April 18, 2000
In 1940 Britain almost died. German troops had defeated Britain in France. Only by a stroke of luck had the majority of British troops managed to make it home, lightly armed. France and Poland, Britainís European allies had been smashed. Britain was bleeding gold and assets to her creditors. Hitler was on our doorstep and we were running out of money. It was a desperate time. However, Britain did have allies, the Commonwealth and Empire. They helped her through, indeed they may have been the key to her survival. Really?
This article will argue that Britainís empire was a liability that almost killed her. What it will not argue is that Britain was badly served by the troops of the Empire. The Imperial troops fought bravely in a fight that, from a strategic standpoint, was mostly not their fight. Canada was under no threat whatsoever considering the friendly relations she enjoyed with America. South Africa and Rhodesia put many troops into action without a German colony on their whole continent. The Indians, the Australians and the New Zealanders went further. They put themselves at risk from the Japanese by involving themselves in a European quarrel. In addition, many other colonies from Britainís extensive Empire endured siege or occupation bravely. There is no questioning the bravery and selflessness of the Imperial troops. However, would Britain have fought better without an Empire?
The strength of Britainís empire was supposedly due to its size. It was the Empireís very size that almost killed Britain. Britainís peacetime army stationed a third of her army in India and a sixth of it in the other (non-Dominion) colonies. That was a half of the admittedly small army. This was over and above the troops raised from the colonies. So half of Britainís army was stationed abroad, when it was quiet. The British Navy was also stationed abroad in the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Pacific; anywhere it seemed apart from British waters.
Britainís actual deployments, however, were dwarfed by her potential deployments. Looking at the old school maps where the British realms were coloured red makes one realise just how overextended the British were. The British Empire bordered on China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Thailand, the French, Dutch and Portuguese empires, Argentina, Guatemala, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran and many other countries. Then there was the question of internal revolts in a vast and diverse Empire, groups as different as the Afrikaans National Party and the Indian Congress opposed the war. Britain was lucky that so many of them were neutral rather than actively hostile. Another point was the informal Empire. The British Empire was on four different levels. Firstly there were the independent dominions; then there was India, which was in a category of its own; then the colonies, which included everything else under formal British domain; and finally there were the protectorates. These were independent states that signed military alliances with Britain, in order to protect the extended trade routes within the Empire. Kuwait, Qatar and Sharijah in the Persian Gulf guarded the oil routes. Egypt allowed the Suez Canal through. Kashmir and Nepal were relics from the Great Game in the Himalayas. How could a nation of forty five million people be expected to protect all of it?
Of course, Britain could not protect all her Empire at once. She did not expect to. The First World War may have been fought on a wide canvass, but it was still a predominantly European battle. This was not the case in the Second World War, which was fought ferociously in Asia, the Pacific and North Africa. Britain was simply unable to defend everyone at once. That the Royal Navy would not sail to the Far East as promised is still a source of bitterness to many Australians. In fact, the promise was made in anticipation of the French fleet holding the Mediterranean and Churchill promised the fleet if Australia or New Zealand was attacked "on a large scale", whatever that meant. Even where there where British troops, this did not always help, with an inadequately defended Malaya leading the Japanese Army to the fortress of Singapore. Suddenly Britain found her great strength to be a fatally bleeding wound.
Britainís lack of preparation for the Second World War is now an historical commonplace. However, compared to her dominions or colonies Britain was positively martial. The Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) had 40% of the population of Great Britain. Yet they provided five divisions to Britainís thirty-four in 1940. Britain also provided 90% of munitions production in the same year. This was understandable in Canada or South Africa with no direct threat, but a resurgent Japan meant that Australia and New Zealand could not take the same attitude. However, in 1935 they were spending half as much per head on defence as the British were. The burden of defending them would inevitably come on the British Navy, a burden Britain found itself unable to meet.
How did Britain allow herself to get into this mess, almost committing national suicide in the process? The answer is that she did not realise what she was doing. Where most Empires come from the ruthless application of military and economic might for a specific strategic purpose, some do not. The British are an example of this later group. The British simply took large areas of the world because they were unchallenged. This meant that small groups of people, often organised into private companies, took over huge areas of the globe. North America, Australasia, India and South Africa were all quickly taken up because the British had no significant maritime rivals from the eclipse of Louis XIV until the First World War. The empire was effortless and unconscious, except for a few lucid moments such as the infamous scramble for Africa. Britain had overextended herself because she met so little resistance. Does this sound familiar?
What is so frustrating about the whole process is that there was the opportunity afforded by the breathing space between the first and second world wars to rid Britain of her Empire. Although it could be argued that Indiaís Congress movement was not prepared for self-government by the early 1930s, the same could be said fifteen years later and this time there would have been no Muslim League or partition with Pakistan. The colonies could have been force fed independence with no adverse consequences to either Britain or the colonies. The Dominions were already independent, Britain could, if she had been more clearly sighted have severed the military guarantees with the Dominions, the Dominions under threat would have had to raise military spending to British levels. The fact was that this was not done. Instead, the British Empire actually increased. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire meant that Britain and France were suddenly thrown into the Arabian cauldron. The loss of German overseas possessions meant that Britain and her Dominions suddenly had a cluster of new protectorates on their hands. When the over extension was starting to show, Britain expanded her Empire that bit further.
My pessimistic analysis of the effect of the British Empire has a certain exception. One former British colony in the end saved Britain. Well in fact it was thirteen former colonies and thirty-five other states. (Pedants here will point out that Maine, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky were also part of the former colonies so it is closer to thirty-one other states). It is undoubtedly the case that, as Bismarck predicted in 1898, the dominant factor of the twentieth century was that North America spoke English. American industrial might, scientific ability and military manpower dragged Britain out of the mire. Even if Britain could have survived without American military intervention, it is hard to see how she could have survived without the raw materials and industrial output made in the USA. The question must be asked, why was America different? The answer is obvious; America became independent sooner. The decisions on the economy, the land and immigration where made with America in mind rather than a remote mother country. Naturally America flourished and grew. The very fact that Britain lost in 1769 saved her in 1940.
Empires are dangerously seductive things. They make you feel big. In the case of England, and America, they seem effortless. However, they do have their dangers, and in more cases than we realise, they can cripple otherwise healthy patients. The problem is if they come about so naturally, can they be stopped? My answer is that they may be able to be. However, in Britain even Gladstone, a man opposed in his very core to the notion of empire, acquiesced with imperial expansion in Africa. Even if the flow towards empire can be diverted, it will need a great deal of willpower. Nevertheless, the example of Britainís near death experience in 1940 should provide the impetus to try to summon as much willpower as possible.
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