The British Seaborne Empire
In 1904, the Director of Military Operations had warned about the precariousness of the Empire,
The fact cannot be too plainly stated that throughout Egypt and the Soudan, and throughout the great Protectorates of Uganda and British East Africa, our whole position depends entirely on prestige. We are governing with a mere handful of white officials vast populations alien to us in race, language and religion, and for the most part but little superior in civilization to savages. Except for the small, and from a military point of view inadequate, British force in Egypt, the authority of these officials is supported only by troops recruited from the subject races, whose obedience to their officers rests on no other basis than a belief in the invincibility of the British government and confidence in its promises. If that belief and confidence be once shaken, the foundations of all British authority between Cairo and Mombasa will be undermined, and at any moment a storm of mutiny and insurrection will sweep us into the sea.In The First World War, the Germen leadership indeed planned to destroy the British Empire, using revolution to extend the war to Egypt and India, Germany's Muslim ally, Turkey, was expected to provide the leadership for pan-Islamic revolts that, according to the German diplomat Rudolph Nadolny, were 'to light a torch from the Caucasus to Calcutta.' In the event, the German appeal to the 270 million Muslims of the world was undermined by the fact that in the Middle East some Muslims proved eager to revolt against Turkish rule. More generally, pan-Turkism was widely considered an unacceptable part of pan-Islamism, and this was readily apparent in Egypt where German promises of independence required Turkish troops to give effect to them. There was no supporting rising in Egypt and the Turkish advance was repelled by Gurkha and Indian units, supported by British and French warships.
In 1915, in the Gallipoli campaign, the Anglo-French attempt to force the Dardanelles and besiege Constantinople, the major amphibious operation of the war, failed. Initially, the emphasis was on the Davy, but the attempt to force the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915 fell victim to mines, with three British or French pre-dreadnought battleships sunk. The naval experts had been aware of the hazards posed by the mines and shore batteries, not least because, before the war, the British naval mission had provided advice to the Turks on mine-laying, but their caution was thrust aside by Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty who was a keen advocate of a bold naval advance on Constantinople. With surprise lost, the Allies followed, on 25 April, with a landing of troops on the Gallipoli peninsula, bur the Turks had strengthened local defences under German direction, the Allies failed to push their initial advantages and their advances were contained. The assault on the periphery of Europe had failed. The Allied withdrawal the following winter was one of the few well-managed aspects of the operation.
Turkish victories in 1915, which included a major defeat on the British at Kut in Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq), nevertheless did not have an impact on the prestige of the Empire comparable with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, not least because they were defensive victories. In some respects, indeed, the war led to an intensification of British military control in the colonies. This was particularly the case near areas of conflict—the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish Empire; but, more generally, forces were also available to enforce imperial authority. In Sudan, the territory of Darfur was conquered, while in 1918 an expedition was launched against the Turkana of Kenya.
The successful articulation of the Empire was readily apparent in the war, for without the Empire Britain would have been unable to mount offensive operations in the Middle East, would have been largely reduced to the use of the navy alone against German colonies in Africa and the Pacific and would have been forced to introduce conscription, a contentious move, earlier than 1916. The use of imperial forces was helped by the absence of an enemy in East Asia, with the exception of the German base at Tsingtao in China, which was captured by Britain's ally Japan in 1914, although her activity in China contributed to growing British concern about her intentions, especially in India.
More than 800,000 Indian soldiers fought for the British in the war, so that, far from the British having to garrison South Asia, it was a crucial source of manpower for them. Large numbers of Indians were at first used on the Western Front, while others captured Basra in 1914, protecting British oil interests in south-west Persia, and advanced into Mesopotamia the following year, this commitment a continuation of pre-war interest in increasing influence in the Persian Gulf. The impact of raising troops in India was particularly pronounced on the society of the Punjab, while India also provided large quantities of products for the war effort, including food and textiles. In Africa, especially British East Africa, labour conscription was a heavy burden, with large numbers of carriers used to provide the logistics for Allied columns, and, as a result of disease, there were very high rates of casualties among the carriers.
The Dominions also raised large numbers of men, with the Canadians providing a substantial force for the Western Front. Forty per cent of the men of military age (i.e. between 19 and 45) in New Zealand, where conscription was introduced in 1916, served overseas, and of these 120,000 men, over 50,000 were injured and 18,000 died. These efforts and losses played a major role in the shared experience of empire, and were also important in developing attitudes towards the British connection. Thus, the war was seen as formative in the nationalism of the Dominions, although, in practice, this process was far more long-term. Heavy Australian losses, including 58,460 dead among the 332,000 troops who served overseas, were to play a potent role in a controversy focused on the argument that British self-interest and incompetence had led to unnecessary sacrifice, especially in the Gallipoli campaign, although this argument rested on a less than secure reading of that campaign, particularly of the general surprise at the skill of the Turkish defence; and was less important at the time than when it became central to hostility towards the British link.