Part II

‘The great liner is sinking’: the British world-system in the age of war



The longer war

1914 was the watershed between two ages of empire. In the long nineteenth century after 1815, the British world-system had developed as if there were no danger of a general war in Europe or across the world. Despite the Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German unification and the Franco-Prussian War, this had proved a reasonable assumption. The results can be seen from a glance at the map. Britain's settlements, possessions, spheres and commercial property were scattered broadcast across the globe. Whatever the constitutional niceties, in the ‘formal’ empire colonial rule was highly devolved: to settler politicians in the white dominions; to imperial officials in the rest. Devolution assumed that their defence would fall to the Royal Navy, or be made redundant by its global reach. The exception was India which paid for its own standing army and much more beside (two-thirds, in fact, of the Empire's regular army). Imperial rivalry was real, and posed a threat to Britain's interests. But the threat was usually more regional (and Near Eastern) than general. Much of its force was deflected by the partition diplomacy of the 1880s and 1890s. As a consequence, across large parts of the world, British influence could be maintained by the ‘soft power’ of commerce and culture. This had made possible the coexistence of imperialism and liberalism in Britain, in the settler colonies and even, more fitfully, in India. For all its hard coercive face, colonial rule retained the power to engage local sympathy by its liberal promise – however sparingly fulfilled – of individual freedom and material progress. The imperialism of free trade, variously interpreted, frequently modified, often abused, remained the Leitmotif of a system whose protean ideology was a cocktail: global and cosmopolitan as much as racial and territorial.

The geopolitical foundations of the Victorian and Edwardian world-system rested in the last resort upon two sets of equations at the opposite ends of the Old World. In East Asia where a local great power might have challenged British influence, there had seemed little to fear before the mid-1890s. Thereafter, disintegration not self-assertion was the most likely prognosis for China. Japan was a different story. After 1895, when it seized Taiwan, it became a cadet imperialist. Ten years later, it became the strongest military power in East Asia, defeating the Russians. But Japan was still a ‘country power’: fearful of a European combination against it. Up to 1914, its local strength seemed to work to Britain's advantage. The Anglo-Japanese alliance, twice renewed, held the ring in East Asia while British efforts were concentrated on the deterrence of Germany.

In Europe, the geopolitical equation was very different. Europe was active, not passive. In Churchill's expressive phrase, it was ‘where the weather came from’. Commercially, territorially and demographically, nineteenth-century Europe was in a phase of hyper-expansion. Towards the end of the century, the pace and scale of this European ‘enlargement’ rose sharply on a tide of trade and capital. International tensions – stoked by private interests – grew more acute. But only to a certain point. Dynamic though the continent had become in its social and economic character, politically it remained in the grip of the long conservative reaction that set in generally after 1815. The old regime persisted. No great power government dared contemplate kicking over the European chessboard – with the possible exception of Napoleon III in 1859. All had too much to lose, or were too uncertain of ultimate victory. Nor were they driven into general war by the threat to their survival. Nationalism exerted a potent appeal as the instrument of state-building (‘official nationalism’) and as an equal and opposite claim for the liberation of ‘submerged nationalities’ from the chains of dynastic Europe. Both versions could have volatile consequences. But, until the end of the century, great power governments seemed more than capable of restraining their disruptive potential.

For the British, this pattern of continental politics was highly convenient. They could not hope to prevent the overflow of European trade, influence and territorial ambition into the wider world. But there were good grounds to think that the distribution of power in continental Europe between four and a half great powers (the half being Italy) would persist indefinitely. No single power, nor any likely combination of powers, could hope for a durable hegemony over all the rest. The mutual antipathy of the continental states neutralised their resentment at Britain's vast share of imperial booty. Fearing that they would be dragged into war by the antics of their frontiersmen in Afro-Asia (or the furore of their admirers at home), continental statesmen accepted the partition diplomacy through which Salisbury and his successors hoped to stabilise (and maximise) the British share. Thus, for all the intensity of Europe's engagement with the wider world after 1870, there were few signs before 1914 of a coming revolution in world politics. In a ‘closed system’ in which the global ‘commons’ had been all but shared out, international politics were bound to be stressful. Zones of insecurity would wax and wane. But, while the East remained passive, and the West was locked in the defensive diplomacy of the ‘balance of power’, the British world-system – strung out between the two – could guard its networks at bearable cost.

In retrospect, of course, we can see that the pre-war decade contained the omens of catastrophic change. German economic power was growing rapidly. Nationalism in East and Central Europe was becoming more violent. Urbanisation and agrarian hardship screwed up the social tensions. Most dangerous of all, as it turned out, were the volcanic nationalisms of Southeastern Europe. The Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and 1913–14, and the struggle of Serbian nationalists against Austrian over-rule in Bosnia, were symptomatic of a region where the writ of the great powers hardly ran, but where their rivalries were fuelled by the ethnic conflict of would-be clients. In July 1914, the Habsburg government tried to use the Sarajevo murders to crush Serbian nationalism, and humiliate Russia, Serbia's great power sponsor. It was a colossal blunder. Southeastern Europe was not a remote colonial region where the stakes were low and compromise easy. Its fate was thought crucial to the balance of Russian, Austrian and German power. So the statesmen who had partitioned half the world fell out over the most backward corner of their own continent.

The First World War was the violent rupture of the nineteenth-century world in which the vast scale of British expansion had been possible. It was the murderous first act of a conflict that was to last until the 1950s, or (by some criteria) until 1990. It helped blow apart the world economy and reversed the first ‘globalisation’ in a wave of economic nationalism. The collapse of the old imperial order in East and Central Europe wrecked the pre-war basis of great power diplomacy and sanctified the nation-state as the ideal form of territorial polity. In post-imperial Europe, ethnic conflict became even more bitter and much more wide-ranging. It was soon entangled in the ideological warfare between communism and its enemies, with drastic consequences for regional stability. Nor in the closed system the world had become could the war's effects be confined to Europe. By its end, almost every state had become a belligerent or been drawn willy-nilly into the fighting. In East Asia the consequences were especially dramatic. In this unpartitioned corner of the semi-colonial world, the wartime abdication of the European powers had been a golden opportunity for local ambition. ‘Passive’ East Asia entered its revolutionary phase in the triangular struggle of nationalists, communists and Japanese imperialists. Western interests could no longer be protected by a gunboat and a corporal's guard. By the mid-1930s, it seemed increasingly likely that the turbulence in East Asia would spill over into the ‘colonial’ lands of the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and even India.

The impact of these vast changes on the British system was profound and ultimately devastating. It is tempting in hindsight to see the First World War as the first and longest step towards its eventual disintegration. But that may be too simple a judgment. The war imposed huge strains on the British system. It permanently altered the external setting. It badly damaged the international economy with which British power had grown symbiotically. But the British were also the principal victors in this war of empires. They lost less and gained more than all the other original combatants. In the post-war world, with its corrosive frictions and shattered finances, this ‘victory’ won them a crucial breathing-space. It bought strategic gains and political time: to entrench their empire militarily and reform it constitutionally. It was a vital respite before the long war of the twentieth century resumed its course.

The Imperial Armageddon

Before the war, British leaders (and their strategic advisers) had assumed that the Royal Navy would be Britain's principal weapon in any Great Power conflict in Europe. The pre-war scheme for a small expeditionary force (the ‘BEF’) to fight on the continent alongside France had not altered this view: there were no plans to increase the size of the army even after a war had begun.1 The reasoning behind this ‘navalist’ strategy was simple. The British expected that, in a war fought to maintain the European balance of power against German aggression, the great conscript armies of France and Russia would bear the brunt of the fighting on land. The BEF would be a useful reinforcement in the critical opening phase – and a gesture of solidarity. But Britain's real contribution would be maritime and economic. The navy would sweep the seas clear of enemy warships (and safeguard vital lanes of supply), gobble up the German colonies and impose the blockade that would steadily strangle the German economy. Meanwhile, British finance, industrial output and inexhaustible coal would sustain the war effort of the Entente. A war fought on these terms until the Germans gave in would have a minor impact on British interests around the world. It would leave the pre-war shape of the British world-system largely unchanged.

Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war in August 1914 it was clear that this grand strategy was quite unreal. It was true that Germany's surface navy was soon driven from the high seas. In Southwest Africa and the South Pacific (though not in German East Africa where Von Lettow Vorbeck held out to the bitter end), German colonies were quickly seized. But British sea-power was not the great offensive weapon on which navy traditionalists had counted. The attempt to break through the Dardanelles in 1915 was an embarrassing failure. The British Grand Fleet spent the war in the Orkneys waiting for the Germans to venture into the North Sea. When they did so in 1916, there was no Trafalgar but only the inconclusive battle of Jutland. The role of the Royal Navy was vital but defensive, though it was ill-equipped to counter the submarine menace especially after February 1917 when the Germans turned to unrestricted submarine warfare. Tied down in the North Sea, it watched the rise of American sea-power in the North Atlantic, and its Japanese counterpart in the Western Pacific. Blockade was its primary means of attack: the slow remorseless pressure on the morale and physique of the German army and people.2 But, even in 1918, it was uncertain whether it could work fast enough to stop Germany winning the war.

Instead, for the British, like their continental allies, the ‘real’ war was on land. Although the Germans were denied a Blitzkrieg victory in 1914, by the end of the year they controlled most of Belgium, including part of its coastline, and a large area of Northern France to within fifty miles of Paris. Far from intervening to restore the balance of power, the British now found themselves in a dangerous position. If France were defeated outright, or gave up an unwinnable struggle to evict the Germans, Britain would have suffered a catastrophic setback. German control of Belgium and its ports would destroy the benefits of British insularity. French defeat would end the cooperation that allowed naval concentration against Germany. It might mean German control over France's fleet. At best, the security of Britain – the imperial centre – would have been compromised in ways that weakened British influence around the world. At worst, the Germans would have taken a long step towards uniting the European continent against Britain's global pretensions. In either case, the implications for the stability and cohesion of the British world-system were stark.

It followed that, from the end of 1914 until the armistice of November 1918, the British war effort was dominated by the increasingly desperate struggle to reverse the early verdict of the fighting and escape the geopolitical nightmare threatened by failure to liberate Belgium and Northern France. Lord Kitchener, who had been brought into the Liberal government to take charge of the army, quickly realised that a vast new volunteer force must be raised for the continental war. He intended to hold it back for a decisive blow, perhaps in 1917, when the continental powers had fought themselves to a standstill. This would ensure a loud British voice in the subsequent peace, an echo of the Vienna treaty in 1815. He was too optimistic. The scale of German success against the Entente powers forced a premature offensive in 1915. In 1916, the disasters on the Eastern Front,3 and the attrition of France's manpower at Verdun, forced the British into a reluctant offensive on the Somme that was abandoned after 400,000 casualties. After two years of war on the Western Front, and a quarter of a million British dead, there had been no progress on the most vital of British war aims.

Indeed, by the end of 1916, the military problem seemed all but insoluble – except to the generals. To win on the Western Front, the British and the French had to drive the Germans from positions they had seized and fortified in the opening phase of the war. They had to achieve this against an enemy enjoying all the advantages of interior lines. As an attack developed, the Germans could shuttle their reinforcements across the battle zone by rail: the attackers had to walk through mud and barbed wire. Moving into the open exposed the attacking force not just to rifle and machine gun fire, but to the deadly barrage of heavy artillery, which inflicted three-quarters of all casualties. With little chance of a decisive breakthrough, the only means of breaking the enemy's will was through ‘attrition’: forcing German troops to fight, at whatever cost, in the hope of eventually wearing down their reserves of manpower and morale. With so desperate a strategy, and so few signs of success, it was hardly surprising that by November 1916 a mood of pessimism engulfed most of those responsible for the war effort of the British Empire.4

These were the circumstances in which the coalition government that Asquith had formed in May 1915 was overthrown by a political coup in December 1916. The new coalition led by Lloyd George, with some Liberal but more Tory support, signalled the determination to win and to mobilise every resource for victory. But Lloyd George, who grasped better than anyone the political and technical difficulties of a total war, and Lord Milner, who became his chief lieutenant, were both keenly aware of how the drain of blood on the Western Front would affect the deeper sources of British power. Even with conscription to filter the call-up of skilled men, the huge losses of attrition warfare would weaken the British economy, limit its war production and cut down the exports that helped pay the inflated bill of vital imports. Economic exhaustion would accelerate war-weariness, starve Britain's allies of the material they needed and might break both the will and the means of victory. Despite these misgivings, no alternative plan was possible in 1917.5 Instead, the pressure grew for even greater sacrifice on the Western Front. The gradual collapse of the Russian army, the threatened collapse of the French – whose losses had been far higher than the British – made a new offensive against the German line a grand strategic necessity. This was Passchendaele: a battle in the mud from July to November 1917 that cost the BEF over 220,000 dead. Yet, by the end of 1917, as the Bolshevik revolution dragged Russia out of war, the prospects for victory in the West looked darker than ever. Triumph in the East would give the German High Command just the reinforcements it needed to break the Allied line, seize the Belgian coast and capture Paris. If it moved fast enough it could pre-empt the arrival of American troops and smother the impact of the United States’ decision

Map 9 The First World War in 1918

to enter the war (a result of Berlin's unrestricted submarine warfare) in April 1917. It could win the battle for Europe.

The spring and summer of 1918 thus turned out to be the climax of the war, the moment at which for the British and their allies defeat came closest. This was the ‘new war’ against which Milner warned Lloyd George in March 1918. With the signature of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (6 March), the Germans had won the war against Russia ‘which used to cover our whole Asian flank’. With the Germans poised to swing round the Black Sea and enter the Caucasus, and the Turks now freed from Russian pressure, ‘we have a new campaign which really extends from the Mediterranean shore of Palestine to the frontier of India…[W]hether or not Japan takes on North Asia – I doubt her doing it – we alone have got to keep Southern Asia.’6 The next day, the expected German blow fell in the West, but with unexpected force. Within days it had shattered the British Fifth Army in its path. ‘We are very near a crash’, wrote the government's chief military adviser, Sir Henry Wilson, on 24 March.7 A week's fighting cost the BEF 114,000 men. ‘You must fight with your backs to the wall’, Haig, their commander, told his troops (the irreverent reply was: ‘where's the wall?’). As the Germans pressed forward, the British faced the dilemma of abandoning the Channel ports or losing touch with the French armies to the south. ‘No readjustment of our forces can save the situation’, said Milner (now Secretary of State for War) until the British and French divisions began to hold their ground against the Germans.8 ‘We are a fast dwindling army’, wrote Wilson on 12 April. ‘This is desperately serious.’9 By early June, with the Germans at the Marne, and shells falling in central Paris, British leaders began to ponder how they would fight on if France and Italy (where a new German-Austrian offensive was expected) gave up the struggle. ‘The United States too late, too late, too late: what if it should turn out to be so?’, groaned the American ambassador to his diary.10

Milner was in no doubt that the supreme crisis of the war had arrived. ‘We must be prepared for France and Italy being beaten to their knees’, he told Lloyd George. ‘In that case, it is clear that the German-Austro-Turko-Bulgar bloc will be master of all Europe and Northern and Central Asia up to the point where Japan steps in to bar the way.’11 Milner predicted a global war in which Britain and her allies would be forced to defend the maritime periphery against a ‘heartland’ dominated by German power. ‘It is clear’, he argued,

[t]hat unless the only remaining free peoples of the world, America, this country and the Dominions, are knit together in the closest conceivable alliance and prepared for the maximum sacrifice, the Central bloc under the hegemony of Germany will control not only Europe and most of Asia but the whole world…If all these things happen, the whole aspect of the war changes. These islands become an exposed outpost of the Allied positions encircling the world – a very disadvantageous position for the brain-centre of such a combination.

The fight, he concluded, ‘will now be for Southern Asia and above all for Africa (the Palestine bridgehead is of immense importance)’.12 Here was a terrifying prospectus of Britain's imperial future from the most ardent of imperialists. The old balance of power had vanished like a dream. Britain's eastern empire now lay open to an attack far more dangerous than anything threatened by Russia in the days of the ‘great game’. Japan's domination of East Asia, foreshadowed in its ‘21 demands’ to China in 1915, would be the price of its support. American financial and military help would be more indispensable than ever, strengthening when peace came the American demand for the ‘freedom of the seas’ and the international settlement of colonial claims: key elements in Woodrow Wilson's ‘Fourteen Points’ published in January 1918. The ‘new world’ taking shape by the middle of 1918 bore a frightening resemblance to the warnings of Halford Mackinder, the geographer and imperialist, some fourteen years before: a vast ‘heartland’ (ruled by Germany) controlling the ‘world island’ (continental Europe, Asia and Africa) leaving only an outer fringe where sea-power could contest its claims. With Britain and India under siege, and London's commercial empire in ruins, the rump of the British world-system would have little choice but to look to the United States as its saviour.

We know in hindsight that Milner was too pessimistic. Within a month, the tide in the West had begun to turn. But his grim prognosis left a fateful imperial legacy. Failure on the Western Front, perhaps a ‘Dunkirk’ in which the British army abandoned the continent, made the Middle East the new fulcrum of imperial defence. It was there that the road must be barred to the Central Powers whose victory in the region would cut the British system in two and roll it up in detail. In the first part of the war this had hardly seemed likely. British ambitions had been correspondingly modest. But in 1918 they aspired to dominate the whole vast tract between Greece and Afghanistan, obliterating the Ottoman Empire in the process. Their moment in the Middle East began in earnest.

This great forward movement was a startling reversal of pre-war policy. Before 1914, the British had been favourable to the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe, but opposed to the break-up of their empire in Asia. Long-standing fears of Russian or German attempts to disrupt the route to India and penetrate the Persian Gulf – the maritime frontier of India – made Turkish control over the Straits and the Arab lands the least worst solution. But, in October 1914, the Turkish military triumvirate that ruled the empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers, perhaps in fear that an Entente victory would bring Russian annexation of Constantinople and the Straits, the oldest and dearest of Tsarist war aims. The British now had to defend their ‘veiled protectorate’ in Egypt and their ‘virtual’ protectorate in the Persian Gulf, whose Arab statelets were superintended by the government of India, against Ottoman attack. They had to protect the oil concession at the head of the Gulf (in Persian territory but close to the Ottoman border) half-owned by the British government and intended to supply the Royal Navy. Above all, they had to blast open the Straits so that supplies could reach their vast but almost landlocked Russian ally and turn its huge manpower to account. At the same time, they had to think how to minimise the effects of Turkish defeat upon the ‘post-war’ security of their imperial system, when both France and Russia (it had to be assumed) would be victor powers and (soon) new rivals. Their instincts were cautious. Their first preference was to keep the Ottoman Empire in being but force it to decentralise into zones of interest shared out between the victors. In May 1915, with the attack on the Dardanelles, the Russians were promised Constantinople and the Straits, while the British were to take in compensation the large ‘neutral’ zone between the Russian and British spheres of influence in Persia. In May 1916, in a further effort to pre-empt any post-war dispute, the Sykes–Picot (or ‘Tripartite’) agreement proposed a comprehensive partition of the Ottoman lands. Russia was to receive (as well as the Straits) a large sphere of interest in Armenia, or eastern Anatolia. Much of central Anatolia, and the coastal lands of the Levant went to France. The British share was to be the provinces of Baghdad and Basra, in the southern part of modern Iraq. The remainder of Turkey's Arab territories (most of modern Syria, northern and western Iraq, Jordan and southern Israel) was divided into two zones, in each of which the British and French would enjoy an exclusive influence over autonomous states ‘under the suzerainty of an Arab chief’.13 Palestine was to be internationalised.

The logic of British policy was to limit the scale of their future commitments and place a swathe of French influence between the approaches to the Gulf and the rival they really feared – Russia. By the latter part of 1917, this grand scheme was in tatters. The Middle East war had gone disastrously wrong. The Dardanelles expedition to capture the Straits had been a humiliating failure: Turkey had not been knocked out. Turkish armies fought hard in Mesopotamia, surrounding and defeating the British Indian army at Kut in April 1916. It took another year before Baghdad was captured. The British army in Egypt struggled slowly into Palestine: but it took until December 1917 to capture Jerusalem. The Arab uprising promised by the Sherif of Mecca, with whom the British had made an alliance, proved of little military value. All this was bad enough: it did little for British prestige. The lack of progress on the Western Front made it much more serious. After January 1917, British leaders could not rule out the possibility of a peace on terms that left Germany unbeaten and poised to resume the struggle at a time of its choosing. That made it all the more important to secure the outer defences of Egypt (in Palestine) and Southern Mesopotamia. It was largely this thinking – ‘strategic Zionism’ – that converted the British War Cabinet to the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 promising a Jewish ‘national home’ in Palestine: a colony of Jewish settlers, fiercely anti-Turk in outlook, would help guard the approaches to Egypt.14 As Russia tottered towards collapse at the end of 1917, the urgency of safeguarding the Canal and the Gulf against a new Turko-German offensive seemed greater than ever. As the Russian armies fell back from the Caucasus, they opened the road to German and Turkish advance into Northern Persia and even Central Asia outflanking Britain's defence of the route to India.

Thus, even before the catastrophic events of March and April 1918 on the Western Front, the British had been forced to rethink their Middle East war aims in drastic fashion. They were desperate to block the route through the Caucasus along which German armies might march from the Ukraine. They wanted control of North Persia and a client government in Teheran. That meant advancing north from Baghdad towards Mosul and Kurdistan. With little prospect of defeating Germany and Austria-Hungary in Europe, it was all the more necessary to drive the Ottomans out of the Arab lands and hold them come what might in the West. Lloyd George and Milner had little faith in victory on the Western Front until American troops arrived en masse in 1919. At the beginning of February 1918, after a fierce argument with the other Entente leaders, they won agreement to their plan for a British offensive in Palestine, while standing their ground in Europe.15 In March, the ‘Eastern Committee’ of the War Cabinet was set up under Curzon's chairmanship to coordinate British policy between Greece and Afghanistan, to preside, in effect, over the forward movement in the Middle East. In the event, the hope of a swift offensive was aborted by the scale of the crisis in the West. Far from advancing deeper into Ottoman Syria, General Allenby was forced to repatriate British units in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to meet Haig's desperate need for reinforcement, and wait instead for the arrival of more Indian troops, who were to make up nearly half his fighting strength.16 Not until September could the advance begin in earnest. When it did, the battle of Megiddo and the occupation of Damascus (1 October 1918) marked the virtual end of Ottoman resistance. On 2 October, the British and Indian army in Mesopotamia (which was two-thirds Indian) began its advance on Mosul. By 20 October, the Ottoman government had opened negotiations for an armistice, which was signed on the island of Mudros on 31 October.

As the scale of their victory began to unfold, the ministers of the Eastern Committee seized their chance to build a permanent barrier between their old European rivals and the approaches to what Milner's protégé, Leo Amery (a keen student of geopolitics), had called the ‘Southern British World’ in India, Africa and Oceania. The French were brutally told that their claims under the Sykes–Picot agreement were no longer valid. The ministers invoked instead the new ideals of self-determination, set out in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points in January 1918, to propose a wide degree of self-government in the Arab provinces (with the significant exception of Palestine), on the understanding that Britain would enjoy a complete monopoly of external influence.17 ‘We will have a Protectorate but not declare it’, remarked the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour.18 Further east, they sanctioned Curzon's project of turning Persia – where ‘the British stake is a greater and not a less one in consequence of the war’ – into a virtual protectorate, with British command of the army, a financial adviser and a treaty.19 Only over Curzon's scheme for British occupation of the Caucasus and Trans-Caspia did his colleagues begin to cavil at the colossal scale of the commitments envisaged. But, by December 1918, a new British empire had been planned across much of the modern Middle East (the future of Armenia, the Straits and Constantinople was left undecided).

In the months that followed, this grandiose vision was gradually whittled down. The furious French refusal to give up their promised gains under Sykes–Picot forced a u-turn, and Syria, along with Lebanon, eventually became a League of Nations mandate under French trusteeship. The British foray into the Caucasus and Central Asia could not last. When demobilisation shrank the British army, the attempt to aid the successor states of the Tsarist empire against its Bolshevik successor was soon abandoned. Turkey revolted against the crushing terms of peace and the occupation of Asia Minor by the Greeks, willing allies in Britain's regional imperium. Even Persia resisted the quasi-protectorate that Curzon tried to force upon it in 1919. Across Egypt and the Arab lands in 1919–20, the British were caught up in a vast wave of political turbulence, much of it hostile to external control. Bitter arguments raged inside the British government over the cost of Iraq, the risks of confronting Turkey and the safety of the shoestring empire of ‘hot air, aeroplanes and Arabs’ (the characteristically acerbic phrase was Sir Henry Wilson's) that Churchill began to fashion in 1921. But, despite all this, the belief that defending the British world-system required a regional primacy across the whole Middle East, not fortified enclaves around the Gulf and the Canal, proved astonishingly durable. The strategic geography of imperial defence had been permanently recast. From now on until the end of empire, guarding this great salient in the middle of the world as the grand counterpoise to British weakness in Europe became the ultimate test of imperial power.

Of course, the imperial triumph in the Middle East was magnified by the victory over Germany and Austria-Hungary that had seemed so elusive for so long. As the Germans retreated, and then asked for an armistice, the British War Cabinet seized the chance to stop the war before the exhaustion of their manpower (and the shrinking size of their armies on the Western Front) began to tilt the balance of Allied power in favour of Wilson and Washington. They preferred the ambiguities of an armistice to the cost and delays that imposing unconditional surrender on Germany might entail. They hoped at the peace to limit the influence of American diplomacy and use it to restrain the demands of France. They had good reason to expect that, if the world had not been made safe for democracy, it had at least been made safe for the British Empire. The German navy – the great pre-war menace – was captured, and then scuttled by its own crews. The German colonies had been conquered. The Ottoman Empire had been demolished. The Russian empire had disintegrated in revolution. The peace conference would determine not the fact but the scale and permanence of British victory. The great unknown was American policy and the extent to which President Wilson would go to enforce the programme of the Fourteen Points.20 Would British sea-power regain the easy primacy it had lost after 1890? Or would American naval rivalry and bitter dislike of the British claim to control neutral shipping in time of war (Point Two of Wilson's Fourteen Points) trigger a new and unwinnable arms race – as Colonel House threatened Lloyd George in October 1918?21 Would the Americans insist upon the internationalising of wartime colonial conquests, and, if so, on what terms? Would the rise of Japanese power in East Asia, Chinese demands for an end to the unequal treaties, and the growing influence of the United States in the Western Pacific mean the attrition of British commercial and diplomatic influence in China? Above all, could victory on the Western Front be converted into a lasting reconstruction of the balance of power in Europe – and a guarantee that Britain would not again be faced with a continent united or dominated against her interests? On these, and on the economic aftermath of the war, the shape of the ‘new world’ would depend.

The price of victory

The war was bound to disrupt the global economy that had grown up after 1880 and depended upon the free movement of trade, capital and (with rather more restriction) people around the world. As the greatest beneficiary of this ‘globalisation’, Britain was bound to be affected, with uncertain consequences for the political and economic cohesion of the British world-system. But, at the outset of the war, once the turmoil of the financial markets had calmed down, it was widely assumed that the struggle would reveal Britain's latent strength as the pivot of the world economy. The British would use the huge credits built up over decades to draw in the produce needed from non-European countries. British industry would supply the weapons for the Entente's war effort. The Germans by contrast would find their foreign trade strangled by the British blockade, and the gross inflation set off by the expansion of paper money would undermine their will to fight.22 In a long war, the British were bound to win.

These were the views of John Maynard Keynes, the young Cambridge economist recruited to the British Treasury in August 1914. His technical knowledge and analytical brilliance quickly won him influence at the highest level. The essence of Keynes’ thinking was that Britain should fight the war in the same way as it had been fought against Napoleon, but with the added advantage conferred by huge claims on overseas production (by the capital and income from foreign investments) and Germany's dependence on foreign trade – the result of rapid industrialisation before 1914. After a year of war, it was clear that this optimistic calculation was badly flawed. The Germans had won a position from which they could only be driven by frontal assault. They controlled much of the coal, iron and steel production of the French and Belgian economies. The huge mobilisation of French and (later) Italian manpower drastically reduced their production of food. With the Dardanelles closed, Russian wheat could not reach the West, nor could Russia pay for the munitions she needed. As the war went on, Britain's allies needed more and more shipping, food and equipment and had less and less means to pay for them. To make matters worse, there was no question of keeping British manpower at home in factory and farm while the fighting was done by their continental allies. If Germany was to be driven out of France and Belgium, it would need a huge British army as well.

By August 1915, Keynes (who was now responsible for British purchases in the United States) was well aware of the dilemma. Britain could not raise Kitchener's armies, he argued, as well as supporting her allies economically.23 ‘It is certain’, he wrote in September, ‘that the limitations of our resources are in sight.’24 The nub of the problem was foreign exchange. London had to find dollars to pay for the American goods the war effort demanded. In ordinary times, Britain earned dollars by exports, from foreign investment, and from exchanging goods with countries (like India) that had a surplus of dollars. But the war had disrupted international trade and payments. It sharply reduced Britain's dollar earnings from exports, since much of British industry was supplying munitions to the Allies, paid for by British loans not foreign payments. The longer the war lasted, the greater the need of the Allied countries for American products, for which only Britain could pay in dollars. The pressure became relentless. To pay for British and Allied purchases, the Treasury bought up British-owned dollar securities (with sterling) and sold or pledged them in New York. It exported some of the precious reserve of gold. And it borrowed from American bankers, using the great firm of J. P. Morgan to raise dollar loans on its behalf. At all costs, it had to prevent a collapse in the value of sterling against the dollar. For, if American sellers and lenders lost confidence, American goods would become impossibly expensive and bring the Allied war effort to a standstill.

For Keynes, therefore, the economic pivot of the war was Britain's credit in New York. If it failed, the Allies were finished. ‘We have one ally’, Keynes told the Admiralty board in March 1916, ‘the rest are mercenaries.’25 There was no certainty that American lenders would continue to buy British bonds when their own economy was booming. If American opinion was alienated by some transatlantic quarrel, the effect might be devastating. For the rest of 1916, however, disaster was postponed. The British dribbled their gold (and that of their Allies) into the New York market. They spent heavily to hold up the value of sterling. The American investor, despite Keynes’ pessimism, remained a willing buyer of Allied loans. But, by the end of 1916, the huge reserves of British financial power had reached the limits that Keynes predicted. In November 1916, the American authorities, disturbed by the rapid growth of so much debt, advised their banks to curtail foreign loans. At the same time, as the gold reserve in London reached a critical level, and dollar securities began to run out, British dependence on American lending became greater than ever. At the moment when the Asquith cabinet fell in early December, the Treasury privately calculated that it was scarcely a week away from exhausting its dollars. The immediate danger of a sterling collapse receded. But, in the spring of 1917, as Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare brought the United States closer and closer to intervention, there was barely a month's reserve in hand before a drastic reduction of British purchases would have been necessary.26 Even after American entry in April 1917, the strain and uncertainty were intense. A hold-up on American credits in June brought the British to the point of default.27 On 29 July 1917, Bonar Law, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, told his American counterpart, William Gibbs McAdoo, that, without urgent help, the ‘whole financial fabric’ of the Alliance would collapse within days.28 Keynes pondered how to safeguard Britain's ‘final reserve’ of gold – implying the curtailment of British purchases or going off gold. At the time of Passchendaele, the French army mutinies, the break-up of the Russian armies and the holocaust of their shipping in the submarine war, the British faced a financial ‘Dunkirk’. The implications were colossal. Financial breakdown would shatter the Alliance and force an early peace. A British default on their dollar loans, or a refusal to pay gold on demand to foreign holders of sterling balances kept in London, would ruin for the foreseeable future the City's reputation as a financial centre – together with sea-power, the principal source of Britain's world power.

The British were rescued from this dilemma by the willingness of the American government to take on the burden of lending to the Entente powers until the end of the war. Financial disaster was averted. The threat of a famine in food and munitions disappeared, especially with the fall in Atlantic sinkings by the end of 1917. But, as Keynes insisted, Britain's dependence on American goods, the burden of American loans and the diversion of industrial manpower into the war of attrition in Flanders, was bound to debilitate her commercial power. ‘In another year’, he wrote at the end of 1917 (when the war was expected to continue into 1919 or 1920), ‘we shall have forfeited the claim we had staked out in the New World and…the country will be mortgaged to America.’29 Indeed, Britain's displacement by America as the commercial and financial superpower seemed all but inevitable. As the British rushed to sell their dollar portfolio and borrowed to their limit from American lenders, the United States was transformed almost overnight from a debtor to a creditor.30 Its foreign lending raced upwards towards the majestic level that the British had accumulated in 1913. With British exports sinking to 60 per cent of their pre-war value,31 and America's rising to unprecedented heights, the dollar replaced sterling as the most coveted currency. American banks began to emerge from isolation to set up branches abroad. American exports filled the gap left by the British shortfall. In Latin America, where Anglo-American competition was sharpest, the fall-off of British trade to long-valued markets was particularly steep.32 Nor was the Americans’ challenge confined to trade, investment and commercial transactions. In 1916 began the vast expansion of their merchant marine through government subsidy. By the end of the war, this commercial fleet was 40 per cent as large as the British.33 Behind this great American progress lurked the suggestion of a world reordered to America's design. ‘When the war is over’, Woodrow Wilson told his main foreign policy adviser, Colonel House, ‘we can force them [the British] to our way of thinking, because by that time they will…be financially in our hands.’ But, he added, ‘we cannot force them now’.34

The scale of British debts at the end of the war was certainly huge. By November 1918, nearly £1 billion was owed to the American government and private lenders.35 The backlog of payments made it considerably more by 1920,36 equivalent perhaps to some 20 per cent of overseas assets in 1913. Around 15 per cent of Britain's overseas wealth had also been spent on vital dollar goods in the first years of the war. Britain would have to pay back its American loans at £100 million a year, Keynes calculated gloomily in March 1919. ‘Such a burden will cripple our foreign development in other parts of the world.’37 To make matters worse, much of this debt had been incurred on behalf of Britain's wartime allies, mainly Russia, from whom it was unlikely to be recovered. Added to that, the huge domestic borrowing that had financed much of the war effort38was likely to mean high interest rates and taxation, and a consequent burden on industry, for a long time to come. But the picture might have been worse.

Brutal though the strain had been, the British had defended the value of the pound in the vital arena of the New York market. By doing so, they kept much of their commercial empire in being. The sterling balances of their main trading partners remained in London. Battered though it was by submarine warfare, their vast merchant marine carried the great bulk of British goods and earned vital dollars in the Atlantic trade. When American troops were sent to the European war, more than half crossed the Atlantic in British ships. For that and other British supplies and services, Washington paid – nearly $2 billion (£400m) in 1918–19.39 British investments overseas continued to earn a substantial income. The returns for 1920 show overseas investment earnings at £200 million and other invisible exports at £395 million – a grand total of nearly £600 million, compared with £369 million in 1913.40 Against that must be set the huge rise in prices: by 1920, domestic wholesale prices were at three times their pre-war level,41 and the price of raw cotton – one of Britain's largest imports – showed a similar rise.42 1920 was also the high point of the post-war boom, before the huge backlog of deferred purchases gave way to the depressed conditions (in Britain) of the early 1920s. Nevertheless, the scale of their overseas commerce and the arduous defence of sterling had enabled the British to offset considerably the external effects of their war economy.

An important element in the safeguarding of the commercial empire had been the resources drawn from the dominions and India. The dominions (South Africa in part) paid for the forces they sent to the imperial war effort. To buy the supplies they needed, they borrowed from London. To help balance this borrowing, the British government bought much of their produce at generous prices: the entire Australian wool-clip in 1916–17. Except in the case of Canada, which was part of the North American dollar zone, no payments in gold were made to Empire countries which had to be content with sterling balances piled up in London.43 Gold was hoarded for the more vital task of propping sterling's value against the dollar. South African gold was exported to London, and the Treasury resisted the plaintive requests of South African banks for shipments to boost the supply of coin. ‘We keep sending away our vast gold production and yet cannot get enough sovereigns to carry on the business of the country’, complained one ‘English’ politician.44 As a non-sterling country, Canada's role was especially vital. It had the most industrialised economy of any Empire country. As well as sending the largest contingent of dominion manpower (over 400,000 men) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, it supplied by the second half of the war a large fraction of the munitions Britain needed. By 1917, between a quarter and a third of Britain's artillery ammunition was being produced in Canada.45 An Imperial Munitions Board, staffed by ‘some of the ablest men of business in Canada’46 was set up in December 1915 to coordinate production among some 400 firms and 300,000 workers. Canada became a western extension of Britain's war production economy. In the quarter ending on 30 December 1916, the British ministry of munitions spent £66 million in the UK, £33 million in the US and £20 million in Canada.47 With the pressure on Britain's hard currency reserves by the end of 1916, it became something more: a source of dollars for British war purchases. Much of the cost of the munitions produced in Canada was met with advances from the Canadian government and the loans it raised at home. Britain borrowed in all $1 billion in Canada: an amount equal to the value of the dollar securities sold in the United States, and to a quarter of London's borrowing from the American government.48 It was heavily offset by the sterling expenses that Canada incurred in fighting the war (some C$714 million). In manpower, industrial production and dollars, the oldest dominion had been an indispensable ally.

India’s case was different, though no less important. India was rich in manpower but poor in industry. Even more than in the dominions, whose money-markets were under-developed by comparison with Britain's, it was difficult to mobilise capital there. Under rules laid down before 1914, London bore the cost of sending troops out of India – both Indians and the British garrison – to a theatre of war. But, in September 1914, the Indian government agreed to meet the ‘normal’ cost of such forces as if they were in India.49 This included Indian soldiers serving in France. By the end of the war, more than one million Indians had served overseas, and the Indian government had recruited over 800,000 volunteers to the army.50 The economic price was considerable. While India piled up credits abroad with the sale of exports and London's payments for the army, little of this could be remitted in earnings, still less in gold. Strict exchange controls prevented trade in non-essential goods, and an embargo on grain exports reinforced the effects of a shortage of shipping (heavily concentrated in the short-haul Atlantic) to the detriment of grain producers. After 1916, the burden of war became steadily heavier. In 1917, the Viceroy's government made a gift of £100 million to Britain, equivalent to India's annual revenue. It meant, remarked an Indian member of the legislative council (which was not consulted), that ‘for a lifetime of a generation internal improvements of even the most necessary kind will be considerably hampered’.51 Inflation accelerated. The tax burden per head of population rose by 65 per cent between 1914–15 and 1918–19.52 Public debt grew by half. In the last year of the war, as London faced the terrible wastage of British manpower, Indian resources were pressed more and more heavily. The Viceroy promised to raise a further half a million men in April 191853 and to meet the ordinary costs of a much larger part of the Indian forces overseas. The military budget rocketed upwards, doubling government spending by the end of the war. Like the dominions, though without their freedom of choice, India made a critical contribution to the economic cost of defending the British world-system.

Imperial aid reduced British dependence upon the United States and eased the strain upon sterling. It helped blunt the danger that financial and naval primacy – the woolsack and the trident – would both cross the Atlantic at the end of the war. In fact, for a number of reasons, the American challenge proved curiously muted. The economic muscle on which Woodrow Wilson had hoped to rely was not strong enough. The war had ended too soon. ‘We cannot afford to enter into a competitive fight [with British shipping] for some time to come’, warned his Shipping Commissioner in late 1918.54 With two million Americans marooned in Europe, a shipping war with the British was out of the question. Nor were the British in need of American dollars once the shooting stopped. When the American treasury cut off its dollar loans, European countries ceased to buy American goods. Wilson's government also proved surprisingly reluctant to discuss economic cooperation with its European associates so that the universal free trade that was meant to accompany the League of Nations (and foster American industrial power) remained still-born. Indeed, the economic role of the American government shrank swiftly at the end of the war and there was little love lost between the Wilson administration and the money barons in New York, whom his finance minister (and also his son-in-law) described as ‘reactionary, sinister, unscrupulous, mercenary and sordid’.55 Nor did the war mark the prelude to the global triumph of American trade. In Latin America, there was a permanent shift in America's favour, although in Argentina particularly, British exporters staged a strong recovery.56 But the overall picture was much less positive. By the mid-1920s, the real value of American exports was hardly above its pre-war level.57 The United States had broken free from the commercial imperium once wielded from London. But it still lacked the means, and perhaps the motive, to build one of its own.

Rumours that the British had lost their premier place in the world economy by the end of the war were thus somewhat exaggerated. They remained the economic superpower with the largest foreign trade, the largest foreign income, the largest share of international services and the largest merchant fleet. Nevertheless, the war did bring a critical change, though it took time for the effects to become obvious. The place occupied by the City and its commercial empire in the British world-system was sharply modified. Before the war the City had enjoyed remarkable freedom from governmental control. It had been a commercial republic with its own imperium: cosmopolitan, self-interested and self-regulated. During the war it was brought brusquely to heel and its liberties cut down. Treasury control became stronger and stronger. By January 1917, it had the power to requisition all foreign securities.58 Its view, not that of the Bank of England, was now decisive on interest rates and the gold reserve.59 The Treasury decided where capital could be exported and for what purpose. After the war, ‘informal’ controls persisted, to channel investment into sterling countries, partly to protect the exchange rate.60 Secondly, there was no doubt that the City's place in international finance had been seriously weakened by the massive wartime sell-off of dollar securities, the most mobile and therefore the most valuable of assets.61 To have disposed of so much of its holding in the world's largest and strongest economy was bound to reduce the City's capacity to invest abroad and to aggravate Britain's dollar deficit, a marked feature even in pre-war times. Thirdly, the war had meant a huge rise in domestic borrowing in Britain: government debt rose tenfold from £700 million in 1914 to £7.5 billion in 1919.62Financing this home-grown debt became a major preoccupation of both government and City, driving up interest rates and redirecting capital from export overseas. The war made the City poorer, more inward-looking and more vulnerable to external shocks.

These changes in the City's position were the most obvious sign that the powerful symbiosis between economics and politics represented by the ‘imperialism of free trade’ had been seriously weakened. The unrestricted flow of trade into, through and out of Britain had made London the entrepot of the world. It had maximised Britain's income from shipping and services as well as her earnings from overseas property. It had spun two virtuous circles of wealth and power. The entrepot function, free trade, ready supplies of capital and credit and sterling–gold convertibility had made the City the reserve bank of most secondary states. They in turn were obliged to accept the commercial and financial disciplines expected by the London market. To retreat from the gold standard into a paper currency, or to default on their obligations, meant a stoppage in the stream of capital and credit on which their hopes of material progress (in an expanding world economy) depended. A developing economy like Canada, remarked the banker Robert Brand in 1913, ‘had as much interest in maintaining unchecked the flow of capital from England as a city has in preventing the supply of water being cut off.’63 The benefits accruing to Britain were not only profitable investment. British financial, commercial and even engineering practice was diffused more widely. British-based merchant houses managed much of world trade. Information and market expertise flowed increasingly to London. The huge British investment in telecommunications tightened the grip of the British news media on the information that passed to the ‘Outer World’. In more subtle ways, the circulation of news, information and ideas, the prestige and volume of cultural (as well as material) imports, and the freer movement of pilgrims, tourists and migrants reduced the influence of local or regional identity. The scope for imperial or ‘pan-British’ loyalties (among others) was widened. It was not fantastic before 1914 to imagine a ‘liberal empire’ attached to Britain by cultural and ideological as well as commercial attraction.

But the commercial engine-room of this free-trade empire had been damaged by the war, and its machinery dislocated. With its resources straitened, its integrating function in the British world-system was throttled back. Without the carrot of credit, the stick of discipline was much harder to wield. The new technologies of transport and communications, the vital circuits of imperial power, were more difficult to fund. The full modernisation of military power – the top priority of pre-war governments – was too costly to contemplate. The expansive energies symbolised by the huge outpouring of capital and migrants before 1914 were checked, though post-war emigration revived for a while. But, when the world economy collapsed into depression after 1929, the imperialism of free trade would beat a final retreat in the face of a new world order.

The politics of solidarity

The war was bound to strain the political relations between Britain and its most important partners in the imperial association. The contributions in men or money made by the dominions, India and Ireland to the imperial war effort became a central issue in their local politics. The question was even more sharply posed in those other countries where British rule (or its virtual equivalent – as in Egypt) had commandeered the resources to fight or imposed stringent controls on grounds of security. In East and West Africa, for example, the ‘sideshow’ wars for German colonies meant labour conscription and social disruption on a major scale. Death, separation, disease and famine for Africans followed in the wake of the imperialists’ grand quarrel. During the war, but mostly at its end (since wartime regulation restrained public debate), the political cost of ‘British connection’, the hope of reward for imperial loyalty and the demand for compensation for sufferings borne, reopened long-standing questions about the ordering of the imperial system.

War politics in Britain

Britain was no exception to this general rule, although the debate about empire was more muted than elsewhere. British leaders had always been wary of the complaint that empire had become too costly. They were uneasy with the claim that imperial expenditure benefited the few and cost the many. ‘The more the empire expands, the more the Chamberlains contract’ had been the radical gibe against Joseph Chamberlain's expansionist enthusiasm – a reference to the family's manufacturing interests. Before 1914, however, when the most visible charge of empire had been the soaring budget of the Royal Navy, radical criticism was aimed not at the intolerable burden of defending the empire but at the unproven need to defend Britain with such costly armaments. With the navy concentrated in the North Sea, it would have been hard to argue that it was imperial commitments that were costing Britain dear. So, unlike the mid- or late-Victorian radicals, who denounced feckless empire-building in India and Egypt as the enemy of domestic peace, Edwardian radicals were bound to take a different tack. But the argument that battleship-building was the needless provocation of a peaceable Germany,64 or that colonial concessions would appease a disgruntled Berlin, had limited purchase on public opinion. It was the dispute over how much naval power was needed to defend Britain itself that was the real threat to the admirals’ plans.

The immediate casus belli (the integrity of Belgium) and the shock of the German advance reinforced the pre-war consensus that the target of German aggression was British independence and great power status in Europe. From first to last, the Western Front consumed by far the largest proportion of British resources and the largest toll of British dead. It preoccupied British opinion to the exclusion of almost every other theatre. In this titanic struggle, the role of Britain's imperial partners and dependants became assistance in the common cause. With Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian troops on the Western Front, it would have been strange to complain that the Empire was a drain on British power.

Yet its converse, the idea that ‘closer union’ with the Empire countries (especially the white dominions) was now essential to British survival, peddled by self-styled ‘imperialists’ before the war, made limited headway. For the first eighteen months of the war, it was blocked by the survival of the Asquithian consensus, remodelled as a coalition ministry in May 1915. Asquith's fiercest critics had been Milner's band of followers.65 They denounced the refusal of the Asquithian regime (and its coalition Tory allies) to accept the logic of total war and cast off the mentality of laissez-faire. They looked forward to cleansing the Augean stable of party politics with its ‘old gang’. They hoped for a new alignment in which ‘imperialism’ – offering social reform, a more pro-active state and ‘closer unity’ with the white dominions – would confront ‘socialism’ – the disruptive forces of class warfare, anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. A modernised imperial state, mobilising British and imperial resources, and commanding the ‘race-patriotism’ of British peoples at home and abroad, was needed if Britain was to survive the struggle of ‘world states’ that the war represented. Had the war ended in 1915 or 1916, they would have remained voices crying in the wilderness. But, by the latter part of 1916, the Milnerites had found powerful new allies. Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Times and the Daily Mail, had joined the chorus against Asquith. So had Sir Edward Carson, the uncrowned king of Ulster and darling of the Tory ultras against Home Rule. But it was Lloyd George's revolt against Asquith that was decisive.

From the early months of the war, Lloyd George had been the Liberal minister most identified with the building of a war economy. As minister of munitions and then Secretary of State for War (after Kitchener's death), his political influence (perhaps survival) depended upon military success. By late 1916, he was as radically discontented with Asquithian complacency as the Milnerites, with whom he had secret contacts. When Asquith reneged in early December upon an agreement to hand over daily management of the war to a small committee under his presidency, Lloyd George resigned. But to the chagrin of the Asquithians, it was he who won over their Tory allies, and a critical following among Liberal MPs, to form a new government whose mandate was victory at (almost) any price. In this new regime, the Milnerites were strongly represented – a sign of Lloyd George's openness to new ideas and his need for a network that would help break the grip of the Asquithian ‘establishment’. Milner himself became a member of the small ‘war cabinet’ of five and Lloyd George's first lieutenant in the running of the war. Bonar Law, the Tory leader, was the indispensable guarantor of a Commons majority. And Arthur Henderson was the vital link with the trade unions and Labour. But Milner, with his knowledge of finance, his military and dominion connections and (as an Old Egyptian Hand) his Middle East expertise, became the workhorse of the war effort. In Lloyd George's eyes, he had other virtues as well. ‘Milner and I stand for very much the same things’, he told his confidant, the newspaper proprietor George Riddell, in February 1917. ‘He is a poor man and so am I. He does not represent the landed and capitalist classes any more than I do. He is keen on social reform and so am I.’66 To an embattled prime minister dependent on the support of his bitterest pre-war enemies, trust was a luxury. But Milner, he told Riddell a year later, ‘is a man of first class courage’.67

The question was whether Milner and his followers would be able to turn Britain's domestic politics in the imperial direction for which they longed. Many omens were favourable. The party system against which Milner had railed was to all intents suspended. Public opinion was shaped more by the press than by parliament, and the Milnerites had plenty of friends in the press: it was their natural element. The Times was practically their house journal, its editor, Geoffrey Dawson, one of Milner's protégés. On the economic front, the food crisis of 1917–18 and the dollar shortage drove home their pre-war arguments for domestic and imperial self-sufficiency. Milner's Corn Production Act (1917) was designed to renovate Britain's dilapidated agrarian economy by incentives and controls.68 The report of the Dominions Royal Commission urged the creation of an imperial development board to channel investment into Empire resources. Another committee urged tariff protection for strategic industries. Milner himself played an active role in making a new Ministry of Health to spearhead social reform and post-war ‘reconstruction’. The siege economy would be reborn in peacetime as the engine of a new imperialism. Laissez-faire and ‘cosmopolitanism’ would be swept away.

In fact, the Milnerites’ ambition outran their influence. In September 1918, Milner pressed on Lloyd George the importance of not returning to the ‘old ways’. The key question was now ‘national development’. ‘The business nation should deal on specially favourable terms with its friends among the nations, and, first and foremost, with its own kith, the nations of its own civilisation and ideals, who can be reckoned on to be always friendly.’69 Lloyd George ignored him. There was little support for Milnerite reconstruction at the end of the war: quite the contrary. From business interests there were vehement demands to dismantle the apparatus of wartime controls on profit and production, reducing the scale and scope of government intervention as nearly as possible to its pre-war proportions. The call for a return to ‘normality’ was powerfully seconded in the City, which hoped for an early return to its old financial freedom. Secondly, it turned out that the war had suspended the party system but not destroyed it. A new ‘imperial’ constitution to smash the parties’ grip was as far away as ever. Proportional representation, which Milner favoured for similar reasons,70 was not adopted, and, though the coalition was renewed in December 1918, the huge Conservative majority in the post-war Commons soon proved as stultifyingly parochial as its pre-war counterpart. Thirdly, and chiefly, the war had mobilised a powerful new enemy to the Milnerite vision of tariff reform and imperial unity: organised labour.

The outbreak of the war had split the Labour party. The party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, opposed entry. The trade union leaders, who supplied the party with its funds and membership, supported the government. As the party's de facto chief, Arthur Henderson joined the Asquith coalition and then the Lloyd George war cabinet. But trade union patriotism was not without strings. ‘Dilution’ (the replacement of skilled by unskilled labour for the duration) was unpopular: any form of industrial conscription was anathema. The system of ‘leaving certificates’ (to permit a change of employment) was a constant source of friction. Price rises evoked fierce complaints about profiteering. There was a widespread suspicion that employers would exploit wartime flexibility in the workplace to drive down wages once peace had come. As inflation accelerated, shortages increased, and the struggle for manpower intensified, ‘unofficial’ militancy grew and strikes proliferated. Trade union membership swelled from 3.4 million in 1913 to 5.4 million five years later. In the Labour movement as a whole, early support for the war modulated into a more questioning attitude. American intervention and revolution in Russia heightened anticipations of a new world order. By the end of 1917, party differences over the conflict had been largely reconciled. The anti-war faction now commanded general approval for a ‘peace of democratisation’, with a limit on armaments, no annexations, and ‘the abandonment of any form of imperialism’.71 When the Labour party adopted a new constitution in January 1918, with individual party membership and a countrywide electoral organisation, a formidable new opposition was in the making.

What made it all the more significant was the vast extension of the franchise for which the wartime mobilisation of men and women had made an unanswerable case. Under the third reform Act of 1918, universal male suffrage and votes for women over thirty tripled the pre-war electorate. Little was known of the new voters’ opinions, though much might be guessed. Lloyd George had made haste in January 1918 to declare his democratic war aims.72 The Conservative party leadership feared a radical tide rolling westward from Russia. When the prospects of a Liberal reunion were shattered in the acrimony of the Maurice debate in May 1918, they embraced coalition with Lloyd George's followers as the best defence against the ‘impact of labour’. Among Conservatives, a spirit of caution, defensiveness and introversion was even more deeply ingrained by the economic turbulence of the aftermath and the fear of a labour ‘revolt’. The war had transformed British politics, but not in the direction for which Milner had hoped.

The dominions: Canada, Australia, New Zealand

The five self-governing states of the Empire (we must not forget Newfoundland) had no choice about entering the conflict. When their head of state, King George V, declared war on the advice of his British ministers, they were in the fight whether they liked it or not. But their contribution to the war effort was another matter entirely. In principle, the dominion governments were free to cheer from the sidelines, or to make only token gestures of support. In practice, their response was astonishing. In Australia, the Commonwealth prime minister promised help ‘to the last man and the last shilling’. In Canada and New Zealand, the sentiment was the same (South Africa was a special case). By the end of the war, over a million men from the dominions had served on its battlefields, the vast majority in the terrible charnel-house of the Western Front. In the two largest, Canada and Australia, over 13 per cent of adult males had served overseas; in New Zealand, the figure exceeded 19 per cent. The proportion who were killed or wounded was appallingly high: nearly 50 per cent of the Canadians, 59 per cent of New Zealanders and 65 per cent of Australians. Over 60,000 Canadians were killed, 59,000 Australians and 16,000 New Zealanders.73 The cost of raising and equipping armies for the imperial war was met (in these three cases) by the dominion governments themselves who incurred, like Britain, a heavy burden of war debt.

Cooperation on this scale and under such stressful conditions was bound to be difficult. As the war went on interminably, and the losses mounted up, the differences between London and the dominion governments grew sharper. In the first two years of the struggle, three factors had mitigated these tensions. The dominion leaders were content (perhaps surprisingly so) to leave the daily conduct of the war to British ministers in London, perhaps on the argument that their own expertise was so limited as to rule out assuming any responsibility for the deployment of their forces. Indeed, it was not until the summer of 1918 that the dominion governments mounted a sustained attack on the deficiencies of the British high command after the disastrous setbacks of the spring. Secondly, for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where anxiety about local security was greatest, the outbreak of war promised immediate territorial gains in their own backyard: in German New Guinea, Samoa and South West Africa. Thirdly, the economic burdens of war were eased by the large and growing scale of British purchases, and by the general prosperity that came with the booming demand for the commodities the dominions produced. Loyalty and self-interest marched in the same direction. Even so, there was friction. The dominions were infuriated by the British government's initial reluctance to let them borrow in London, fearing that such a stoppage would capsize their credit-based economies. They were determined to keep their volunteer armies together as ‘national’ units and not to see them dispersed among other British troops. And, by 1916, dominion leaders were becoming increasingly anxious to have, and to be seen to have, greater influence over the purposes for which the war was being fought. W. M. Hughes, the Australian premier, spent much of 1916 in London, partly to negotiate the sale of the wool-clip, but also to stake a claim for influence at the imperial centre. The Canadian premier, Robert Borden, an outspoken advocate of dominion influence over British foreign policy before 1914, was enraged by the frigid response of the Colonial Secretary, Bonar Law, to his request for greater participation in imperial policy. Canada had sent 101,000 men overseas, he told his London representative in October 1915, and had just authorised an increase to 250,000. ‘We deem ourselves entitled to fuller information and consultation respecting general policy in war operations.’74 By January 1916, when the Canadian commitment was doubled again, his mood was explosive. Canada could not be expected to put four to five hundred thousand men in the field and be treated like ‘toy automata’, he burst out to Perley. ‘Is the war being waged by the UK alone, or is it a war waged by the whole Empire?’75 Hughes’ opinion ‘as to the future necessity of the Overseas nations having an adequate voice in the Empire's foreign policy’, he told Perley, ‘coincides entirely with my own’.76

Borden and Hughes were determined that the dominions’ contribution to the war should be rewarded by the unequivocal abolition of their ‘colonial’ status in matters of external policy. Unlike Joseph Cook, joint leader of the New Zealand coalition government, they were not interested in imperial federation. Their chance came with the arrival of Lloyd George in Downing Street, and the Milnerites in government. Milnerite enthusiasm for ‘closer unity’ coincided with the grim acceptance that dominion help in the unending war would be increasingly important, and the even grimmer recognition that dominion leaders had to be consulted about the minimum terms of peace acceptable. In late December 1916, the invitations went out to an ‘Imperial War Conference’ that ran from March until May 1917. In the event, Hughes remained in Australia to fight for conscription, and Louis Botha sent his deputy, General Smuts. The dominion delegates were convened with British ministers as the ‘Imperial War Cabinet’. War aims were discussed. London made ambiguous promises about imperial preference after the war. But the main outcome of the meetings was agreement that relations with the dominion governments would have to be adjusted after the war to respect their status as ‘autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth’, with arrangements for ‘continuous consultation’ and an ‘adequate voice in foreign policy and…foreign relations’.77 Smuts, who put the case against imperial federation with crushing force, remained behind as a member of the War Cabinet, but not in any representative capacity. Borden rushed home to deal with the crisis over conscription.

In fact, there was little agreement among the dominion leaders about the direction of constitutional change beyond the demand for autonomy. Nor was there much sign (apart from the presence of Smuts) that dominion views had more influence over the strategy of the war after May 1917 than before. When the Imperial War Conference reassembled in the summer of 1918, it was against the terrible backdrop of impending disaster: the crisis in Flanders; the risk that Italy and even France might be forced into peace before American help could arrive; the desperate need, as British manpower sagged, for more men from the dominions; the prospect of Milner's ‘new war’ with Germany in control of the Eurasian heartland. Borden, Massey and Hughes raged against the incompetence of the British generals on the Western Front.78 Lloyd George smoothly ‘deduced…the lesson that they should share with the British Government the responsibility for the control of military operations in the future’.79 New arrangements were agreed to allow the dominion premiers to communicate direct with their British counterpart. But the sudden change in the course of the war checked any further experiment. When it came to negotiating an armistice in October, Lloyd George simply ignored his dominion colleagues. It took a fierce protest from Borden, backed by Hughes, to ensure dominion representation in what became the British Empire delegation to the peace conference.80

Why did opinion in the dominions tolerate so unequal a partnership in a war that cost them so dear? Much of the answer lies in the complex emotions of Britannic nationalism. In Canada, the tidal wave of pre-war migration made the sentimental bond with Britain especially close. ‘I am afraid of the element known as the British-born’, confided the Liberal ex-premier Wilfrid Laurier, who saw the magnetic pull of imperial loyalism as the biggest threat to Canadian stability before the war.81 Indeed, some 70 per cent of the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were British-born, and, even in 1918, they made up around half of its manpower.82 But the eager response of recent immigrants was only part of the explanation for Canada's commitment to the war. The Conservative premier, Robert Borden, had long been convinced that Armageddon was coming, that Canada should play its part at Britain's side, and that sharing the burden would clinch her case for an ‘imperial nationhood’ alongside the mother country.83In much of English-speaking Canada, support for the war and the manpower sacrifice it demanded became the test of Canadian status as a ‘British nation’ rather than a colonial dependency. ‘Canada should do her whole duty’, declared Clifford Sifton who had led the Liberal revolt against the reciprocity bill in 1911.84 Volunteer recruitment became an affirmation of British identity and Protestant conscience, especially in Quebec among the ‘Anglo-Protestant’ elite85 and on the prairies where Europeans and Americans, rather than settlers of British birth or origins, made up much of the population. It was heavily promoted by Protestant clergymen and the Orange Lodges.86 It was no coincidence that the heightened emotion of wartime soon found expression in the attack on bilingualism in Ontario and Manitoba where there were French-medium schools. Abolishing bilingual schools was necessary if Manitoba was not to be a ‘middle-Europe…filled with warring races’, claimed John Dafoe, editor of the Manitoba Free Press, the most influential Liberal paper in the West.87

English-speaking Canadians had watched with increasing resentment the apparent indifference of French Canadians to the call of national duty. Proportionately, 150,000 French Canadians should have joined up, not the 15,000 who had done so, said Dafoe, adding for good measure that they were ‘the only known race of white men to quit’.88 Dafoe's savagery was a measure of the chasm between French and English attitudes by the middle of the war. Even Oscar Skelton, an admirer (and later biographer) of Laurier, was critical of the ‘provincialism’ of the French Canadian outlook.89 In Quebec, the reaction was incomprehension and growing bitterness. Henri Bourassa, the tribune of French Canadian opinion, dismissed the conflict as one between ‘Anglo-Saxon mercantilism and love of gold’ and ‘German autocracy and militarism’. They were as bad as each other.90 The war was an affair of ‘agglomerations’, not ‘small nations’.91 Bourassa had been violently opposed to sending a Canadian contingent to the Boer War. In 1910, he had denounced Laurier's naval scheme as a step towards the conscription of French Canadians in Britain's imperial wars and had helped to drive him from office on a tide of French Canadian suspicion. For Laurier, the course of the war threatened deep and lasting damage to his hopes of political recovery, based as they were upon a reconciliation between provincial nationalism in Quebec and the Liberals of English Canada. The closer Borden came to his object of participating in the planning of imperial defence, he feared, the more deeply Canada would be committed to ‘all the wars of the Empire’92 – and the more dangerously French Canadians would be alienated from the rest of Canada. But there was no mistaking the enthusiasm of English Canadian Liberals for Canada's part in the war.

These deep divisions reached a crisis in 1917. With the terrible losses on the Western Front, voluntary enlistments were no longer enough to fill and refill the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The fairness and efficiency of ‘voluntary’ recruitment aroused misgiving. Even Bourassa conceded that conscription might be better than ‘enlistment by intimidation, threat and blackmail’.93 On his return from the Imperial War Conference in May 1917, Borden opened the campaign for compulsion. He pressed Laurier to join a coalition government to carry it through. Laurier refused, and argued instead for a referendum, mindful, no doubt, that in Australia (as we shall see) conscription had failed this test of opinion. But in English Canada his Liberal colleagues abandoned him for a ‘Unionist’ coalition formed under Borden's leadership in October 1917. For them, conscription became the test of Britannic nationhood. The fate of conscription, said Sifton, would show whether or not Canada was ‘[just] a helpless aggregation of sectional communities held together by time-serving interests’.94 When the election came, however, the Unionist government took no chances. The year before, Arthur Meighen, Borden's fixer, had argued that ‘to shift the franchise from the doubtful British and anti-British of the male sex and to extend it…to our patriotic women would be…a splendid stroke’.95 In the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act, he had his way. Naturalised aliens (i.e. not of British birth) resident for less than fifteen years lost the vote. Every soldier, of whatever age or pre-war residence, gained it, as did nurses and the wives, widows, mothers and sisters of soldiers. With the help of the ‘gag’, whose effects were felt mainly in the prairie provinces, the election was a triumph for the Unionist coalition which took 153 seats against the 82 held by the Laurier Liberals, all but 20 in Quebec. The Conscription Act followed in 1918.

The passing of conscription was the highwater mark of Britannic nationalism in Canada. It marked the readiness of English Canadians to identify their contribution to the imperial war effort as the acid test of nationhood at whatever cost in racial friction. For the result was to divide Canadian politics along racial lines. ‘The government have won’, said Laurier, ‘but the peace of the country is certainly in danger.’96 Quebec no longer held the balance of political power, one of Borden's supporters told him, but the result might be to make ‘an irreconcilable Ireland in this country’.97 It would take a generation to repair ‘what the fanatics have destroyed in a few months’, groaned Skelton.98 Once the war was over, however, the momentum behind Borden's grand alliance was quickly lost. Economic difficulties and sectional differences between the prairies and the East fractured the wartime unity of Britannic sentiment. The coalition fell apart and, by 1921, the Liberals, under Mackenzie King, had returned to power. And, in the meantime, Borden's pre-war dream of a seat at the table when foreign policy was made for the Empire had dissolved in the cold clear air of the aftermath.

In Australia, recent British immigration was also a factor in the readiness with which public opinion responded to the outbreak of a faraway war. The flow of British migrants had picked up strongly in the last years before 1914, though not on the same scale as in Canada.99 To a much greater extent than in Canada, the British-born minority were prominent in political life: both wartime premiers had been born in Britain.100 But the eagerness with which Australians greeted the call of imperial duty was not just a result of nostalgia. Long before the war, anxiety about the ‘Yellow Peril’ of Asian migration and the rising power of Japan had made defence an important issue in Australian politics and bred two different but complementary reactions. The sense of remoteness from Britain placed a premium on self-help. The defence Act of 1903 authorised conscription for home defence, and from 1911 military training was compulsory for young men. Australian governments pressed hard for control over their own ‘fleet unit’ contribution to the Royal Navy. But they were just as anxious for a louder voice in British policy since the imperial umbrella rather than local defence was the real guarantee of White Australia's survival in an empty continent. That may have been why a secret promise was made in 1911 to send an expeditionary force to Britain's aid in time of war, and why the Australian government was determined that any troops it sent should fight together and not be split up amongst British units.101 Their influence in London, so the Australian leaders believed, depended not just on what they contributed to empire defence, but also on what they were seen to contribute.

Official enthusiasm helped to ensure the rapid formation of an all-volunteer Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and the enlistment of over 50,000 men by the end of 1914. At the local level, recruiting was promoted through the existing system for military training, and by the ‘patriotic leagues’ who arranged the enlistment meetings where men ‘joined up’ in an emotional atmosphere of patriotic sacrifice. As in Canada, Protestant clergymen were vociferous recruiters. ‘We are British first and Australians second’, said the Anglican minister in one country district in Victoria.102 A sense of adventure and fear of unemployment at the beginning of the war (when trade was disrupted) were reinforced by a happy naivety about life at the front. Nevertheless, once Australian troops were committed at Gallipoli, and the scale of the war became gradually clearer, the federal government hastened to boost the volunteer impulse. ‘Eligible’ men from eighteen to forty-five had to fill in a card to say whether they were willing to enlist, and, if not, why. Recruitment was reorganised to give a larger role to ‘recruiting sergeants’ and intensify the moral pressure to volunteer.103 It was not enough. Once much of the AIF had been transferred to the Western Front after the evacuation of Gallipoli, and its losses began to mount (six times as many Australians were eventually killed there as at Gallipoli), the struggle to refill its ranks began to haunt the Australian ministers. If the AIF was not just to waste away, and with it Australia's reputation and influence in London, something had to be done. That something was compulsion.

The most ardent champion of this view was William Morris Hughes, who had become premier in 1915. Hughes exemplified the ‘White Australia’ outlook of the Labour party, and its Asian paranoia. He had been a strong supporter of military service before the war. He mistrusted British ministers, but had no doubt that the fate of the four million Australians turned on their claim to British support as partners in the imperial enterprise. He spent much of 1916 in London partly to negotiate terms for the Australian wool-clip, partly to publicise Australia's contribution to the war. On his return, he threw himself into a furious campaign for conscription, since compulsory service in Australia applied only to home defence. To dramatise his appeal and maximise cross-party support, Hughes chose to test opinion through a referendum, not a general election. The wide public support for recruitment (even among those who opposed conscription) suggested that he would win an overwhelming victory. But, at the referendum of 28 October 1916, he lost by over 90,000 votes.104 When he tried again in December 1917, in what seemed even more desperate circumstances, the margin was even bigger.105

Conscription proved bitterly divisive in wartime Australia, and the divisions long outlasted the war. In country districts especially, they separated friends and even families. Opponents of conscription bore the taint of disloyalty. In the eyes of Protestant and middle-class opinion, the ‘shirkers’ who resisted compulsion were identified with the Catholic and Irish communities and with organised labour. The ruling Labour party split over the issue. Hughes led his followers into a new coalition and formed the Nationalist party in 1917. The rest of the Labour party drifted gradually to the left. By the middle of 1918, the New South Wales party had declared in favour of an immediate peace. At the party's federal conference, the resolutions of the Imperial War Conference were rejected in favour of full Australian self-government, an end to all legal appeals to London, and the abolition of the honours system. Labour leaders also gradually withdrew from the recruiting effort which relied heavily on the publicity of speeches and meetings.

What lay behind the double failure of conscription? How far did it reflect opposition to the ‘misuse’ of Australian manpower in a ‘British’ war? How far did it spring from mistrust of British strategy and alarm at British methods? How far did it signal the growth of a new Australian identity that was determined not to be taken for granted by an overweening mother-country? The answer must be: not very much. It was true, for example, that some of the fiercest opponents of conscription were both Irish and Catholic. Amongst the large Irish Catholic community in Australia, there was wide support for Irish Home Rule and (after Easter 1916) furious anger at London's brutal treatment of the leaders of the Dublin rising. Hughes himself had warned that Home Rule was an imperial, not just a British, question. It was natural that many Irish Australians should resist the Britannic rhetoric with which Australia's contribution to the war was justified. But the wider argument against conscription had little to do with the repudiation of Britishness or empire. In a voluntaristic society, it was an attack on individual rights. Some opponents complained that conscription would mean the permanent weakening of trade unionism, as the champion of working-class interests in the wage arbitration system. It would be the prelude to the industrial conscription of labour. Others insisted that Australia was doing as much as it could. In rural districts, and among farmers, conscription was feared as a remorseless drain on agricultural labour and the family farm. But the most widely vented, and probably most influential, arguments were those that portrayed conscription not as an attack on Australia's autonomy, but as a deadly threat to its white, Britannic identity.

The logic was not hard to follow. It appealed to the old, half-submerged tradition of isolationism in Australia: resentment at the costly involvement in European wars at the expense of more immediate concerns. Germany posed no danger, claimed the rising young Labour politician, John Curtin: Japan was the real menace.106 And, while sending off Australia's manpower to Europe would make no difference against Germany, it would make all the difference in resisting Japan. This argument was especially powerful in Queensland, the ‘invasion colony’ most exposed (it was believed) to attack from the north.107 But defence was not the only issue. The more insidious danger was the infiltration of non-white labour: the old bogey of the Labour party and the trade unions. ‘Vote against conscription and Colonial Coloured labour’ urged anti-conscriptionists in Victoria. ‘The Coloured Ocean…will swamp us if we do not stop the forcible deportation of our men, who are the white walls of Australia’, howled a Queensland pamphlet. ‘Vote no and keep Australia for future Australians – pure, free, unfettered and peopled with our own race and blood’, roared another.108 Hughes was guilty of treason against White Australia, said Curtin.109 The pro-conscription rhetoric of defence and democracy was neutralised by the claim that draining off white manpower would open the door not just to non-white labour but the erosion of hard-won political rights. One anti-conscription cartoon portrayed a dark-skinned, turbanned figure bringing down an axe labelled ‘yes’ on the neck of ‘democracy's’ crouching (white) form. ‘Goodbye democracy’ was its byline.

The vote against conscription was thus not a repudiation of empire, let alone of Britishness. It was a vote against an open-ended commitment to the war on the Western Front. It expressed a fear that the deeper purpose of empire – conceived as the expansion of ‘White Australia’ in its South Pacific homeland – would be jeopardised by the reckless expenditure of its most precious resource: white men. But it was far from reflecting any wider disenchantment with the war. Hughes’ defeat in the first referendum was followed by the crushing victory of his Nationalist government in the general election of May 1917. The Labour government in Queensland, the only state ministry to oppose conscription (the Labour governments in South Australia and New South Wales had supported it), was at pains to reassure British opinion that its commitment to victory was unimpaired.110 Other Labour leaders, perhaps fearful of the ‘lose-the-war’ label that Hughes tried to hang round their neck, insisted on their support for the war and enlistment. Nor was the ‘digger’ myth that emerged in the second half of the war to celebrate ANZAC heroism at Gallipoli at odds with the ‘Britannic’ tradition of White Australia as the British vanguard in the Southern Seas. The tough, independent-minded digger colonising the ‘bush’ fitted perfectly with a ‘conservative imperial nationalism’ in which Australia played the part of the ‘imperial farm’.111

In the other Pacific dominion, contributing to the war aroused much less controversy. In New Zealand, there was the same eagerness as in Australia to be seen at Britain's side. During the war, over 40 per cent of eligible males enlisted for service, the vast majority of them volunteers. Press, public and government united behind the vision of empire unity. ‘A great step forward is being made in the work of Imperial unification’, declared The Dominion newspaper in September 1914.112 In the race to send an imperial contingent, boasted Sir James Allen, the defence minister, in April 1915, ‘we are a long way ahead of any one of the Dominions’.113 The quid pro quo was a voice in foreign policy;114 the sine qua non, a voice in London. The joint leaders of the government coalition, Massey and Sir Joseph Cook, spent much of the war in London, the real centre (as James Belich observes) of the New Zealand war effort.115 In May–June 1916, conscription for overseas service was enacted by an overwhelming parliamentary majority.116 There was no great feeling against it, Allen reported to Massey in London.117 Of course, this remarkable commitment to a far-off conflict was not unqualified. By the end of 1916, there was growing nervousness about the commercial predominance of the United States and Japan in the Pacific, and industrial unrest welled up in the last year of the war. But the fierce divisions of Australian politics were largely avoided. War prosperity allowed the government to conciliate the most powerful trade unions. New Zealand's longer history of social intervention by central government may have made conscription more palatable. And the isolationist tradition was weaker: a reflection partly of demographic and strategic realities, and partly perhaps of the differences in ethnic composition (New Zealand's Irish Catholic community was smaller, less radical and less influential than Australia's) and immigrant tradition on the different shores of the Tasman Sea.

The spectre of revolt: South Africa, India, Ireland

South Africa

In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, ethnic majorities of British descent, urged on by a London-looking press, their Protestant clergies and the loyalism of recent immigrants, responded to the call of the Empire in danger. In all three dominions, the political elite insisted that the survival and solidarity of the Empire was a vital national interest, and that their future as ‘British nations’ (the only national future then imaginable) depended upon the fullest possible commitment to the imperial enterprise. But, in South Africa, India and Ireland, the politics of imperial war were very different. South Africa was a dominion too, but a dominion with a difference. Among whites, to whom political power was all but completely reserved, Dutch-speaking Afrikaners formed a clear majority. While the ‘English’ reacted to the outbreak of war with martial ardour – ‘Johannesburg is full of patriotic emotion’, reported the Unionist politician, Patrick Duncan118 – Afrikaner feelings were much more ambivalent. There was little sense of obligation to the imperial power whose conquest of the Boer republics was such a recent and painful memory. Among those Afrikaners in whom the republican faith still burned fiercely, the old adage ‘England's danger, Ireland's opportunity’ bore an obvious South African meaning. The prime minister, Louis Botha, faced a dilemma. He was acutely sensitive to the charge of dividing the Afrikaner volk. But he was also aware that refusal to contribute to the war would enrage the South African English and expose him to the full force of London's displeasure. ‘Racial’ conflict between Afrikaners and English was likely to arise whether he participated too much or too little. Shrewdly, Botha sought a middle course. At London's request, he mounted a campaign to capture German South West Africa (modern Namibia). It was an obvious target and one that might have been expected to appeal to Afrikaner feeling as much as English. But politically it was a disaster. To many Afrikaners, the attack on Germany's colony was unjustified, and also counter-productive: it destroyed their best lever against the imperious British. Two of Botha's most senior commanders, and a number of commandos – the militia units that embodied Boer society at the local level – rejected the order to serve and rose in revolt. Perhaps 11,000 rebels took up arms against the government. From October 1914 until January 1915, the issue hung in the balance. ‘People in Johannesburg do not realise how critical the situation in the country is’, said Duncan, ‘and how much depends on Botha's being able to keep his people in hand.’119 Without Botha, ‘anything might happen’.120

Botha's personal authority among Afrikaners and the loyalty he enjoyed from the majority of commandos enabled him to bring the revolt to an end. But bitterness and republican sympathy remained strong, especially in the countryside. Even in the towns, young Afrikaners were ‘very disaffected’. ‘The Empire means nothing to them or inspires them with revulsion.’121 For the English politicians, fear of another revolt and dependence upon Botha to prevent it happening, were deeply frustrating.122 They were furious at the terms on which South Africa's contribution to the larger war was made. In August 1915, Botha arranged for a volunteer contingent of brigade strength to be raised for overseas service. (In all, over 70,000 whites, overwhelmingly drawn from the English community, and 44,000 blacks served in Europe.123) But he insisted that they be paid for by London and incorporated in the British army – a decision which meant that their pay at ‘imperial’ rates was one-third of the ‘Union’ pay received by those who fought in South West Africa or by the (mainly Afrikaner) contingent that fought under Smuts in German East Africa. The Unionist party leaders raged privately at Botha's refusal to bring his South African party into a ‘loyal’ coalition to fight the war. But they dared not attack him openly, despite the strong feeling among their supporters, for fear he would resign or drift into alliance with the covert republicans in the National party.

Indeed, Botha became more not less indispensable the longer the war went on. Military failure in Europe and the Near East, the stimulus of the Dublin rising, and agrarian discontent among rural Afrikaners, helped to revive the republican cause in the second half of the war. In 1918, controversy over the Union government's payments to London (to meet some of the costs of the South African contingent), rumours that conscription would be introduced to meet the manpower crisis on the Western Front and mounting labour unrest (among whites and blacks) as shortage and inflation took their toll, heightened the political tension. Nationalists talked openly of demanding ‘complete independence’ (code for a republic) when the war ended. In January 1919, they agreed on a delegation to Paris to reverse the verdict of 1902 and restore republican status to the Transvaal and Orange Free State. English politicians looked on fearfully. ‘The war…has opened up much of the old racial consciousness’, said Duncan gloomily. ‘It has also accentuated the sense of dependence involved in the subordination of our South African politics to the exigencies of a desperate war.’124 But, if the Afrikaner majority united behind a republic and secession from the Empire, the result would be disastrous. ‘The English would fight’, and ‘it would be impossible for the British Government and the rest of the Empire to keep out of it.’ Something had to be done to appease the Afrikaner sense of racial subjection and build a real South African citizenship. If the Empire cannot provide adequately for South Africa in these respects, it will not keep South Africa as a member.’

In fact, the war had starkly revealed the peculiar terms on which South Africa was attached to the British system. Isolationism was a much more powerful factor there than in any of the other dominions. This was partly a matter of Afrikaner resistance to imperial ‘service’: the same feeling could be found in Quebec. But it sprang just as much from the unspoken fear that a holocaust of white men in a far-off war would imperil the physical base of white supremacy in a sub-continent where it was recent, hard-won and fragile. Though blacks had almost no political power, the zwaartgevaar (‘black danger’) was here, as in much else, the real governor of South African politics. For Unionist politicians, the war was a great disappointment. They had failed to force Botha into an Anglo-Afrikaner coalition avowedly ‘loyal’ to the imperial connection. Instead, the war had seemed to strengthen the old ‘Krugerist’ republican strand of Afrikaner nationalism. The English were divided by the politics of class. The standard-bearers of Britannic sentiment in South Africa resigned themselves to the role of an imperial garrison, ready to block the road to secession by whatever means. But, before the full impact of post-war unrest and instability could be felt, Botha died prematurely in August 1919.


In South Africa, the political compact of 1910 had been preserved by carefully limiting its contribution to the war. No such option existed for India. South Africa was a vital strategic outpost whose gold output was mobilised for London's war economy. But India was a main base, the second centre of British military power. Once the war spread to the Near and Middle East, India was expected to bear much of the burden: to counter the Turkish threat in the Persian Gulf (and to the British-controlled oilfield in Southwest Persia) and then to invade the Ottoman provinces of modern Iraq. In the dark days of 1918, when the ‘new war’ threatened imperial disaster, India was pressed even harder for men and resources to meet the shortfall elsewhere. All this was bound to be a source of heavy strain. India's modern infrastructure was only very partially developed. There was little reserve capacity for the sudden increase in the transport of persons and products. In an overwhelmingly agrarian economy, much of it near the margin of subsistence, there was little scope for the increase of revenue or for the vast domestic borrowing through which London had financed much of its war expenditure at home. Above all, a government in which all executive power was wielded by British officials faced the Himalayan task of winning Indian loyalty to an imperial war. If the war was to mean the recruitment (of volunteers), an increased burden of taxation, the economic hardships of inflation, shortage, bottlenecks, and the restriction of personal liberty, for what higher purpose were Indians being asked to make such sacrifice?

Symptoms of discontent were not lacking in India. Almost from the beginning of the war, the government in Delhi had been alarmed by the threat of armed conspiracy by Sikh militants based in the United States and the revival of terrorism in Bengal. But the war against the Ottoman Empire raised a much more worrying prospect. Many educated Muslims in India had been agitated before 1914 by the fear that Turkey as the largest independent Muslim state and guardian of the Holy Places in Mecca and Jerusalem was about to collapse. Defeat by Italy and the Balkan states in 1912–13 tolled the Turkish knell. Associations had been formed to express Muslim solidarity and send material help. Muslim politics in India became increasingly responsive to this sense of a wider Islamic identity. In May 1915, the government of India interned the most prominent of the younger and more radical Muslim politicians, the brothers Mohamed and Shaukat Ali, on the grounds that they had made contact with Turkish agents, were promoting pro-Turkish sympathies in their newspapers, and were active champions of ‘pan-Islamism’.125 The result was to pave the way for a much closer alignment between the leaders of the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress than had seemed possible before 1914. By early 1916, the Viceroy was becoming anxious to pre-empt the call for some political reward for Indian loyalty by a constitutional initiative of his own – though one that fell far short of the ‘colonial swaraj’ (dominion-style self-government) to which Congress was committed.126 The appearance of the ‘Home Rule Leagues’ in 1916 showed that open discontent was spreading among Hindus as well as Muslims. But, before New Delhi could extract a decision from its embattled masters in London, the Indian politicians pulled off a stunning coup. In December 1916, the Congress and the Muslim League reached agreement upon a set of constitutional demands whose studied moderation concealed a far-reaching challenge to British authority. Far from being the handiwork of ‘extremists’, it had been endorsed by the elected members of the Viceroy's legislative council – a group of unimpeachable respectability.

Delhi and London were now galvanised into activity. The Viceroy pressed not for the promise of a post-war declaration, but a declaration now. Without it, he warned, it would be difficult ‘to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion’ to the campaign for ‘immediate Home Rule’.127 In London, the Secretary of State, Austen Chamberlain, was sympathetic. Like the Viceroy's, his reforming instincts were cautious. But, in the summer of 1917, Chamberlain was swept away by the damning report of the Mesopotamia Commission which blamed the India Office and the government of India for mismanaging the disastrous advance on Baghdad. He was replaced by a Liberal, a protégé of Asquith, but now a follower of Lloyd George, Edwin Montagu. Montagu had known the India Office as a junior minister. As a Jew, he was alert to the racial arrogance of British officialdom of which educated Indians so often complained. Most of all, he was fiercely critical of the bureaucratic mentality of the Civilian Raj. The government of India was ‘too wooden, too iron, too inelastic, too antediluvian’, he told the House of Commons shortly before his appointment. It had to become political, to argue its case, to win over opinion. With his abrasive manner and radical ideas, Montagu was an unlikely appointment to the India Office. But the accident of war had given him a doctor's mandate to shake up the lethargic Indian government and head off the danger of Indian unrest – at the very moment when the receding hope of victory in Europe made help from the empire countries all the more vital. In August 1917, Montagu extracted from the War Cabinet permission to announce a new departure in Indian politics. In his famous announcement on 20 August 1917, India was promised ‘the gradual development of self-governing institutions’ and ‘the progressive realization of responsible government…as an integral part of the British Empire’.128 What this coded language seemed to mean was that the Viceroy's opposition to ‘colonial swaraj’ had been overcome. The days of ‘constitutional despotism’ were numbered. India's political future lay in the promotion to dominion-type self-government that the Congress had so long been demanding.

The Congress–League scheme had been careful to disavow interference with India's imperial burdens, the likely cause of objections from London. External affairs, the princely states and the army budget were all excluded from the purview of the new elected councils it called for at provincial and All-India level.129 But over internal affairs the control of elected Indians was to be very wide. Resolutions passed by the councils could be carried against the veto of the executive at the second attempt. The old adversary, the Indian Civil Service, was to be removed altogether from the new executive bodies in the provinces and in the government of India in Delhi, to be replaced by a mixture of appointed Indians and British from ‘home’, free (it was assumed) from the taint of the Civilian ethos. Montagu's plan was to extend devolution at the provincial level and push India firmly down the road to federation, the only ‘thinkable’ policy, he told Lloyd George.130 In the autumn of 1917, he set out for India to persuade the Viceroy and the Civilians to adopt a much more drastic form of provincial self-government than they had intended, to reduce central control over provincial revenues and leave much of the provinces’ affairs to elected Indian ministers. These ideas were badly received. When Montagu met the Viceroy and the provincial governors – the barons of the Civilian Raj – in Delhi, he was dismayed by the governors’ hostility to real reform.131 But, in 1918, the Civilian Raj was in low water. Its reputation for competence had been destroyed by the Mesopotamia Commission. Under this cloud, it had little hope of appealing over Montagu's head to opinion at home. If they did not heed his advice, Montagu bluntly told the governors, ‘I would resign and they must get somebody else’.132 Moreover, the need for a radical overhaul was voiced as much by ‘imperialists’ as by radicals in Britain. Lionel Curtis, the ‘prophet’ of the ‘Round Table’ (the influential pressure group for imperial federation), who was reputed to have the ear of Lords Milner and Curzon, as well as that of The Times (or so Montagu believed), had mobilised opinion in India and Britain behind an even more radical scheme of provincial devolution, breaking up the provinces into ‘provincial states’.133 The senior Civilians also knew that the demands of the war effort were bound to grow even more voracious, and with them the need for Indian cooperation. In the triangle of Indian politics, both London and local opinion were against them. They could not obstruct simultaneously a reforming minister and the grand coalition of Indian politicians.

With his doctrine of winning over the Indian ‘moderates’, Montagu eventually gained the grudging acquiescence of Chelmsford and his colleagues to what (the term was Curtis') came to be called ‘dyarchy’. In the provinces, government business was to be divided into ‘transferred’ and ‘reserved’ subjects: with the first category coming under the control of Indian ministers ‘responsible’ to elected legislatures. At the centre, the old legislative council was to be enlarged and have an elected majority. But it would have no control over any part of the central government; it could not prevent the passing of the budget; nor would any member of the Viceroy's government be responsible to it. To meet the long-standing Congress complaint, one-third of the Indian Civil Service would henceforth be recruited in India. For all its compromises, this was strong medicine for the Civilians, and even the civil servant charged with drafting the report could hardly conceal his distaste for its recommendations.134 Montagu went home to publish what was to be called the ‘Montagu–Chelmsford Report’ believing that he had headed off the impending crisis in Indian politics that he, like Curtis, had feared: the inevitable result (they thought) if Indian politicians were denied some responsibility for government and driven into demagogy or agitation. But, if Montagu had hoped that his reward for reforms that went far beyond what Morley had considered only nine years earlier would be the grateful thanks of ‘political India’, and the triumph of the ‘moderates’, he was to be sorely disappointed. In reality, India was on the brink of a political earthquake.

The first sign of this was the Congress' furious rejection of the reform scheme. At a special session to debate the reforms, speakers queued up to denounce the leisurely timetable for Indian self-government, the miserly allocation of civil service posts to Indians, and the failure to concede any measure of responsible government at the Indian centre.135 The delegates still spoke the language of loyalty. ‘We want to save the Empire’, said one, ‘we want to keep up the British connection…we see the far-ahead danger of an isolated India.’136 But they were outraged by the government of India's plans for new laws to deal with the threat of sedition (an omnibus term that covered terrorism, conspiracy and political unrest) once the wartime legislation ran out. The Rowlatt Report (it took its name from the judge who wrote it) was roundly condemned. Montagu had also been uneasy at the draconian powers the report recommended. He had pressed Chelmsford to reform the Criminal Intelligence department, which routinely spied on Indian politicians. ‘It is convenient but very dangerous to govern by means of your police’, he lectured the Viceroy.137 It was wrong to exaggerate the threat of violence by a ‘handful of deluded fanatics’.138 But he dared not press his opposition too far: the Rowlatt Act was the Viceroy's quid pro quo for reform. Whatever its justification, this was to be a staggering political blunder. For the Rowlatt Act was the catalyst for mass politics in India.

It was opposition to Rowlatt that brought Gandhi to the forefront of Indian nationalism. Gandhi had returned to India in 1915 after nearly twenty years in South Africa. He brought with him a new political creed of personal liberation through ‘truth-force’ or satyagraha. Gandhi professed indifference to the mechanics of constitutional reform and stressed instead a spiritual struggle against the mental domination of the British Raj. His ideal was not the unitary Indian state imagined by the Congress leadership but a myriad of self-sufficient villages, purged of the superstitions, inequalities and insanitariness that disfigured rural life, and an India freed from the tyranny of its overbearing foreign bureaucracy. By the middle of 1918, he had demonstrated in an electrifying way the potential of his social and political teaching for mobilising support far beyond the educated and literate. At Ahmedabad and Kaira in Western India, and at Champaran in Bihar, he championed local grievances and inspired local disciples. Skilful use of the press, and meticulous organisation allowed him to keep control over local activists, the satyagrahis; while mastery of paperwork and his willingness to act as an intermediary won him credibility with the government. He preserved a careful ambiguity over the constitutional issue, welcoming the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms but as the basis for transforming a ‘top-heavy and ruinously expensive’ regime.139More controversially, he gave enthusiastic backing to the recruitment drive for the Indian army in the summer of 1918, arguing that only if Indians showed their martial qualities would they win British respect. ‘We want the same rights as an Englishman enjoys’, but Indians could never be treated as equals if they depended on British protection.140 But the Rowlatt Act seemed a throwback to the brutal dogmas of race supremacy. It was a moral outrage against which the whole force of Indian opinion could be rallied peacefully through satyagraha and hartal, the mass boycott or shutdown to show public discontent. It was the perfect issue with which to connect the local networks of Gandhian activism to the grander question of Indian freedom.

Part of Gandhi's motive was to throw a bridge to Muslim discontent. Indeed, Muslim irritation was just as dangerous to the Civilian Raj as Gandhi's experiments in local activism. Islamic consciousness had been growing before 1914 stimulated by the spread of newspapers, the diffusion of Islamic literature and more regular contact with the Islamic heartland in Southwest Asia. During the war, an alliance grew up between the educated ‘Young Muslim’ politicians and the ulama, the religious elite.141 The gaoling of the leading Young Muslim politicians showed how seriously the threat of pan-Islamic agitation was taken. Their continued incarceration after the war was over meant that Indian Muslims were especially sensitive to the repressive implications of the Rowlatt Act: they had felt the main weight of its wartime equivalent. This was bad enough. But, at the same moment, Muslim opinion was becoming more and more alarmed over the fate of the Ottoman Empire, defeated in war and now destined, so it seemed, to be partitioned between the victorious (Christian) powers. To Muslim leaders who had escaped internment, the Rowlatt Act and the subjugation of what remained of the free Muslim world (including its Holy Places) were inextricably linked.

By early 1919, then, the old slogans of the Congress politicians had been taken up by an army of new activists. Into this cocktail of discontent was stirred a long list of material grievances: wartime shortage and inflation; rising taxation; the terrible scourge of influenza that carried off millions in 1918. In March 1919, Gandhi launched the Rowlatt satyagraha. Hartals, demonstrations and riots followed in many North Indian cities, including Delhi, a centre of pan-Islamic feeling. But, in the Punjab towns, the violence was far worse. News of Gandhi's arrest lit the fuze for widespread disorder. It reached a bloody climax at Amritsar. After three Europeans had been killed, troops under General Dyer were rushed to the city. Political meetings were forbidden, but enforcement was patchy. Then, on the afternoon of 13 April, nearly 400 demonstrators were shot dead at the Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed space not far from the Golden Temple.

The ‘new politics’ had arrived with a vengeance. The result was not a downward spiral into violent confrontation (from which both sides drew back) but a profound remaking of the political world. The pattern was not immediately clear, but two great trends had been set in motion. The first was the growth of a novel form of cultural politics, radically distinct from the liberal programme of the pre-war Congress. It was rooted above all in religious identity, Muslim and Hindu, the appeal of which had been growing rapidly. It gave huge new impetus to the ‘communal’ tendency visible before the war in the separatist claims of the Muslim League, and ratified in the electoral arrangements of the Congress–League scheme. It would fuel the great Non-Cooperation movement of 1920–2, but cut short Gandhi's bold experiment in Hindu–Muslim unity, and give a lever to the embattled Civilians as they struggled to manage the new constitution. It would shape fundamentally the last phase of British rule. The second trend was its inevitable counterpart. As Indian politics became more ‘religious’, more populist and more introverted, the old identification of the educated elite with the Empire and ‘British connection’ became increasingly strained. They were harassed by new social and religious appeals, and betrayed by the meanness of the Montford reforms. They had expected (with British help) to make a British Indian nation from above. Now they had to reckon with the demand for new freedoms that welled up from below. In 1919, how it would all end was anyone's guess.


In no part of the Empire, however, were the effects of war more drastic than in Ireland. Unless the British recovered the ‘courage and sureness of touch which rendered us famous as Empire builders’, Montagu had mused in June 1917, ‘we shall simply make a series of Irelands in different parts of the world’142 – a fate he meant to avoid in India. What Montagu had in mind, no doubt, was the unappeasable hostility with which a part at least of Irish nationalist opinion viewed the British connection; the vicious circle of forcible repression and violent resistance; the obstruction of Home Rule by Ulster and the Unionists. In fact, by the middle of 1917, much of Ireland outside Ulster was in the early stages of a political revolution that went far beyond anything seen before 1914. In the post-war election of December 1918, Sinn Fein swept the board with a programme of republican independence. In January 1919, it declared the new republic in being and began to create a parallel government. As London struggled to reassert its authority, the spasmodic violence between the republican ‘army’ and the Royal Irish Constabulary turned into full-scale guerrilla war.

What had made the Irish revolt against empire so much more extreme than that of Afrikaners or Indians? Of course, it was true that, in the last months before the outbreak of the war in 1914, the threat of armed Ulster resistance to Home Rule and the failure to find a political compromise had created a mood of violent confrontation between nationalists and unionists, and brought Ireland to the brink of civil war. But the emotions roused by the European war had brought an astonishing change of mood. The leaders of the Irish National party had declared their commitment to the imperial war effort. The ‘Irish Volunteers’, formed to counter the Ulster Volunteer Force, became the ‘National Volunteers’, the kernel, it was hoped, of an Irish Army Corps on the dominion model. John Redmond, the Irish Party leader, accepted the wartime deferment of Home Rule. Like Australian or New Zealand politicians (and like his Ulster rivals), Redmond intended this demonstration of imperial loyalty to reap a post-war reward. For the time being, the road to imperial influence lay through the drill-hall and recruitment meeting. The Irish dominion-to-be (Redmond's real objective) would be funded from London's wartime debt of honour.

The unsolved problem of Ulster's exclusion was bound to make this a risky and uncertain strategy. Many of Redmond's followers were bitterly opposed to anything that smacked of partition and deeply mistrustful of the London government. Redmond's best hope was that the wartime comradeship of Irish unionists and nationalists, and their common sacrifice, would soften their pre-war antagonism and win Ulster's agreement to Home Rule on a flood-tide of All-Irish patriotism. Any prospect of this was badly damaged by the Dublin Easter Rising in April 1916. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, which controlled the Volunteer units opposed to Redmond, had planned an armed insurrection in September 1915. It was delayed into 1916 for the sake of German help with the weapons needed for a general revolt. Even when these failed to arrive (they were intercepted by the Royal Navy), the conspirators under the charismatic leadership of Patrick Pearse went ahead with the Dublin rising. Their motives have been much debated, but a desperate determination to shock Irish opinion out of wartime loyalty, perhaps by a ‘blood sacrifice’, may have been uppermost. Whatever the aim, the effect was seismic. In six days of fighting, the city centre was wrecked and 450 people (mostly civilians) were killed. The initial revulsion against the reckless violence of the conspirators was disarmed by their subsequent fate: ninety were sentenced to death, sixteen were to die.143 Republicanism had found its martyrs. More immediately, the Dublin rising convinced the London government (which wrongly attributed it to the influence of Sinn Fein) that some new gesture was needed to isolate the ‘extremists’ in Irish politics and bolster the loyalty of Redmond's followers. Home Rule returned to the political agenda but in circumstances no more favourable than in 1914.

The result was a stalemate. Lloyd George won the shadow of consent but only by telling the Ulster Unionists that their exclusion from a Home Rule Ireland would be permanent, and the Redmondites that it would be temporary. When the truth was revealed, the ‘agreement’ fell apart. Redmond angrily rejected the offer of immediate Home Rule for the twenty-six counties outside Ulster, knowing that much of his following would reject a compromise that left many Catholic nationalists in a separate North. In the House of Commons in March 1917, the Redmondites complained bitterly of British betrayal. ‘What is it that stands in the way of Ireland's taking her place as a self-governing part of the Empire?’, asked the leader's brother, William Redmond.144 Ireland wanted to be like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, ‘side by side in the common cause’. John Redmond himself offered a sombre and prophetic warning. The ‘revolutionary party’, almost banished before the war, was now reviving. His own position had been made untenable. In a savage peroration, Redmond blamed his political bankruptcy on the treachery of British leaders. ‘Any British statesman who…once again teaches the Irish people the lesson that any National leader who, taking his political life in his hands, endeavours to combine local and Imperial patriotism, endeavours to combine loyalty to Ireland's rights with loyalty to the Empire – anyone who again teaches the lesson that such a man is certain to be let down and betrayed by this course, is guilty of treason not merely to the liberties of Ireland but to the unity, strength and best interests of this Empire.’145 Lloyd George replied merely that Ulster could not be forced into Home Rule.

There was to be one last throw of the political dice. Too much was at stake to abandon all effort at settlement. For London, an unreconciled Ireland would embarrass Britain's relations with the United States (now a ‘co-belligerent’), threaten Irish recruitment and alarm the Unionist majority in Parliament on which the Lloyd George ministry depended. For Redmond and the Irish National party it would ensure the oblivion that Redmond feared. The Irish Convention of 1917–18 was a desperate attempt to find a bargain acceptable to the nationalists, and both the Northern and the Southern Unionists (who had most to lose from partition).146 It failed, but its real failure was to have been irrelevant. It was boycotted by Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein was already by 1917 the most powerful force in Irish politics. While Redmond pursued a constitutional will-o’-the-wisp, Sinn Fein urged mass support for outright separation. It crushed the Redmondites in the by-elections. In May 1917, it won the open endorsement of the Catholic hierarchy. But the real secret of its remarkable rise was the Irish fear of conscription.

Ireland had been carefully exempted from the Military Service Act of 1916. But its shadow loomed large in Irish society. As the war dragged on, it seemed only a matter of time before conscription crossed the Irish Sea. There were many reasons why Irish attitudes were so different from those in mainland Britain. Even the Redmondites insisted that without Home Rule conscription was illegitimate. Like Afrikaners or French Canadians, the Catholic majority denied an obligation to fight for the Empire, even if many were willing to do so. Ireland had the highest rate of emigration in pre-war Europe:147 even without conscription, the haemorrhage of young men (and women) was the cruellest fact in Irish life. In rural Ireland especially, conscription threatened (or was thought to) the survival of small farms dependent on family labour. Scares proliferated about the moral and physical pollution that army service would bring. Conscription would debauch as well as impoverish, a notion not discouraged by the clergy. Politically and culturally, it meant anglicisation, the fraying of local loyalty and Catholic identity.

The fear of conscription was thus the cause that turned the republican separatism of Sinn Fein into a popular movement, and Irish politics into its revolutionary phase. As the Convention floundered towards collapse, the slide towards open revolt gathered speed. For, by April 1918, the threat of conscription had become dangerously real. As the crisis of British manpower grew with the huge new losses on the Western Front, the call-up in Britain was extended to men as old as fifty-one. After a bitter internal row, the Lloyd George government shelved its application to Ireland – for the moment. The effect on Ireland was like a call to arms. The Volunteer brigades recruited and trained more actively than ever.148 For many young men, armed resistance as a Volunteer seemed the only defence against compulsory service in the British army. Raiding and counter-raiding between Volunteers and police intensified. De Valera, now leader of Sinn Fein, drew up a national pledge against conscription that was signed by tens of thousands at the church door on 21 April 1918 and endorsed by a general strike two days later. Amid these signs of violent upheaval (and with deepening gloom on the Western Front), London turned once more to repression. The Sinn Fein leadership (some 150 persons) was gaoled and its meetings proscribed – a step widely seen as the prelude to conscription. But it was now too late to break the grip of the movement and its military wing on the Irish countryside. For the rest of the war, an armed truce prevailed. When peace came, Sinn Fein's electoral triumph (outside Ulster) and the opening shots of its military struggle showed how far and how quickly the war had transformed the old landscape of Anglo-Irish relations.

It was at first sight surprising that the revolt against empire had gone furthest so near the centre of the British system. The paradox is superficial. Though the demands of war had been felt across the whole imperial world, the alienation they caused had been deepest in Ireland. In pre-war Ireland, political expectations had been higher and the edge of violence closer than anywhere else – with the consequences seen in 1916. As in India, the imperial government could not promise enough to save its would-be allies from defeat by ‘extremists’. As in India, its agents enraged their opponents by the threat of coercion. But the real catalyst of Irish nationalism in its republican and separatist mode was fear that the imperial state was about to drive its control deeper than ever before into the localities – through conscription and its enforcement – and thus reverse the pre-war trend to devolution. It was in Ireland, then, that the cloven hoof of war imperialism was most clearly visible, and in Ireland that the reaction was most deadly.

War and empire

The effects of the war on the British system were disturbing but also contradictory. Its extraordinary conclusion in Europe – unimaginable in 1914 – had wrecked, for the time being at least, the old balance of power, which had exerted so much influence on the extra-European diplomacy of the European states. Devising a stable successor regime that would restrain the jealousies of the European powers within Europe and beyond was one of the most pressing concerns of the ‘peacemakers’ who gathered in Paris in January 1919. Secondly, the war had set in motion a geopolitical revolution in East Asia. The weakness of a Russia engulfed in civil war (the disintegration of Russian colonial power in Northeast Asia seemed highly likely in 1919), the (relative) strength of Japan, and the rise of xenophobic nationalism in China (that was to burst out in May 1919) threatened a general onslaught against Western interests on this furthest frontier of the British world. Thirdly, the war had destabilised the world economy and checked the globalising trends from which Britain had profited so much before 1914. It loaded Britain with debts both internal and external. At the same time, the sacrifice of men and wealth and the terrible uncertainties that persisted almost until the end of the conflict had strained the old basis of cooperation between Britain and the empire countries, goading into life the secessionist strand of local nationalism in Ireland, India and even South Africa. By way of compensation, the war had crushed for the moment the great power rivalry of Germany and Russia, whose competitive expansion British leaders had feared most before 1914. As a result, the British had been able to occupy much of the Eurasian ‘cockpit’ in the Near and Middle East, the region where geopolitical uncertainty had seemed most dangerous to the imperial system – but at what cost, and for how long?

This was what one of Woodrow Wilson's advisers was to call ‘the new world’.149 How far British leaders could reconstruct their pre-war system, and adapt it to the shape of the new international order, and how far they could carry with them their partners, agents, allies and collaborators in India, the dominions and the ‘outer empire’, will be seen in the chapters that follow.

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