors, described by the Illustrated London News as “New Zealand’s primitive inhabitants.”13 More than three hundred buildings had been erected to represent every part of the Empire, filled with exhibits and linked by an electric railway travelling on an “All-Red Route.”14 Among them were two-thirds-size replicas of the parliament houses of Ottawa, Melbourne, Wellington, Cape Town and St. John’s, Newfoundland. There were contemporary scenes, everything from a Jamaican sugar plantation to a Malayan village on stilts, from Newfoundland fisheries to South African diamond mines, from the Blue Mountains to the Himalayas. Nothing was better calculated to promote emigration and advertisements puffed what the Standard of Empire called “one of the most stupendous movements of modern times—the exodus from the Motherland to the Dominions overseas.”15

Moreover, there were forty historical tableaux, ranging from Stanley’s meeting with Livingstone to the arrival of a Roman Emperor at the Temple of Diana in a scarlet and gold chariot drawn by four white horses. Yet this panoply of propaganda hid real concerns about the relative decline in Britain’s global position. It also concealed worries about the meagreness and fragility of imperial consolidation—justified, as it happened, by the fact that the first British Empire Games, held as part of the Festival, were confined to the dominions. According to Winston Churchill, people feared that the Empire was by then so rickety that “a single violent shock would bring it clattering down and lay it low for ever.”16 The anxieties appeared even in this drum-beating verse of the time:

Though cowards fear its giant size

And croak of its decay

And nations, envious of the prize,

Would filch its wealth away…

And broader far, and stronger yet,

And grander grows the tree

Whose branches are in justice set,

Whose roots in liberty.17

The organisers of the Festival took particular care to exhibit alternative imperial models (Tudor ones, for instance) to that of Rome. They were determined to avoid “any suggestion of the inevitability of decline and fall.”18

The Great War, the tragic climax of European rivalries which had long been regarded as (in Bergson’s phrase) probable but impossible, at first seemed to avert that threat. Admittedly, the balance of power favoured the foe. Germany, with a conscript army that in 1913 numbered 660,000, dwarfed Britain in terms of military might. Bismarck had quipped that if the British Army invaded the Reich he would send the police to arrest it and the Kaiser held the British Expeditionary Force, consisting of 160,000 troops, in equal contempt. He assumed, moreover, that Britain’s difficulty would become the opportunity for dissidents within the Empire to raise the standard of revolt. In fact, to the astonishment of the British government itself, which declared war (on 4 August 1914) on behalf of all the King’s subjects without consulting them, nationalist leaders at once rallied round the Union Flag. The revolutionary Tilak pledged unswerving loyalty to the British cause and the pacifist Gandhi drummed up recruits for the army, to which India eventually supplied nearly one and a half million men. Although the Home Rule Bill would not come into effect until the war was over, the Irish leader, John Redmond, promised a united front against the common enemy. He even offered to form a separate army of his countrymen. Kitchener, the new Secretary for War, rejected the scheme, but 160,000 Irish volunteers swelled the ranks of more than two million Englishmen who flocked to join the colours. The former Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, despite his long championship of autonomy, supported Sir Robert Borden’s government in 1914, declaring that “when Great Britain is at war we are at war.”19

After an initial burst of enthusiasm, French Canadians were less accommodating; yet 30,000 of them enlisted, along with 600,000 British North Americans. Australia and New Zealand reiterated Laurier’s formula. South Africa, alone among the dominions, witnessed a revolt against participation in the war. Boer fought Boer and Prime Minister Botha defeated the rebel General de Wet. Yet South Africa contributed more than 135,000 soldiers to the wider fray. Recruits flooded in from all parts of the Empire and beyond: Maoris and Fijians, West Indians and Falkland Islanders, Moosejaw frontiersmen and Khyber Pathans, Chinese coolies and African askaris, Dutch farmers from the Cape and Scottish shepherds from Patagonia. The Dalai Lama even offered a thousand Tibetans. Patriots were thrilled by this international rush to the colours. Julian Grenfell, the golden boy of the lost generation, said that it reinforced his belief in the Old Flag and the Mother Country and the Heavy Brigade and the Thin Red Line and all the Imperial Idea. Also vital were the overseas contributions of money, munitions and raw materials. Flung into the scales of war, the imperial sword may well have tipped the balance. It probably averted defeat in 1917 and certainly helped to secure victory the following year. That triumph, along with the new territories which Britain acquired in its wake, seemed to fulfil the dream of a united empire. John Buchan, a member of Milner’s “Kindergarten,” his band of young disciples, wrote lyrically on the subject. The war revealed that wonderful thing for which the makers of empire “had striven and prayed—a union based not upon statute and officialdom, but upon the eternal simplicities of the human spirit.”20

On the other hand, the world war caused an irreversible change in the political weather. It precipitated the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires—Churchill complained of a “drizzle of empires falling through the air.”21 And it had a profoundly destructive impact on the British Empire. At its simplest the mother country suffered a terrible haemorrhage of blood and treasure. Some 725,000 Britons were killed, 9 per cent of males under the age of forty-five, and 1.7 million were wounded. Young officers suffered disproportionate casualties, 30,000 sacrificing their lives—a lost generation of empire-builders. The war cost £9 billion, which increased Britain’s national debt fourteen-fold and ensured that future expenditure on the Empire would be ferociously squeezed. Further constraints stemmed from lost markets and the gains of competitors such as Japan and the United States. The appalling casualty rates shook colonial (and domestic) confidence in Britain’s leadership, particularly as the Central Powers proved to be “at least a third better at mass slaughter”22 than the Allies. The dominions suffered, proportionately to their population, almost as badly as Britain. As a result their people felt a fierce pride in their national contribution to victory and their Premiers acquired more influence over imperial foreign policy. According to the pugnacious Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, there was “only one Caesar” in the Roman Empire, but in “the British Empire there are many.”23

Military setbacks, such as those in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, undermined the prestige upon which, said Maurice Hankey, the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, “our Eastern Empire depends.”24 The Easter Rising in Ireland and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia inspired independence movements throughout the Empire. The Allied war aims, especially as enunciated by the high-minded American President Woodrow Wilson, had a still wider appeal. When Wilson preached the gospel of liberty, democracy and nationality, those chafing under the imperial yoke hailed him as a saviour. And they regarded the peace settlement as a hideous betrayal. Arabs, encouraged by T. E. Lawrence “to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts,”25merely swapped one imperial power for others, with the added mortification of having Christian suzerains and a Jewish homeland in Palestine. India was bitterly disappointed that its immense contribution did not receive a just reward, especially as the Montagu Declaration in 1917 had promised “the progressive realisation of responsible government.”26 In Africa, the conflict caused widespread disruption and, as Sir Harry Johnston wrote, marked the “beginning of revolt against the white man’s supremacy.”27

In short, like all major events, the Great War had complicated and contradictory results. It tightened “the crimson thread of kinship”28 between the mother country and the dominions. Yet in a sense Canada really was born, as the conventional wisdom has it, amid the carnage of Vimy Ridge.29 Similarly, Australia and New Zealand did proceed to forge their separate identities in the crucible of Gallipoli. Elsewhere the conflict both promoted imperial solidarity and stimulated hopes of self-determination. The esprit de corpsof Indian troops survived the holocaust of Ypres. But as the struggle continued Britain’s alien auxiliaries, like those of Rome as described by Gibbon, learned to despise her manners and to imitate the arts “by which alone she supported her declining greatness.”30Despite the defection of Eire, the war increased the bulk of the British Empire, adding nearly two million square miles and some thirteen million subjects, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Of course the new colonies were disguised as mandated territories, reflecting the high moral tone adopted by the peacemakers and the disrepute attached to imperialist annexation. Until ready for independence, these territories were to be held as a sacred trust on behalf of the League of Nations. But they were coloured red on the map and they appeared to make the Empire, which reached its geographical apogee between the wars, more formidable than ever. However, with the rise of fascism and the advent of the Depression it seemed more of a charge on, than a benefit to, Britain itself. Many felt that the Empire had become a gorged giant, gouty at the extremities, whose very size sapped its strength. Some quoted the maxim attributed to Napoleon that “great empires die of indigestion.”31 Others recalled Gibbon’s famous conclusion that “the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness” and that once “time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”32

On 26 September 1914 a procession of vessels entered the harbour of Marseilles to a noisy welcome, including sirens, gun salutes and brass bands giving endless renditions of the “Marseillaise.” The convoy contained the first of 138,000 Indians who came to help prop up the tottering Western Front. They were drawn from those races which the British designated “martial”—Punjabis, Baluchis, Afridis, Sikhs, Jats, Dogras, Gurkhas, Pathans, Garhwalis. There were also contingents from the princely states, whose rulers contributed lavishly to the British cause, giving cash, jewels, horses, camels and a hospital ship called the Loyalty. Despite his seventy years, Sir Pertab Singh, the Regent of Jodhpur, enrolled for active service in person, as if to confirm Hardinge’s view that he was “truly ‘a white man’ among Indians.”33 About a month after disembarkation battalions of the Lahore Division were fed into the line, just as the invading Germans, driven back from the River Marne, attempted to outflank the Allies in Flanders. So on that low coastal plain crisscrossed by ditches, drains and canals, and dotted with farmsteads and copses, the Indians witnessed the last gasp of the war of movement which had well-nigh destroyed the British Expeditionary Force. They also experienced the first battle of Ypres, a sickening foretaste of static combat in the trenches. Their courage was apparent from the start. While driving off an enemy assault, Sepoy Usman Khan stuck to his post although twice wounded by rifle fire, only allowing himself to be carried back when a shell splinter cut large chunks of flesh from his legs. Soon Indian units took part in a counter-attack against barbed wire and machine guns. By 1 December their casualties numbered 133 British and 95 Indian officers and 4,735 other ranks. Despite the shock, many sepoys were thrilled to be participating in the great European “tamasha” (spectacle).34 They were impressed by western wonders such as “flying steel birds”35 and thought that Europe, with its knowledge, wealth and beauty, was living in “the first Golden Age.” They were also proud of their own warrior spirit. Death in battle “for us of the Rajput caste,” wrote one, “is an open door to Paradise.” The Pathans seemed throughout “actually to enjoy the fighting.”36 The Gurkhas also showed a grisly relish for getting to grips with the foe—they had sharpened their kukris on the train to Calcutta “under the impression that they were about to engage the enemy.”37 In France one Gurkha paraded as a trophy “the face of a German—not his head, just his face, clean sliced off.”38 To judge from sepoy letters, there was much real and lasting imperial patriotism. One Indian officer thought it “a great honour that we have an opportunity of showing our loyalty to our great Emperor by the sacrifice of our bodies.”39

However, Indian troops were quite unprepared for the bone-chilling, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying shambles of the Western Front. They belonged to what was little more than a frontier constabulary, infantry trained for bayonet charges along lines familiar to Wellington, cavalry armed with sabres and lances. The two Indian divisions (Lahore and Meerut) lacked modern equipment. They took barbed wire from farm fences, made grenades from empty jam tins, employed 13-pounder horse batteries as artillery, and improvised mortars from wood and cast iron. They endured rain and snow in cotton khaki uniforms designed for the tropics. Accustomed to snakes, scorpions and mosquitoes, they were appalled by infestations of lice whose bite was “worse than a rifle bullet.”40In water-logged trenches, where the living mingled with the dead and all taboos were broken, they suffered perpetual pollution. “Fragments of human beings”41 were everywhere, providing a feast for millions of enormous rats which ran over everything, even the face of General Sir James Willcocks, the commanding officer of the Indian divisions, as he slept in a dugout: “I jumped as if shot, with the result that I knocked my head against the supporting timber.”42 And nothing compared with the sheer scale of the butchery. One Garhwali rifleman wrote:

When we reached their trenches we used the bayonet and the kukri and blood was shed so freely that we could not recognise each other’s faces; the whole ground was covered with blood. There were heaps of men’s heads, and some soldiers were without legs, others had been cut in two, some were without hands and others without eyes.43

The Germans retaliated with murderous firepower, turning Neuve Chapelle into an “oven”44 and Loos into an inferno. Indian troops huddled under the deluge of metal like “beggars in a monsoon.”45 When poison gas was used some gave way to panic, screaming as they fled, “We have come to hell!”46 “This is not war,” wrote a Punjabi familiar with the prophecies of the Mahabharata. “It is the ending of the world.”47

Morale grew increasingly shaky—there had already been an epidemic of self-inflicted wounds, mostly in the left hand. Sepoys’ spirits sank still further because they got no home leave. Wounded men were sent to Brighton Pavilion, which was converted into a hospital for Indians despite anxieties about their “possible encounters” with British women.48 Here, according to different accounts, they were either tended like flowers or treated like convicts. As casualty lists lengthened, desertions multiplied. Although General Willcocks’s senior subordinates were incompetent even by the usual brass-hat standards, the death of so many junior British officers undermined the Indians’ will to resist. For each one was a linguistic lifeline in a military Babel of at least ten tongues. Moreover, Indian officers lacked the prestige to provide effective command, a situation caused by racial prejudice but blamed on racial inferiority. “The Indian is simply not fit to lead his men against Europeans,” wrote Willcocks. “He will lead a charge or cover a retirement, but if he has to think he fails.”49

In fact sepoys thought a lot about being used as cannon fodder in defence of an empire which had subjugated their own people. And such thoughts prompted disaffection, indiscipline and even mutiny among men whose horizons had been widened by their European experience. One sepoy told a British officer, “If the Germans allied themselves with us Afridis we could lick the world.”50 Others sent home seditious letters. Sometimes they were written in code to elude the censor: for example, bullets were referred to as “rainfall” and Indian troops as “black pepper.” Occasionally these missives contained obscene abuse: the English were called salas.*10 Gandhi hoped that India’s freedom would burst from the battlefields of France which he had helped to crowd with “an indomitable army of Home Rulers.”51 But the process was one of germination not revolution. The blood of sepoys was the seed of independence. Nothing less than a sacrifice of power in the subcontinent could atone for the hecatombs of the Western Front. The British would give as little, and as slowly, as they could. But they saw concession as the price of collaboration, if not allegiance. When the Lahore and Meerut Divisions were withdrawn from Flanders in 1915 they were not sent home for “fear of unrest.”52

Indian troops were, anyway, in demand elsewhere and they duly served in many other theatres of war—Gallipoli, Salonika, various parts of Africa and the Middle East. Their main field of operations was Mesopotamia. Here nearly 700,000 sepoys fought the Turks, even though the Ottoman Caliph, whom Muslims believed to be the shadow of God upon earth, had declared a jihad against enemy infidels. But defections inspired by Islamic faith proved less fatal than defeats caused by British ineptitude. To secure Mesopotamia’s supply of oil it was enough to hold the region around Basra, the squalid river port said by an English officer to be “sixty miles up the world’s arsehole.”53 The delta of the Tigris and Euphrates was so humid that “the very air seems to sweat.”54But compared to the burning fiery furnace of the northern desert, this green spot beside the Persian Gulf, with its vines, pomegranates and fig trees, could well have been, as religious tradition claimed, the Garden of Eden. Especially alluring were the millions of date palms, with diamond-shaped striations on their trunks, golden clusters of fruit and an emerald whorl of fronds sussurating in the breeze. Nevertheless, the minarets of Baghdad were an irresistible temptation and General Charles Townshend, a banjo-strumming joker to compare with Gordon or Baden-Powell, advanced into the wilderness. No bloodhound, he boasted, could have pursued the Turks with more tenacity. However, his force was weak and ill supplied: the medical services were comparable to those of Scutari and much of the ammunition was labelled “Made in the USA. For Practice only.”55 After a Pyrrhic victory at Ctesiphon, Townshend had to withdraw to the sordid mud-brick town of Kut, looped by the Tigris, where he allowed himself to be invested. Efforts to relieve him, supported by the refitted Lahore and Meerut Divisions, were bloodily repulsed.

So on 29 April 1916, worn out by heat, stench, disease, inundation and starvation, not to mention hosts of fleas that darkened the ground and clouds of flies that bit like bulldogs, Townshend surrendered. His garrison had endured the longest siege in British history (147 days) and he had suffered a greater defeat than that of Cornwallis at Yorktown. But worse was to come. The Turks stripped the prisoners of most of their possessions, including water bottles and boots. Then they herded the men (separated from their officers) northwards, driving them through the desert with the bayonet and the bastinado. Stragglers were raped or murdered. Many others died of hunger, thirst and sickness before they reached Baghdad. There the remnant was paraded, a legion of scarecrows derided by the people but pitied by the American consul, who came to their aid at the cost of his own life. As the prisoners stumbled onwards to Anatolia they were subjected to what one private called “an extended massacre.”56 When set to railway work in chain gangs they had to endure further brutalities. Only 837 of the 2,592 Britons taken at Kut saw the end of the war, while 7,423 out of 10,486 Indians survived. The sepoys, especially the Muslims, were treated less harshly and coped better with captivity than the British, whose self-confidence suffered accordingly. So did their prestige—the reflection of power that was, to repeat the mantra ceaselessly intoned by India pundits, the bedrock of the Raj.

Nationalists seized the moment to demand, in return for India’s largesse, the “priceless blessing” of liberty.57 They exploited growing popular discontent. Two years of conflict had raised the cost of food by nearly a third and fodder was exported to the Middle East while the Deccan starved. Also, as one Indian leader said, the war had put the clock fifty years forward.58 It had shortened patience and quickened expectations. The time was ripe, as the government took repressive war powers, for spreading the gospel of independence. One of its most powerful preachers was Annie Besant, now nearing the end of a strange pilgrimage which had led her from Anglicanism, via atheism, socialism and neo-Malthusianism (i.e. contraception), to Indian nationalism. This she combined with devotion to Theosophy and to the Boy Scout movement—wearing a green turban, purple scarf and khaki sari with emerald borders, she later took an oath of loyalty in front of Baden-Powell. In 1916 she formed a Home Rule League and proclaimed herself “an Indian tom-tom waking all the sleepers so that they may work for their Motherland.”59 Tilak, back at the helm of Congress after Gokhale’s death, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the austere lawyer who had recently become President of the Muslim League, needed no such summons. At Lucknow they made a pact to fight for self-government by constitutional means. The Muslim position was safeguarded through separate electorates and Jinnah announced that “the Promised Land is within sight.”60

The following year Britain at last seemed prepared to let his people go. For then Russia succumbed to revolution and defeat, and India rang with Besantine pronouncements about the “awakening of Asia.”61 So Indian leaders were invited to attend the Imperial War Conference. Indian soldiers were granted the King’s Commission, though the military took care that brown officers should not command whites. And the new Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, issued his momentous declaration that self-governing institutions would gradually be developed in the subcontinent. He and the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford (son of the Isandhlwana general), honoured that pledge in 1918 by proposing a system known as dyarchy. This broadly meant devolving control over matters such as health, education, agriculture and public works to Indian provincial authorities, while leaving a slightly more representative central government in charge of foreign affairs, security and taxation. But the scheme annoyed conservative Britons, who denounced it as “a spider’s web spun out of the brain of a doctrinaire pedant.”62 And Indians damned it as an unsatisfactory interim measure, though it did bring them enough autonomy to sound the “death-knell of the Raj.”63 Jinnah, “armed to the teeth with dialectics,” made mincemeat of the scheme and Montagu privately admitted it was outrageous that such a clever “man should have no chance of running the affairs of his own country.” Violent agitation continued, as did racial antipathy—the Times correspondent disliked Bombay because it was “overrun by Indians.”64 Montagu queasily agreed to help Chelmsford stamp out rebellion. So in 1919 the Rowlatt Act was passed whereby those accused of sedition could be arrested without warrant and tried without jury. It caused a storm. Jinnah denounced it as a “Star Chamber” decree which violated “the principles for which Great Britain fought the war”65 and he resigned from the Legislative Council. Gandhi mounted a campaign of passive resistance to unjust laws, beginning with a hartal, or general strike, a stratagem which had been suggested to him in a dream. Civil disobedience proved a far more effective form of opposition than anything envisioned by Jinnah. It thrust the Mahatma (“Great Soul”), as he was now called, into national prominence and won him a unique place in the leadership of Congress. Chelmsford wrote to Montagu, “Dear me, what a d…d nuisance these saintly fanatics are!”66

Revolt against the Rowlatt Act was especially explosive in the Punjab, the garrison province of India now writhing in the iron grip of its diehard Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. He authorised the arrest of two opposition leaders in Amritsar, which means “Nectar of Immortality,” the holy city of the Sikhs. This provoked a riot which culminated in murder, looting and arson. It prompted white fears of another Mutiny and gave Indians “some excuse for their belief that the British raj was over.”67 After such a “display of Gandhi’s ‘Soul Force,’”68 as O’Dwyer sarcastically put it, strong measures were deemed essential. One colonel advocated using aeroplanes to bomb the mob, a tactic employed elsewhere in the Punjab. Instead “a fire-snorting General”69 called Reginald (“Rex”) Dyer was sent to restore order. He was a martinet of the old school, with cropped grey hair, a brick-red complexion and blue eyes which the Daily Mail later described as “kindly.”70 His hot temper was aggravated by the constant pain he suffered from injuries sustained in the hunting field—he tried to soothe himself with aspirins, brandy and cigarettes, and sometimes he wrapped his head in wet towels. Dyer put on a show of force in Amritsar. With a convoy of soldiers and armoured cars he toured streets flanked by gutted ruins and smouldering with resentment. He also banned further assemblies on pain of instant dispersal, if necessary under martial law.

The proclamation was repeated the following day, 13 April 1919. But this was a Sunday of religious festival and, as the sun beat down on Amritsar through a pewter sky, many came to worship at the Golden Temple and to bathe in its sacred pool. Others attended a horse and cattle fair and by the afternoon some fifteen thousand people had gathered in the walled space near the Temple, known as the Jallianwala Bagh. A garden by name, it was actually a five-acre courtyard of baked earth scavenged by pariah dogs and mud-stained buffaloes. It contained a few trees, a well, a shrine and a stage from which a political speaker addressed the crowd, most of whom were dozing, chatting or playing cards or dice. Towards sunset, Dyer marched through one of the Bagh’s narrow entrances with a detachment of ninety Gurkhas and Baluchis armed with rifles. He lined them up on a slight eminence and, without warning, gave the order to fire. As they shot at will, steadily emptying and reloading their magazines, the Jallianwala Bagh became a blood-soaked pandemonium. The crowd surged to and fro like hunted animals, screaming, falling, dying. The general directed the fusillade towards places where the throng was thickest, notably in front of the alleys offering the only escape routes, which were soon clogged with corpses. After ten minutes, during which 1,650 rounds were discharged and ammunition was running low, Dyer ordered a cease-fire and withdrew. He did nothing for the 1,500 wounded and, according to the official estimate, he left behind 379 dead, many of them children. “It was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it,” he later said. Claiming that the massacre had saved the Punjab from a still worse fate, he added, “I thought it would be doing a jolly lot of good.”71

Not content with doing good on such a scale, Dyer sought to punish those who had been responsible for the disturbances in the first place. He employed various expedients: curfew, blackout, expropriation, torture, arbitrary arrests and trials held in camera at which defendants were summarily convicted on false evidence. In due course the government extended clemency to most of those found guilty, but not before eighteen had been publicly hanged and hundreds flogged. Dyer also imposed a number of ritual humiliations on the citizens of Amritsar. He ordered them to salaam white officers, made lawyers do coolie work and, notoriously, forced passers-by to crawl on their bellies down an offal-strewn lane in which a European woman had been beaten and left for dead. O’Dwyer stopped this but otherwise supported Dyer. He also tried to suppress news of the massacre and its aftermath. Chelmsford connived weakly in the interests of firm government. He was also intimidated by white opinion in India. This was so rabid that a magistrate in Lahore, Malcolm Darling, felt constrained to write to his sister in French about Dyer’s “crime contre l’humanité”72—when Darling condemned it at the club, fellow members said that he should be court-martialled. In fact some agreed with him that Amritsar had fatally eroded the ethical buttresses of the Raj. Amritsar sapped the superb self-confidence of Englishmen in India, who were accustomed to behave, E. M. Forster noted, as though they were part of an army of occupation. Malcolm Darling, a friend of Forster’s who believed that to give three hundred million illiterates independence would be an act of Gadarene folly, nevertheless told the novelist soon after the massacre: “Home Rule is so much in the air, that now the only way is to let them have it.”73

Montagu vainly attempted to recapture the moral high ground, setting up an official inquiry which duly censured Dyer. In 1920 the House of Commons endorsed that conclusion. Churchill, then war minister, confirmed that Dyer would receive no further military employment and memorably pronounced, “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.”74 Montagu stated that the Raj could only be maintained by goodwill. Citing Gibbon, the radical MP Josiah Wedgwood said that the British Empire must not be a stern “replica of the Roman” but should invite all its people to become citizens “on equal terms with ourselves.” Such mild opinions did not assuage Indian anger and they provoked bitter parliamentary opposition. Especially virulent were critics who associated conciliation in India with concession in Ireland. But the debate was also tainted by racial prejudice. In the Commons chamber itself Tories gave an “astonishing exhibition” of anti-Semitism, taunting and barracking Montagu, whose speech was said to be “Yiddish in screaming tone and gesture.”75The Times further stated that, as a Jew, he was imbued with “the mental idiom of the East.”76 The Morning Post thought that Montagu, not Dyer, should have been in the dock and it serialised The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous forgery describing a Jewish plot to dominate the world. Furthermore, the House of Lords vindicated Dyer—when the Indian Lord Sinha made the case against him one backwoods peer was heard to mutter, “If they are all like him the more they massacre the better.”77 Over £26,000 was raised for Dyer by public subscription. He was presented with a jewelled sword inscribed with the legend “Saviour of the Punjab.” When he died in 1927 flowers were laid at the Cenotaph.

If Dyer saved the Punjab, which did subside under the mailed fist, he significantly loosened Britain’s grip on the subcontinent as a whole. For Indians saw him as the id of the Raj. The young Jawaharlal Nehru arrived at this view towards the end of 1919 when he happened to share an overnight train from Lahore with the general and several of his staff. Nehru was shocked by Dyer’s pyjamas, which he flaunted on Delhi station despite their bright pink stripes, and still more shocked by overhearing his boast that the Jallianwala Bagh “would teach the bloody browns a lesson.”78 Dyer’s compatriots, by their sympathy for him, plainly shared his attitude. Nehru concluded that Amritsar was not an isolated incident, as Churchill had maintained. Instead it typified the “brutal and immoral” nature of imperialism, which “had eaten into the soul of the British upper classes.”79 The Nobel Prize–winning poet Rabindranath Tagore used similar language, saying that English souls had been poisoned by the power they wielded in India and that Amritsar “conclusively proved that our true salvation lies in our own hands.”80 Jawaharlal’s father, Motilal Nehru, agreed. At a meeting of Congress which condemned Dyer’s “demoniac deeds,” he had coolly observed that “repression and terrorism have never yet killed the life of a nation.”81 But his blood boiled when he heard how British politicians responded to the official report on the massacre and he wanted to “raise a veritable hell for the rascals.”82

Gandhi, ever concerned to avoid violence, reacted more cautiously. He did not at once turn Congress into a mass party. And he could not sustain either popular protest or Hindu–Muslim unity. But he did ride the tidal wave of anger over Amritsar, which “shattered the tradition of loyalty” to the Raj83—to such an extent that General Lord Rawlinson, appointed in 1920, thought he would be India’s last Commander-in-Chief. Gandhi declared that it was essential to change the system which had produced Dyer. He advocated swadeshi as urgently as swaraj, saying that the spinning wheel (or charkha, which he proposed as a motif for the flag of India) was a means of salvation. He even persuaded the Nehru family to burn their western clothes—Jawaharlal was content to cast off his silk underwear but worried about walking around in swadeshi socks. Having lost his faith in Britain’s good faith, the Mahatma renounced his medals and announced that it was sinful to cooperate with a satanic government. Having cast out fear himself, he inspired acts of disobedience in all sorts and conditions of people—Gokhale had said that Gandhi was “capable of turning heroes out of clay.”84 Among other things, he organised boycotts of the Prince of Wales’s 1921 tour, which were quite effective despite government bribes of free food and elephant rides. Although warned by officials and soldiers that India was “no longer a place for a white man,”85 the future Duke of Windsor thought only a “lunatic” could believe that the “brightest jewel” in the British crown would be lost during his lifetime.86 Gandhi was obviously a holy fool. Plassey had laid the foundations of the British Empire, he said, but Amritsar had shaken them.

Gallipoli also shook them, according to a legend engendered under the Southern Cross. This maintained that when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps took part in the assault designed to knock Turkey out of the war in 1915, the convulsions which racked the peninsula rocked the Empire. Antipodeans revolted against British leadership which had done for so many of their comrades, it was said, and colonial independence sprang fully armed from Anzac helmets. Here was a seductive notion. It appealed particularly to radical Australians who had long expressed antagonism towards “the British Vampire” and “the Union Jackals.”87 From late Victorian times the Sydney Bulletin, which coined those phrases, had been the prime medium of that hostility. It fostered “violently anti-British” attitudes in the sheep shearer’s hut and the gold miner’s tent, beside the billabong and under the coolibah tree, and its pink cover was seen as far afield as New Zealand. It spread the derogatory new term “Pommy,” a wordplay on pomegranate/immigrant. It scorned John Bull’s affected airs and patronising manners, his fondness for frills and gold lace, and his “military spirit”88—which turned out to be rum. In the new Commonwealth, where local brand names such as Billy Tea, Boomerang Brandy and Dingo Eucalyptus Oil proved increasingly popular, it inveighed against “Australian groveldom.”89 It stimulated the growing but still often subterranean estrangement from “an effete, poverty-stricken and caste-ridden England.”90 The Bulletin also glorified a white Australia, damning the British Empire as “a nigger empire, run by Jews.”91 It championed other populist notions, among them democracy and equality, republicanism and socialism. And it raised the outback nomad, the jolly swagman with his tucker bag and even the defiant bushranger in his cabbage-tree hat, to the status of folk hero—hymned for the ages by Andrew (“Banjo”) Paterson and Henry Lawson.

They tramp in mateship side by side—

The Protestant and Roman—

They call no biped lord or sir

And touch their hat to no man!92

The ideal of mateship, perhaps originating on the chain gang and eventuating in a spirit of national solidarity, achieved its apotheosis at Gallipoli.

That, at any rate, is a central tenet of the Anzac legend. It was spawned by propaganda at the time and later sustained by Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, the prime author of Gallipoli hyperbole. Slight, with bespectacled blue eyes and bright red hair that earned him the nickname “Captain Carrot,” he witnessed the Gallipoli campaign from the front line and formed an intense admiration for the “Diggers” who fought in it. He shared John Masefield’s lyrical opinion that these bronzed giants, who “looked like the kings in old poems,”93 were the finest body of young men in the world and died as they had lived, owning no master on earth. Bean attributed their virility to the Anglo-Saxon stock from which they sprang and to the wholesome influence of the frontier, which had percolated through to the city men who made up the bulk of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He explained their chivalry as a product of the bush creed, which held that “a man should at all times and at any cost stand by his mate.” In consequence of this they exhibited an “unsurpassable heroism.”94 From the courage and sacrifice of ordinary Australians, Bean concluded, the “nation came to know itself.”95 By the same token, many New Zealanders believed, their own country discovered its unique identity.

From the start journalistic snipers shot holes in this creation myth and subsequently academic big guns tried to blow it to pieces. Charles Bean was deemed a “brilliant myth-maker,”96 whose history, for all its ability, humanity and integrity, presented the Anzacs in a rose-tinted light. Often emollient and sometimes evasive, it dramatised their valour and ennobled their suffering. Bean exaggerated the “breezy egalitarianism of the ‘Digger’ officers,”97 which supposedly fostered resourcefulness and teamwork that could not be matched by slum-bred Tommies under the command of monocled and moustached toffs. It was impossible to sustain Bean’s argument that military virtuosity was the natural product of “an open society”:98 German soldiers, shaped by a state far more hierarchical than Britain, were generally agreed to be the best in the world.

Moreover, it was easy to show that before, during and after the war most Australians and New Zealanders were devoted to the Empire. They prided themselves on their common blood and culture. They cherished the political ties, commercial links and martial bonds that united them with the mother country. They intoned Tennyson’s line, “One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne”—the motto of the Imperial Federation League, not yet desecrated by the Nazi slogan. They also believed that the Empire had a single destiny. A model imperial patriot was the Australian journalist John Adey, who noted that Thornycroft’s statue of Boadicea bore Cowper’s famous lines:

Regions Caesar never knew,

Thy posterity shall sway.

An overseas descendant of Boadicea, wrote Adey, “is not an Englishman perhaps; but he is something greater—he is an Empire man, one of the children of silence and slow time, returned in the eternal cycle to worship at this shrine. It is his.” Worship implied fealty. In case of war Australia’s watchword would be, said Liberal Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, “The Empire, right or wrong.” When his Labor successor, Andrew Fisher, told W. T. Stead in 1911 that were Britain to involve Australia in an unjust war “we should have to haul down the Union Jack,”99 he was forced to eat his words. Thus in 1914 the Antipodes eagerly answered Britannia’s call and volunteers rushed to the colours, as they did again in 1939. Then the Gallipoli spirit was once more invoked. It inspired empire loyalty in both Australia and New Zealand, which were, according to the likes of Billy Hughes, as much a part of Britain as was Middlesex.

What truth is there in the fecund Anzac mythology and how do conflicting views about Gallipoli square up to the evidence? From its inception the entire venture was an imperial tragedy. Imaginative, ambitious and rash, it bore the unmistakable hallmarks of its empire-minded champion, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. He was appalled by the spectacle of Allied soldiers chewing barbed wire in Flanders. As an alternative to the western stalemate he conjured up an eastern expedition, Homeric in heroism and Napoleonic in scope. Churchill proposed to seize the Golden Horn, unite the Balkans, join forces with Russia and outflank the Central Powers on a continental scale. At first he urged that ships alone could blast their way through the Dardanelles—the ancient Hellespont, which led to the city founded by Constantine at the confluence of Europe and Asia as “an eternal monument of the glories of his reign.”100 With characteristic pertinacity Churchill even persuaded doubting admirals to support the plan: Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, later complained that Winston had “miasma-ed” him. But mines sank several battleships, whose bombardment of the Gallipoli forts merely warned the Turks of Allied intentions. Kitchener nevertheless agreed to send troops, British, Indian and Anzac. To command them he appointed General Sir Ian Hamilton, a lean, courageous paladin of many conflicts—a Boer bullet had shattered his left hand at Majuba Hill. An unusually progressive and articulate soldier, Hamilton had literary aspirations and Kitchener once described him as a “bloody poet.”101 Thus he appreciated the trials of Xerxes, who briefly bridged the Hellespont, and the tribulations of Agamemnon, who spent “ten long years in taking Troy.”102 But, awed by his basilisk-eyed chief, Hamilton never demanded sufficient resources to carry out what was then the largest amphibious invasion in history. Instead of exerting a grip on the battle he lamented the plight of his soldiers in purple passages. After Rupert Brooke’s death en route to Gallipoli he wrote that God had “started a celestial spring cleaning, and our star is to be scrubbed bright with the blood of our bravest and our best.”103 Hamilton underestimated the enemy, essayed no new tactics, made suggestions instead of giving orders, and remained both literally and metaphorically at sea.

The Anzacs, whose first convoy had docked at Alexandria in December 1914, got an introduction to the British high command during their training in Egypt. General Godley instructed his New Zealanders that the Egyptians belonged to “races lower in the human scale” than the Maoris and that “the slightest familiarity with them will breed contempt.”104 The New Zealanders proved more tractable than the Australians, who refused to salute supercilious staff officers and so wallowed in the fleshpots of Egypt that they allegedly turned Cairo into a “vaudeville of devils.”105 The Anzacs’ training consisted mainly of long marches in the desert, as if to fit them for another fight on the veldt rather than for trench combat. Further war games they regarded as “a pure farce and an insult to our intelligence.”106 Security was so lax that letters were addressed to “The Constantinople Expeditionary Force” and the Egyptian Gazette helpfully confirmed that this was their destination. One transport bore the chalked inscription “TO CONSTANTINOPLE AND THE HAREM.”107 In the early hours of 25 April 1915, apparently confused by the strong Aegean current and the dark coastline, the Royal Navy took the Anzacs to the wrong place, opposite a headland on the western waist of the Gallipoli peninsula christened Hell Spit. The troops of the 3rd Brigade, wearing pea-soup khaki uniforms (brass buttons and rising sun badges oxidised to black), green webbing packs, pouches and belts, and wide-brimmed felt hats, held their breath as the crammed picket boats slid through the velvet night and over the satin sea. Nothing showed except gleaming eyes and splashes of phosphorescence at the bows. But the Turks were awake. When the boats grounded on the shingle they unleashed a firestorm. It killed so many Australians as they struggled ashore that, “looking down at the bottom of the sea, you could see a carpet of dead men.”

The survivors faced an unexpected line of cliffs. They clawed their way upwards in a hail of lead, waving their bayonets, “berserk with fury”108 and “‘cooeeing’ like mad.”109 As dawn broke knots of Anzacs breasted the first ridge and scattered the two companies of Turks confronting them, a feat which, according to the Rev. W. H. Fitchett, author of Deeds that Won the Empire, surpassed in daring that of Wellington’s troops at Waterloo. Then they plunged into a labyrinth of which they had no conception. Neither officers’ coloured maps, which were of Crimean War vintage, nor the guide-books bought in Egypt to supplement them, gave an accurate picture of a terrain which seemed to have suffered an epileptic fit. It was a convulsive jumble of jagged hills and crooked valleys, crisscrossed by razor-backed spurs and knife-edged ravines, all covered with a thick pelt of prickly scrub. Here was a landscape that seemed to have been devised by nature for defence and the Turks took full advantage of it. They were ably commanded by General Liman von Sanders—Germany so dominated its Turkish ally that wits quipped, “Deutschland über Allah.”110 And General Mustapha Kemal, who went on to rule and modernise Turkey, combined efficiency with ruthlessness. On 25 April he famously told his men: “I do not expect you to attack, I order you to die.”111 So the Turks clung to the high ground and pinned down the Anzacs in a four-hundred-acre triangle of tortured soil whose apex was never as much as a mile from the sea. Within a matter of hours the British commander, General William Birdwood, was considering disembarkation. For the virgin Anzacs had experienced not just a triumphant baptism of fire but a traumatic loss of military innocence. As the British official historian wrote, “a disturbing number of leaderless men” soon began to quit the front line, searching for food, drink and rest, or helping wounded mates.112 Whether they were “stragglers” or “shirkers,” their dereliction of duty undermined the myth quickly put into circulation that “Anzac troops did magnificently against amazing odds.”113 Certainly Birdwood feared a fiasco.114 But Sir Ian Hamilton thought it better to resist than to be butchered on the beach like the fleeing Persians at Marathon. He told the Anzacs to dig in for their lives. Overnight the invasion became a siege. Hamilton, conveyed to the eastern Mediterranean in a vessel named HMS Foresight, had prepared for a Turkey shoot, a revised version of colonial conflict. Instead, he got a pocket edition of Flanders.

During the first week, the Anzacs suffered 8,100 casualties, 2,300 of them killed. As the fierce struggle for position began to subside, young soldiers who had expected the war to resemble a game of rugby learned the grim rules of attrition. They were showered with shrapnel which landed “as thickly as plums in a pudding.”115 They were pulverised with high explosive—so insistent was the shriek of shells that cuckoos changed their note in response to it. The Anzacs were relentlessly sniped and sapped, bullets flying so densely that they shaved the scrub bare, mines turning their trenches into cemeteries. Sudden death on this scale seemed all the more incongruous amid the weird beauty of Gallipoli: the clouds of brilliantly coloured butterflies, the song of larks, the scent of wild thyme, the carpets of magenta flowers, the sapphire sea dotted with steel-grey leviathans, the golden dawns above the fields of Troy, the crimson sunsets over snow-capped Samothrace. Macabre incidents punctuated the conflict: a direct hit on a dentist’s dugout sowed an entire hillside with false teeth; a corpse leaning against a rock on Anzac Beach so deceived snipers that they had encircled its skull with “a silvery halo of lead.”116 The beach was a perpetual target. As narrow as a cricket pitch, it was so crammed with mules, men, ammunition and stores that it looked like “a gigantic shipwreck.”117 A rookery of bivouacs pitted the cliff face. But these “funk holes” gave little more than psychological protection and they often turned into premature graves.

Australians, even more than New Zealanders, became demoralised by the squalor and monotony of trench life. They hated the filth, the lice and the maggots spawned by acres of corpses. They complained of thirst assuaged by “fly tea,” hunger alleviated by “fly stew”118 and the resulting “gyppy tummy,” sometimes known as the “Gallipoli gallop.” They choked on the stench of death, which was almost tangible, said Compton Mackenzie, and “clammy as the membrane of a bat’s wing.”119 There were frequent instances of desertion, self-mutilation, “cowardice and treachery.” Charles Bean himself privately acknowledged that “our force contains more bad hats than the others.”120 In the opinion of a British colonel, George Napier Johnston, whose unpublished diary has recently come to light, all the Anzac soldiers lacked stamina. He attributed this to affluence, good living and racial deterioration.

New Zealanders and Australians don’t last well. They are going sick by hundreds, much of it due to wanting to get away. I believe it to be the characteristic of overseas troops that when the show was new and when they had to justify all the boasting they were guilty of, they did well. But it needs men of sterner stuff to last month after month on the same food, living in trenches in heat, dust, flies, dysentery, diarrhoea. But it should be done: this is where one’s race shows its superiority over others.

Johnston’s diary is full of such censure. He deplored Anzac “indiscipline, wasteful habits and bad conduct.” And he was appalled by the brutal way in which they stripped dead comrades of money and other valuables: “The Australians are the biggest culprits in this respect—they are very callous.” Despite all this, he thought that the Anzacs were the best soldiers the Allies had. They “would be very hard to beat in a straight out-and-out fight” and they possessed incomparable “pluck” under fire.121

This they demonstrated daily on Anzac Beach. There the convention was established that “no one must pay heed to shell fire even by so much as turning a head”—though it was permissible to pause when a large projectile landed and call it a bastard. A British officer from the Western Front reckoned that such disregard for the torrent of shrapnel was “absolute madness.” According to Charles Bean, however, the Australians, who lost a higher proportion of troops than any other Allied contingent, saw it as a “natural expression of the men’s self-respect.”122 So was the Anzacs’ most famous exploit, bathing amid flying metal and rotting flesh—the sea was full of dead mules floating on their backs, whose legs were sometimes mistaken for submarine periscopes. The freemasonry of the nude encouraged Antipodean irreverence, even towards Birdwood. “Duck, you silly old dill,” one soldier shouted as a shell screamed over the water.123 Observing the general’s pot belly, another exclaimed: “My bloody oath mate, you ’avebeen among the biscuits.”124 Such familiarity, wrote a British war correspondent, would have caused “apoplexy at Aldershot.”125 But Birdwood took it in his stride, currying favour with the Anzacs in the hope of forming them into a separate army which he would command. He believed, too, that rigid military discipline might inhibit the individual initiative and mutual assistance which produced such an outstanding battlefield performance.

There were frequent encores as Hamilton, eager to justify his optimistic communiqués, tried to break the deadlock in the several Allied beachheads gouged from the flanks and foot of Gallipoli. For example, the British had secured a toehold on Cape Helles at hideous cost—corpses covered the shore like a shoal of stranded fish and fifty yards from the land the sea was stained red with blood. Here, on 8 May 1915, Australian troops were ordered to make a frontal attack on the Turkish trenches. A British major described their charge with the kind of rhetorical afflatus which the Great War itself eventually exploded.

The enemy’s shelling was shifted on to them in one great concentration of hell. The machine-guns bellowed and poured on them sheets of flame and of ragged death, buried them alive. They were disembowelled. Their clothing caught fire, and their flesh hissed and cooked before the burning rags could be torn off or beaten out. But what of it? Why, nothing! They were as devils from a hell bigger and hotter. Nothing could stop them. They were at home in hell-fire, and they caressed it back when it licked and caressed them. They laughed at it; they sang through it. Their pluck was titanic. They were not men, but gods, demons infuriated. We saw them fall by the score. But what of that? Not for one breath did the great line waver or break.126

Later in the same month the Turks themselves demonstrated the futility of these tactics. As they stormed forward the Anzacs shot them down in thousands, saying that it was better than a wallaby drive. Nevertheless, Hamilton and his generals, sometimes abetted by Anzac officers, persevered with such attacks. The consequences were invariably disastrous, but the Anzacs took it in their stride. In one race over poppy-strewn no-man’s-land, a member of the Canterbury Battalion pictured rugby players on Christchurch park “who might be playing the game of life here with…rifles and bayonets for weapons, and freedom for the goal.”127 Feats of astonishing courage were commonplace. Men who had one hand blown off threw grenades with the other. One private, as he was being carried from the front line with half his face shot away, tried to sing “Tipperary.” Another reported to the doctors after months of pain that he was having a little trouble, which turned out to be dysentery, a fractured arm, two bullets in the thigh and bullet wounds in the stomach. Seeing a batch of wounded men, some terribly mutilated, others plainly dying, but all with a “stiff upper lip,” Hamilton wrote: “In fullest splendour the soul shines out amidst the dark shadows of adversity.”128

This brand of uplift sounded increasingly fatuous to soldiers who had endured medical services that gave trench warfare an extra dimension of horror. Their disenchantment was summed up in an exchange between a transport vessel bringing in fresh troops and a hospital ship taking wounded from Gallipoli. As they passed the new boys shouted in unison, “Are we downhearted?” After a pause, a single croak sounded across the water: “You bloody soon will be.”129 To Anzacs (and others) Gallipoli seemed a gigantic mincing machine. And those who put them through it did not hide their readiness to purchase victory at a high price in mangled flesh and crushed bone. For all the cheery pieties uttered by British commanders, many of them thought that an acceptance of heavy losses was a test of their military virility. “Casualties?” exclaimed General Hunter-Weston, eyes flashing, moustache bristling, aquiline nose quivering. “What do I care for casualties?”130 When Anzacs told another senior British officer that they could not bury putrescent corpses in front of their trenches because men got killed in the attempt, he shocked them by replying: “What is a few men?”131 Such carelessness with lives compounded the consistent failure of the British high command at Gallipoli. Australians joked that the red-tabbed staff officers planning military mayhem on their Greek island headquarters would receive three clasps on their war ribbons, “for Imbros, Mudros and Chaos.”132 Doctors who witnessed unnecessary suffering and death caused by inept medical arrangements were less indulgent. One wrote that the generals responsible should be incarcerated in a “Hospital for senility.”133

No one did more to publicise British bungling than Keith Murdoch, a brash, ambitious Australian journalist who was described by Maurice Hankey as “a horrible scab.”134 His revelations caused a sensation because of the tight censorship imposed at Gallipoli by intelligence officers such as Colonel Tyrrell, who thought that a properly organised government “does not need war correspondents” but should tell the people anything conducive to victory, whether truth or lies.135 But Murdoch achieved the remarkable feat of grossly exaggerating the culpability of the British top brass; and his son Rupert, the media magnate, continues to claim that by raising the matter he “got our boys out of Gallipoli.”136 In fact, they were evacuated because almost everyone except Winston Churchill came to the conclusion during the summer and autumn of 1915 that the campaign was, in Lord Cromer’s words, a “colossal blunder.”137 Hardly better, it seems, was the overarching strategy. Even if the Allies had marched in triumph to Constantinople they stood little or no chance of taking Europe from the rear—Germany itself won in the east and lost in the west. As one veteran of the Dardanelles said, war produces two kinds of muddle: the “Ordinary Military Cock Up” (OMCU) and the “Inextricable Balls Up” (IBU).138 In every respect apart from the final withdrawal, conducted with stealth and speed at the end of the year, Gallipoli was an IBU. The campaign cost the lives of 21,255 Britons, 10,000 Frenchmen, 8,709 Australians and 2,701 New Zealanders. For all the drum-beating about the Anzacs’ contribution, there is no escaping the fact that they played a subsidiary role in a peripheral field of conflict.

It is also clear that the war was not won by glorious failure in a sideshow but by success gained at unimaginable cost in the main theatre of operations. The torment the Anzacs suffered at Gallipoli did not compare with their prolonged agony in France, where six times as many of them were killed. A single hour of the battle at Pozières subjected them to greater stress than “the whole of the Gallipoli campaign,”139 as Charles Bean later acknowledged—though at the time he told the public that they went through the German barrage “as you would go through a summer shower.”140Lieutenant Alec Raws, a newspaperman in civilian life who was killed in 1916, vividly described the bloodbath at Pozières: the tornado of bursting shells, the mad shambles of no-man’s-land, the shock of being buried alive amid corpses in all stages of decay. “I saw strong men who had been through Gallipoli sobbing and trembling as with ague,” wrote Raws, “men who had never turned a hair before.”141 In the face of this dazing and deafening experience the Anzacs became ever more cynical about their British commanders. As shells exploded all round him one corporal wrote, “I have seen things here that will make the bloody military aristocrats’ name stink for ever.”142 Birdwood roused especial ire, pontificating about the Anzacs’ eagerness to drub the Huns and then sending them on further suicidal missions. Disillusioned survivors declared that their mates had been “murdered” through the “incompetence, callousness and personal vanity of those high in authority.”143 Such views, repeated and refined, acted as a slow poison in the heart of the imperial relationship.

Ardent empire loyalist though he was, Billy Hughes provided no antidote. Indeed, he divided opinion in Australia and split his own Labor Party over the issue of conscription. William Morris Hughes was a hyperactive dyspeptic who lived on little but tea, toast and tomato sauce. He looked like a wizened gnome. To a portrait painter who said that he would try to do him justice, Hughes replied: “I don’t want justice, I want mercy.”144 But the spirit of a warrior animated that puny frame. When he visited the Anzacs in France they joked that Australia had sent its last man; yet, as General Birdwood noted, Hughes “gives orders like a centurion.”145 The “Little Digger,” as he was nicknamed, had fought his way up from humble Welsh origins via trade union work on the Sydney docks. He called everyone “brother” but won the Premiership (1915–23) thanks to a despotic will, an acerbic wit and a Machiavellian guile. Hughes also possessed a ferocious capacity for invective, rapping out insults in a harsh, metallic voice that stunned his enemies, one of whom, he said, had “abandoned the finer resources of political assassination and resorted to the bludgeon of the cannibal.”146 Like Lloyd George, whom he in some ways resembled, Hughes sacrificed his radical principles on the altar of the war god. He repressed dissenters, imposed censorship and promoted xenophobia. Thus Australians shunned lager and frankfurters. They also changed names such as German Creek (to Empire Vale) and Mount Bismarck, which (like Berlin, Ontario) was rechristened Kitchener. Hughes insisted that Australia—white Australia—could only be free if it was part of a victorious British Empire. It must therefore mobilise all available men. Those opposed to conscription—trade unionists, Irish Catholics (incensed by Britain’s execution of leaders of Dublin’s Easter Rising) and most Australians fighting in France—said that he wanted to send his compatriots overseas in order to import cheap Asiatic labour. They won both referendums on the issue, in 1916 and 1917, with a slogan that was deeply subversive to imperial solidarity: “Put Australia First.”

Paradoxically, Hughes did just that in the counsels of the Empire and the councils of the nations. Remaining leader of a national coalition at home despite his double defeat, he asserted himself abroad. Indeed, Hughes became so aggressively imperialist that he sounded like the spokesman of a separate and not altogether friendly power; or like an outback prophet, the voice of one crying in the spinifex. He disparaged dull-witted British generals and insisted that the mother country should treat Australia as an ally instead of an auxiliary. He demanded a Monroe Doctrine for the Pacific and forged new diplomatic ties with the United States, warning that Japan might change sides in the next war. After the Great War Hughes obtained independent representation for Australia (as did the other dominions) at the Paris Peace Conference.

Here he ridiculed the vapourings of visionary conciliators such as Woodrow Wilson, calling him the “Heaven-born”147 and being himself dubbed by the President “a pestiferous varmint.”148 Hughes tried to extort large indemnities from Germany and to impose Anglo-Saxon control over its Pacific colonies. He did obtain an Australian mandate over German New Guinea, though when Wilson asked if the natives would have access to missionaries Hughes assured him that they would because as it was “these poor devils do not get half enough…to eat.”149 But the distribution of Far Eastern spoils became a bone of contention between Hughes and Lloyd George, who felt bound to honour British pledges to Japan. Eventually the two Prime Ministers began to abuse each other in Welsh. It must have been an odd sort of altercation since Hughes apparently spoke little of that language and skilfully manipulated his deaf aid, an “electric ear trumpet,” to cut out remarks he did not wish to hear. But Lloyd George fumed that he would not be bullied by “a damned little Welshman.”150 Hughes was equally abrasive about the League of Nations. Supported by Sir William Massey, the New Zealand Premier, he helped quash the Japanese proposal to include a clause enshrining racial equality in its covenant. Sooner than agree to it, Hughes vouchsafed, he would appear naked in the Folies-Bergère. But while denying claims based on Japan’s war effort, he championed those of Australia, whose sixty thousand dead entitled it to enter the family of nations on a footing of equality. By the same token, during the next decade or so, the white dominions attained formal equality and autonomy within the imperial framework. Thanks to Anzac prowess, Hughes declared, Australians had “put on the toga of manhood.”151

They did not immediately or completely cast off the garments of tutelage. For another generation Australians and, still more, New Zealanders clung to the mother country’s leading strings, especially in the sphere of foreign policy. Indeed, as late as 1975, when a Governor-General ousted a Prime Minister, the novelist Patrick White could complain that his “supposedly sophisticated country is still, alas, a colonial sheep-run.”152 In many ways Gallipoli strengthened empire loyalties in the years between the two global conflicts. The iconography of Antipodean war memorials is particularly telling. Most paid tribute to an imperial oblation which included the national offering: thus classical obelisks outnumbered Digger statues, laurel wreaths were more common than fern leaves, and inscriptions showed that “independent Australians were still Britons.”153 So, more fervently, were New Zealanders. The memorial on Brooklyn Hill overlooking Wellington bore a typical sentiment: “The Motherland called, and they came.”154Similarly, Anzac Day was celebrated as Australia’s most sacred festival in the context of Greater Britain. In Victoria on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings an archiepiscopal pronouncement, no less, established that Australia, formerly a distant settlement in the southern seas, was now “a real part of the Empire.”155

On the other hand, the Anzac myth contained sufficient truth and strength to generate purely nationalist emotion, especially among radicals. It became a commonplace to declare that Australia was born again at Gallipoli, a new nation created in a spirit of sacrifice and redeemed by the blood of martyrs. New Zealand, too, was said to have experienced a blessed nativity, discovered an independent character and received an irresistible impulse towards national consciousness. Its people had now matured into “Kiwis” and, according to one Methodist chaplain, “the average man is not an Imperialist because New Zealand had been treated, not as a partner, but as a child.”156 The two Antipodean dominions now had their own military traditions. They had a self-respect that matched the disdain, sometimes alloyed with bitterness, which many felt for British leadership. They had heroes whose gallantry deserved to be hailed, as Compton Mackenzie had said, not in headlines but hexameters. They had feats of arms to their credit which were not always properly appreciated by the mother country—the most bizarre tribute, to the sailors of HMAS Sydney which sank the German cruiser Emden, was paid by the imperialist versifier Sir Henry Newbolt:

Their hearts were hot, and, as they shot

They sang like kangaroos.157

Australia and New Zealand were increasingly apt to contrast their own advance with British decline. They compared the achievements of the Anzacs in the glad confident morning of their initiation to those of stunted, spiritless Tommies and their snobbish, nonchalant officers and came to accept Bean’s view that their own force possessed a “unity of spirit almost impossible under a more feudal tradition.”158 They detected in the old country a pervasive air of decadence. The seed of alienation had been sown and it grew as Britain’s power withered. By the late 1920s Billy Hughes himself considered that the splendid glow which the British Empire cast on the earth reflected not its noon-day greatness but the fading hues of sunset. He was not alone in thinking that the “United States is destined to assume the hegemony of the world of tomorrow.”159

The rise of the American empire was watched with particular alarm in Canada. Between the confederation of 1867 and the outbreak of the Great War its own population barely doubled, to eight million, whereas by 1914 the United States could boast nearly one hundred million citizens. After the Civil War, moreover, Americans went west so swiftly that in less than three decades the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner was able to declare an end to the golden age of expansion from sea to shining sea. But could the great republic, now poised to become an imperial power, open a new frontier to the north? Most Americans continued to think of the whole region above the forty-ninth parallel—when they thought of it at all—as a glacial wilderness. In 1869 the Ottawa government bought the vast central tract known as Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company for a mere £300,000 (plus additional territory). Canada was a corpse shrouded in snow. There was no point in capturing it, said one U.S. army commander: “New York is worth a hundred Canadas.”160

On the other hand, the empty immensity of The Great Lone Land, as Wolseley’s protégé William Butler famously called it in 1872, offered limitless potential. Canada’s mineral wealth might eclipse the treasure of the Yukon. Its forests darkened the earth and their clearance was expected to produce not only enormous profit but a warmer climate. (The authority for this unscientific notion was Edward Gibbon, who said that Germany, on the same latitude as Canada, had become “more temperate”161 since Roman days because of the destruction of its canopy of trees.) Canada contained oceans of grass, which had sustained huge herds of buffalo, now fast being annihilated along with the plains Indians who lived in symbiosis with them. To Butler and others it seemed “impossible that the wave of life which rolls so unceasingly into America can leave unoccupied this great fertile tract.”162 Canadians averse to the French connection occasionally mooted an Anglo-Saxon reunification in North America. And sometimes Uncle Sam seemed keen to extend his bony reach to the Pole. That the “blue-bellied” Yankees, having defeated the Confederacy, might set their sights on the Confederation, whose red-coated North West Mounted Police were only a symbolic deterrent, appeared most likely before Canada completed its transcontinental railway in 1885. The opening of an American line just south of the border, a U.S. Senate committee had reported in 1869, would seal the fate of “British possessions west of the ninety-first meridian. They will become so Americanised in interests and feelings that they will be in effect severed from the new Dominion.” Annexation would then be only “a question of time.”163 So the Canadian Pacific Railway was much more than a gigantic commercial enterprise and a prodigious feat of engineering. It was a first line of defence. It was an exercise in nation building, an endeavour to bind together all British territories in North America with “sinews of iron.”164

The Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald inaugurated the project in 1871 specifically to secure the entry of British Columbia into the Confederation. The fifty thousand inhabitants of this far western colony were immured behind the mighty barricade of the Rocky Mountains and, hungry Americans boasted, “sandwiched” between Alaska and Idaho.165 Macdonald, a flamboyant figure with silver-topped cane and fur-collared coat who talked like a Highland laird and drank like a railroad navvy, promised British Columbians a steel highway to Ottawa by 1883. In view of the stupendous financial and geographical obstacles, this smacked more of alcoholic delirium than national dream. All too soon the railway was bedevilled by a series of false starts, cash crises, disputes, scandals and setbacks. In 1873, for example, Macdonald himself lost office for five years when stolen documents revealed that the company bidding to build the railway had contributed lavishly to his party’s election expenses. Not until 1881, when a new consortium appointed William Van Horne to manage the undertaking, did the Canadian Pacific build up a full head of steam.

Born in an Illinois log cabin, Van Horne owed his promotion to an irresistible combination of energy, ability and brute strength. In body he came to resemble King Edward VII but in character he was “a first-class tyrant.”166 His sceptre was a foot-long cigar and his cobalt-blue eyes seemed to bore into minions like a Burleigh rock drill. No one else could have so brilliantly commanded the twenty-thousand-strong army of labourers, teamsters, muleteers, blacksmiths, loggers, carpenters, bridge-builders, engineers, surveyors, cooks, clerks, dispatchers, trainmen, telegraphists and operatives of all sorts required to girdle the continent. Among this human “refuse,” wrote one of Van Horne’s lieutenants, were “some of the worst cut throats and thieves I ever met.”167 They were especially given to mayhem when sold whisky by illicit traders, whose brew was “a mixture of blue ruin, chain lightning, strychnine, the curse of God and old rye.”168 Yet the advance of Van Horne’s legions was likened to General Sherman’s march to the sea. The discipline and drive owed much to the skill and experience of his construction supervisors and gang bosses, many of whom were American. Much of the capital that kept the enterprise on the rails also came from the United States, and from Great Britain—which supplied, too, most of the rails. In fact, Canada’s national lifeline owed its existence to international endeavour.

This irony counted for nothing as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) embarked on its titanic struggle with the forces of nature. The first great barrier was the Canadian Shield itself, that pre-Cambrian carapace of gneiss and granite that stretches down to the tempestuous shores of Lake Superior. The earth’s most ancient armour, this hard, grey, ridged rock presented Van Horne with “200 miles of engineering impossibilities.” For months his men blasted their way through it using three tons of dynamite a day and causing many fatal accidents. Next they faced a three-hundred-mile tract of sphagnum bog, guarded by walls of black flies and mosquitoes which (according to Butler) made the insects of India seem almost benign. The muskeg, as this marshland was called, devoured locomotives at a gulp and could have ingested the entire CPR. It also swallowed mountains of gravel and ballast while remaining so spongy that the line was liable to undulate or sink. Next came the prairie, an arid expanse white with buffalo bones—the CPR took the less fertile southerly route, probably to fend off competition above and below the border. Every stick, plank, sleeper and telegraph pole had to be hauled from Winnipeg into this 850-mile-wide steppe along a causeway created by the excavation of ten million cubic yards of earth. So did every rail, spike, fishplate and load of provisions—a logistical operation to baffle any general. But assembly-line organisation caused the steel to roll westwards at nearly three and a half miles each day. Its progress reminded Father Albert Lacombe of “a flight of wild geese cleaving the sky.”169

The Blackfoot people, to whom this black-robed Oblate ministered, believed that beyond the “Mountains of the Setting Sun”170 lay paradise. Van Horne might have agreed as he strove to thread his way through the monstrous cordillera at speed—before the CPR was engulfed by bankruptcy. The route, via the Kicking Horse and Rogers Passes, was serpentine, precipitous and choked by an icy jungle. Temperatures fell below minus 30 degrees, when metal burned flesh and boiling tea froze as it was drunk; and rails laid in these conditions expanded and buckled as the weather warmed. Sometimes forest fires halted the work. Sometimes the track was buried under thirty feet of snow. Million-ton avalanches thundered down at a hundred miles an hour, generating their own cyclones and reducing cheap trestle bridges and timber viaducts to matchwood. Many workers perished during the final push, including a disproportionate number of Chinese. Tradition has it that each foot of railroad built through the Fraser Canyon cost a coolie’s life—a gross exaggeration though, since Chinese did not count, their deaths were not counted. Finally, as the sign erected at Craigellachie announced: “Here on Nov. 7, 1885, a plain iron spike welded East to West.”171

That legend commemorates a political achievement to match the stupendous human effort. Macdonald’s feat of nation creation through railway construction ranked with those of Bismarck, Cavour and Grant. This is not to suggest that the CPR was anything other than a commercial venture. It was founded to make money, as Van Horne acknowledged, “and for no other purpose under the sun.”172 It profited spectacularly once the line was complete. The CPR ruthlessly exploited its government grant of twenty-five million acres. It sprouted branch lines. It diversified into luxury steamships and grand hotels resembling medieval castles and French châteaux. It promoted tourism in the “Canadian Alps,” urging its customers to see this world before they saw the next.173However, the main result of the railway’s economic success was to people the prairies. By 1911 the CPR had brought in 1.3 million inhabitants, which could not have been accomplished by squealing Red River ox carts lashed together with shaganappi, strips of buffalo hide used in lieu of expensive nails. New habitations burgeoned beside the trail of the iron horse.

At first they were shantytowns apparently “laid out on designs made by a colony of muskrats.”174 Soon they expanded in size and civic dignity. Winnipeg, which had attracted the CPR with concessions amounting to bribes and flourished with the Edwardian wheat boom, resembled “a great mushroom sprung up in the night out of the prairie.”175 Regina, “a double-barrelled forty-horse-power fool of a name”176 chosen by the Governor-General’s wife Lady Lorne (Queen Victoria’s daughter) to replace the coarse appellation Pile O’ Bones, rose to become the capital of Saskatchewan. A street of shacks in 1885, Calgary “grows while you watch it,” wrote an English visitor in 1910, noting that the Canadian Pacific was “willing to give ‘ready made farms’” to suitable British settlers.177 Vancouver, which granted the CPR 6,458 acres in the heart of the future city, thrived as its western railhead. By creating, linking and developing such centres, the Canadian Pacific realised Macdonald’s vision of transforming the dominion from a “geographical expression” into “one great united country with a large inter-provincial trade and a common interest.”178It is true that the Prime Minister, like most of his compatriots, regarded the transcontinental connection as an “Imperial Highway.” It was an “All-Red” route linking the mother country to the Antipodes.179 However, the further Canada travelled towards the terminus of full nationhood the more prone it was to diverge from the line of empire. Macdonald himself, though he always honoured the Crown and saluted the Union Jack, put Canada first when it came to assisting in the rescue of General Gordon and raising a national tariff barrier. Imperial federation was a will-’o-the-wisp beside a Canadian Confederation forged with blood and iron.

Of course, confederation was anything but complete. Regional differences were acute and not until 1949 did Newfoundland, Britain’s oldest colony, become Canada’s last province. Moreover, immigration added to the diversity of the dominion, making it more like South Africa than Australia or New Zealand, where the white population was nearly all of British stock. In 1870 a quarter of Canada’s population spoke with an Irish accent—despite the Emerald Isle’s reputation for lack of industry, said William Butler, it manufactured nations. Among subsequent settlers were Icelanders, Jews and German-speaking Mennonites from the Ukraine. Their numbers were later swollen by Scandinavians and East Europeans, many fleeing from the Cossack knout and the Habsburg yoke. Anglo-Saxon critics characterised them as the “scum and dregs of the old world.”180But the “stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat,”181 to employ the phrase coined by Canada’s Minister of the Interior, proved his worth as a pioneer. The bitter cold, the sod hut and the peat fire held no terrors for him. He and his ilk were used to back-breaking toil. Doukhobors (Russian nonconformist Christians) who lacked horses thought nothing of harnessing a score of their women to the plough. Many of the million Britons who moved to Canada in the decade before the Great War seemed feeble by comparison. Farms in what was advertised as “The Last Best West” often displayed signs on their gates saying, “No Englishman need apply.” Some who could not find jobs drifted into Canada’s growing urban slums and became a “drain on public relief moneys.”182 The mother country was mortified.

Eminent Edwardians, from General Baden-Powell to General Booth (founder of the Salvation Army), set up training schemes to prepare the “depraved and destitute” of British cities for the regenerative experience of tilling the virgin prairie.183 These were works of practical imperialism designed to strengthen Canada as a member of the extended British family. Doubtless they had some effect. Probably they helped to reinforce Canadians’ sense of themselves as virile “new Britons” tempered by frontier and climate.184 This was a chilly version of Antipodean folklore about the saving power of the wilderness. The idea was that decadence blossomed in the warm south whereas long winter nights encouraged a wholesome fecundity. As Joseph Howe said, “Large, vigorous, healthy families spring from feather beds in which Jack Frost compels people to lie close.”185 Canadians identified with Gibbon’s “hardy children of the North,” with robust backwoodsmen like the Teutonic Cimbri who, “by way of amusement, often slid down mountains of snow on their broad shields.”186 Yet such transplanted Britons, having bidden “farewell to feudalism” in the old country, inevitably aspired to “perfect independence” in the New World.187 Moreover, the advent of so many aliens, nearly all Protestants who became part of Anglophone society, widened the great national schism. French Canadians, themselves deemed to be descendants of rugged northern Gauls, felt threatened by the influx. Despite their high birth rate, it reduced them, as a proportion of the population, to just over a quarter. As a result they fought all the more fiercely for political and cultural survival. Their existence depended on resistance to the integration of Canada as a nation.

Wilfrid Laurier, the handsome curly-haired lawyer who in 1896 became the country’s first French-Canadian Prime Minister, sought unity in diversity. “My object is to consolidate Confederation, and to bring our people long estranged from each other, gradually to become a nation,” he wrote. “This is the supreme issue. Everything else is subordinate to that idea.”188 To realise the idea Laurier had to perform a tightrope act worthy of Blondin over Niagara. Thus he revived the Liberal Party while mollifying Quebec’s Roman Catholic bishops, who still itched to damn it as the spawn of Beelzebub. He expressed pride in the Empire while politely obstructing, for the sake of Canadian autonomy, British attempts to centralise it. In 1897 he frustrated Chamberlain’s endeavour to set up an Imperial Council, accepting instead the more intermittent Imperial Conference. But he played a prominent part in the Diamond Jubilee procession, wearing the cocked hat, gold-frogged tunic and white silk stockings of a Privy Councillor and sporting the seven-pointed star of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. At home anti-imperialists complained that British titles sapped colonial virtue. But though Sir Wilfrid was fascinated by the glitter of rank, he was not seduced. He showed little enthusiasm for helping Britain during the Boer War, though he believed the Empire’s cause was just. In fact he was so suavely evasive about contributing to imperial defence that Chamberlain said he would rather do business with a straightforward cad. Dr. Jameson said that Laurier was a “damn dancin’ master” who had “bitched the whole show.”189

The question of whether and when Canadians should be prepared to shed their blood for the Crown split the dominion to its foundations. Those of British descent had, in Kipling’s words, “a certain crude faith in the Empire, of which they naturally conceive themselves to be the belly button.”190 The Boer War, many of them thought, provided an opportunity to strengthen the cord of loyalty that still bound the infant land to the mother country. Sending a Canadian contingent to fight on the veldt would also be a move towards political maturity, towards toughening the Confederation’s moral fibre, forging the national character and summoning up a new spirit of patriotism. According to the most ardent jingoists, that spirit was best expressed in the slogan of the Orange Order: “One race, one flag, one throne.” Some also demanded one tongue and one faith, asserting majority rights in Canada just as vehemently as they asserted minority rights in Ireland. The Orangemen were powerful, having nine hundred lodges in Ontario alone and helping to impose a dour Puritanism that made it possible, according to the old joke, to spend a week in Toronto on a Sunday. To counter the sectarianism of Canadians, Canadiens often professed a willingness to fight for the Empire, which offered the best chance of preserving the dualism of the dominion and thus protecting their identity. But the Boer War presented them with the brutal spectacle of Great Britain attempting to coerce into conformity another small people. No one expressed Quebec’s indignation with more eloquence than Henri Bourassa, a zealot to match his revolutionary grandfather Jean-Louis Papineau. He denounced “the military frenzy which is the means of grabbing and maintaining foreign territory”191 and declared that patriotism of this kind was the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Laurier had to find a compromise that would mollify, though it might not satisfy, each community. He did so by authorising the dispatch to South Africa of a Canadian force made up of volunteers. As the Prime Minister told Bourassa, he thus avoided “a cleavage in the population of this country upon racial lines. A greater calamity could never take place in Canada.”192 Laurier made the most of Canadian achievements in this conflict, announcing that a new power had arisen in the West. But it was not powerful enough to chart a truly independent course, even under the direction of Laurier, who shunned both imperialism and anti-imperialism and kept before him “as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism.”193 His steps were tentative. Canada took over all its own defences and in 1909 established a Department of External Affairs—above a small barber’s shop in Ottawa. The country hovered uneasily between its growing American neighbour and its fading European mother, negotiating a controversial trade agreement with the United States and seeking an acceptable way to augment Britain’s naval strength. Eventually, despite Laurier’s efforts, Canada was sucked into the vortex of militarism. This had paradoxical consequences. The Great War ultimately divided Canadians. Laurier himself, who memorably declared in 1914 that all his countrymen were “Ready, aye, ready,”194 was by 1917 supporting the bitter French-Canadian campaign against conscription. Yet the war helped to create a nation united in its determination to shake off the last vestiges of Britannic tutelage, a nation eager to exchange its subordinate place in an old Empire for equal membership of a young Commonwealth.

In early August 1914 all Canada rejoiced at the prospect of a death grapple with Germany. Echoing to the sound of the “Marseillaise” and “Rule, Britannia!,” the streets of Montreal and Quebec, like those of Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto, blazed with banners and overflowed with parades. In the province of Quebec prelates and press supported the war, with the solitary exception of La Vérité which warned that France’s greatest foe was not Germany but Freemasonry. But Bourassa soon changed his own tune and that of most other French Canadians. They focused on domestic issues and enemies, at first discouraging enlistment into an army which used only English as the language of command and later putting up violent resistance to conscription. The conflict stirred atavistic passions. Irish Catholics, loyal Canadians who were keen to distinguish themselves from Francophone “hooligans,” responded eagerly to the slogan (blessed by their bishops), “Join the Buffs and Hunt the Huns.”195 French Canada could not be assimilated or accommodated or assuaged, and nationalist opposition to Anglo-Saxon imperialism in all its forms became more deeply entrenched. “They fly the Tricolor everywhere,” wrote an indignant English visitor, “even over His Majesty’s Post Office!”196In Ontario “Von Bourassa”197 was denounced as a traitor. No one did more to foster xenophobia than “Drill Hall” Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia in Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government, who had once attributed an outbreak of smallpox in Montreal to the prevalence of popery.

Hughes was a foul-mouthed bully who drummed up recruits with speeches described as “a medley of blatherskite and rodomontade.”198 He was, furthermore, incompetent, corrupt and probably more or less mad. His training schemes were the stuff of comic opera. He insisted (until 1915) that wives should give written permission for their husbands to depart. He bestowed contracts on cronies who produced defective equipment, such as the Ross rifle which was fatally liable to jam. He also tried to augment his own authority by appointing three generals to the same post, more than violating Lloyd George’s principle that although one general might not be better than another, “one General is better than two.”199 In 1916 Borden dismissed Hughes, his antics becoming unacceptable as the dominion’s forces grew ever more professional. Like the Anzacs, Canadians were hailed as natural soldiers. They were supposed to be instinctively aggressive, hardened by the wilderness and inspired with the democratic spirit. There was a grain of truth in the myth. Major Edison Lynn, MC, wrote: “I am sure Napoleon at the zenith of his powers had not men more keen than ours.”200 But only a quarter of Canadians could be classed as backwoodsmen and the conflict took its toll on the toughest. Having been buried five times at Festubert by “Jack Johnson” shells and lost 250 men in “a senseless attack,” the commander of the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion wrote home: “I am pretty well all right now but am scared of my nerves going, as I seem to be getting confoundedly jumpy…if I get sent back to England for putting straw in the corner for the crocodile to sleep on, don’t be surprised.”201 Again like the Australasians, Canadians had to learn the business of modern warfare through trial and error, “in a bloodbath of confusion and mis-direction.”202

The most terrible carnage occurred on the Somme. Unforgettably, on the first day of that battle, 1 July 1916, the British suffered sixty thousand casualties, nearly a third of them killed. Many were shot down in ranks as they walked with rifle and sixty-pound pack into the mouths of the German machine guns. In forty-five minutes the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment lost 684 out of 752 men, a casualty rate “which can scarcely have been equalled by any unit during the war.”203 The Canadians themselves lost over 24,000 men during subsequent months of attrition. They became understandably disillusioned about British generals. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, for example, felt that every step in his Somme plan had been taken with divine help but disparaged Canadians who suffered a reverse: “men with strange equipment and rugged countenances and beards are not all determined fighters.”204 Attempting to instil “blood lust” into the 5th Army, Sir Hubert Gough told his staff, “I want to shoot two officers.”205 In the 3rd Army “Bull” Allenby even demanded obedience from the dead, once complaining that a corpse was not wearing regulation uniform. He sometimes intimidated living subordinates so as to make them physically sick. A cynical captain said that the best sight he saw on the Somme was “two Brigadier Generals lying dead in the same shell hole.”206 Afterwards the authorities made one change in the British infantry handbook, deleting an instruction to “close with the enemy, cost what it may.”207

By 1917 the four Canadian divisions, now fighting together for the first time, had acquired the experience to achieve their historic victory at Vimy Ridge with a smaller investment of flesh and blood. This battle, for all the significance later attached to it, was actually just part of a British diversion to assist a major French offensive against the Hindenburg Line. But it occurred at a crucial moment, three days after the United States entered the war and a week before Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd. Since the Americans would take months to mobilise, whereas a Russian collapse would speedily release 1.5 million German troops to fight on the Western Front, the Allied position was precarious. Moreover, Vimy Ridge was important because it dominated the Flanders plain. From its 450-foot eminence, said one observer, “more of the war could be seen than from any other place in France.”208 The Ridge was a fortress of long standing. “To all outward appearances it is only a huge mound,” wrote Major Lynn, “but it is as full of galleries and chambers as a field would be full of moles.” Tacitus, he noted, had told how the Germans, when fighting against Rome, had “built shelters in the chalk” as they were doing now.209 Honeycombed with trenches, tunnels, deep bunkers, concrete pillboxes and camouflaged machine-gun nests, all protected by forty-yard-wide belts of barbed wire, the Ridge had become a German Gibraltar. To capture it the Canadians developed tactics which ultimately helped to win the war.

They studied French methods and trained on a replica of the battlefield based on ground reconnaissance and aerial photographs, obtained at great cost. They assembled vast quantities of stores, rations and ammunition. They constructed twenty-five miles of new road, twenty miles of tramway and four miles of tunnels to transport men and supplies to the front, connected to the rear by eighty-seven miles of telephone cable. They orchestrated a bombardment weighing fifty thousand tons which smashed the German fortifications, cut their wire and destroyed most of their hidden batteries, pinpointed by new sound-ranging techniques. At dawn on Easter Monday the explosion of mines was heard above the deafening roar of nearly a thousand guns and the dark Ridge became enveloped in multi-coloured smoke. Then, as the Canadians went over the top, it was illuminated by a golden rain: the Germans fired amber flares which burst in clusters of sparks and stars to summon their own artillery support. Unencumbered with packs or even greatcoats, despite the snow, the dominion’s army advanced under a barrage that rolled forward one hundred yards every three minutes. The shells thrashed the earth in front of them like a giant flail. The heavy machine-gun bullets flew so thickly that they beat the strands of barbed wire into solid chunks of metal. Under this “cupola of lead,”210 this “solid ceiling of sound,” the weaving and ducking Canadians seemed to execute a “mad macabre dance.”211

They crossed the enemy’s first trench without even recognising it amid the chaos of craters. They dashed through flurries of sleet and streaks of flame, using cover and infiltrating in small, specialised groups, every man his own general. They bombed dugouts, captured grey, dazed prisoners and outflanked German strongpoints. From them the defenders crawled once the first wave had passed and so many Canadians got bullets in the back that the water in shell-holes turned red with blood. But the attackers, conscious that they had done “wonderfully well,”212 exulted in the unfamiliar sense of victory. Even the wounded appeared euphoric. One man who had both legs shot off tried to lever himself forward with his rifle: “You would think he was sitting in a canoe trying to paddle with his gun.”213 In two hours the first Canadians crested Vimy Ridge, later followed by supporting brigades. In mid-morning the heavens themselves shone forth their triumph, for suddenly the sky cleared and the sun lit up the pock-marked shambles. Groups of soldiers stood about admiring the panorama, officers waving their swagger sticks, as the enemy beat a retreat. The thrill was palpable. “For a few minutes the artillery fire almost ceased on both sides and complete silence fell as if all were lost in wonder,” wrote a witness. “The battle itself seemed to hold its breath.”214

After that pause the Canadians secured their hold on the Ridge, with the assistance of new Livens projectors which could fire fifty-pound drums of mustard gas over half a mile. But tanks were too cumbersome and cavalry were too vulnerable to achieve a breakthrough. Well out in the Arras plain the German line solidified once more and the bloody stalemate resumed. Still, the assault had captured more guns, prisoners and ground than any previous British offensive on the Western Front. The Canadian volunteers—Klondike prospectors, Alberta cattlemen, Saskatchewan wheat farmers, store clerks from Manitoba, businessmen from Ontario, labourers from Quebec, lumberjacks, steel workers and fishermen from the Maritimes—had proved themselves the equals of any soldiers fighting for the Allies. Indeed, as Lloyd George said, for the rest of the war they were used as “storm troops…to head the assault in one great battle after another.”215 As such they stayed together (despite Haig’s attempt to employ them piecemeal) under the command of a Canadian, Sir Arthur Currie. He was ungainly and unpopular, once welcoming survivors from a battered unit with the words: “That’s the way I like to see you, all mud and blood.”216 But he was parsimonious with their lives and he led them to success. Their achievement transformed Borden from a distant auxiliary, reliant on newspapers for information about the conflict, to a full ally with a seat on the Imperial War Cabinet. This body recognised the principle, which Borden formulated in 1917, that the dominions were the “autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth.” The crucial change in status and title reflected the way in which Canada, like the other dominions, had entered “the portal of full nationhood.”217

Borden’s cliché was repeated in many forms for it summed up a general view. As early as 1915 Canadians could hear a “new birth-song” for their country “filling the sky.”218 A year later Bourassa’s cousin, Captain Talbot Papineau, rebuked him for his anti-imperial views and said a true nationalist would have felt that “in the agony of her losses in Belgium and France, Canada was suffering the birth pains of her national life.”219 An Englishwoman on a visit to Ottawa, observing the contempt felt for “those horrible Yankees” who were only interested in profiting from the war, concluded: “To a very great extent Canada is finding her soul, and like most of us, through suffering.”220 The artist A. Y. Jackson said in 1919, “We are no longer humble colonials, we’ve made armies….”221 So Canada asserted itself during the peace-making process, the decimation of its army providing sixty thousand reasons why Borden’s arguments should prevail. Canada became a sovereign member of the League of Nations, which Borden supported even though he considered it “absolutely impracticable.”222 Canada also took a grip on its own foreign policy, notably refusing Lloyd George’s appeal for help in a further confrontation with Turkey in 1922. Since the war had beggared Britain, Canada sought closer cooperation with the United States, which bought ten times more of its exports than did the mother country. Armageddon was in crucial respects a “modernising experience.”223 Thus Canada rejected hereditary titles for its citizens and strove to define its destiny at home, an endeavour complicated yet stimulated by the French component, as well as abroad. The dominion’s memorials to the glorious dead spoke most eloquently about what had been its war of independence. At Vimy Ridge two lofty pylons, made of marble hewn from the quarry in Dalmatia which the Emperor Diocletian had used to build one of his palaces, symbolised France and Canada, allies in arms, partners in grief and equals in status. The Ottawa monument consists of twenty-two bronze soldiers, a group designed to embody the nation, passing through a triumphal arch. That represents death being swallowed up in victory, the individual sacrifice which redeems and liberates an entire people.

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