Engagement and Encounters of Troops from Colonies and Dominions of the British Empire in WW I


It is because of the Euro-centrism and the dominance of the Realist tradition that the study of empire in international relations has been ignored. Historiography around the imperial nature of war has not been properly documented (Jackson, 2014). State-centrism of the realist tradition excluded the empires as one of the level of analysis in their study. All this cumulatively is the reason behind undermining the contribution of the British Empire in the World War I (WW I) (Jackson, 2014).

The British turned to colonies1 and dominions2 for support during the WW I. Along with supplying troops, colonies and dominions supplied food, ammunitions, and other resources to the British. Colonial soldiers were generally employed to defend the frontiers of the empire. It was only in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) that the mass mobilization of troops and resources was done for the first time from the colonies and dominions (Vandervort, 2012). India contributed the maximum number of soldiers even more than the dominions. Britain’s declaration of war in August 19143, brought the colonies and dominions also into a state of war. Interestingly, many places in the colonies and dominions also became theatre of war (Jackson, 2008). Britain war with the Ottoman Empire turned East Africa into one of the major battlefield during the WW I.

This paper makes an attempt to explore the difference between the engagement of the soldiers from the British colonies and dominions in the WW I, where the emphasis is on the colonies. In the first section it tries to make a case for the WW I being an imperial war to some extent. It then delves into the process of recruitment of soldiers, their experiences in the battlefield and the way they were perceived by their own people back home in case of dominions and colonies. The paper simultaneously brings out the difference between the engagement of the soldiers from the dominions and colonies and makes a claim that much of these were the result of the prevalent racism at the time of war. Instead of focusing on a particular dominion and colonies, this paper brings in empirical evidences from different colonies and dominions in order to substantiate its claim.

WW I: Partly an Imperial War

Ashley Jackson calls the WW I as the imperial war (Jackson, 2014). By the very virtue of it being fought in imperial theatres and the tussle between primarily Britain and Germany over the colonies during the war suffice his claim. The strong believe among the advocators of British Empire and its imperial status, that the southern part of the world would be more secure after the war was also a reason which corroborates the claim of Jackson. It was in the interest of Britain to retain the colonies of Germany as this will give them uninterrupted access to India and to the Gulf (ibid). It is for the same reason that WW I was fought in Southern Africa, Pacific (German Samao and Papua New Guinea were the German colonies in pacific that became theatre of war) and East Africa. One of the major reason for recruitment of troops from the colonies and dominions was also to fight the war in the fronts other than Europe too. Empirically, German Enclave of Tsingtau in China and German South West Africa were defeated and captured by the Indian Army and South African Army respectively (ibid).

Conception of Racism

Simplistically, Racism can be defined as a doctrine that considers one race superior to other. Basically it is a set of ideas and beliefs which develops prejudices in the individual which translates into discrimination against the racial minorities (Bonilla-Silva, 1997). It allows a dominant race to institutionalize its power and dominance over what is perceived as racial minority at different levels of the society. The very idea of race was a result of the interaction of the biological determinism with the concept of civilization (Reeves, 2004). It was science that granted legitimacy to such thinking, evolutionary theories were deterministic of the fact that not all people are born same. So those who were white were considered to be civilized and superior. This idea began to dominate the politics in the first half of twentieth century. This created the binary of ‘civilized white Europeans’ and ‘uncivilized non-whit savages’ which got translated into politics (ibid.). Colour of the skin and facial feature began to determine the superiority of the people. The white race was distinct and superior from the coloured people. Racism played an influential role even in the International Relations. The colonial powers saw themselves more civilized then their subjects (Bonilla-Silva, 1997). Fighting of war was the affair of the civilized states, when China and Japan broke into war in 1894 it was not considered as a proper war (Reeves, 2004). Thus war was a continuation of politics of the civilized people, the uncivilized and colored people were not considered part of war. This was discernible in case of WW I also where the colored people were restricted from fighting in the war and were supposed to do auxiliary works. The following section deal with the role racism has to play in WW I.

Recruitment Policies and the Underlying Racist Logics

The policy of the recruitment of the soldiers from India during the WW I had its roots in the racism (Vandervort, 2012). The traditional pattern of ‘martial race’ was followed by the British Empire while recruiting. Though the genesis of this pattern was in India credit to British administration but was later emulated by other European powers in their colonies. According to British not all non-whites have the propensity and proclivity for war. They considered the Gurkhas, the Sikhs and the Pathans as someone belonging to superior race unlike the Bengalis and those from southern part of India.

European colonial armies recruited large numbers of soldiers among the “native” populations of Africa, Asia and Americas, but they did not do so indiscriminately. In fact, an elaborate body of argument was fashioned during the second half of the nineteenth century to explain a rigorously selective pattern of European recruitment of “native” soldiery- the so-called “martial races” theory. (Vandervort, 2012, p. 85)

This tradition was so pre-dominant that out of 1,20,000 non-white soldiers in British Indian Army by the start of WW I in 1914 , seventy five percent belonged to what the British considered martial race’. One should be mindful of the fact that even people belonging to martial race were not at the same footage as were the ‘whites’ (Koller, 2008; Vandervort, 2012). Calling few non-whites as people of martial race was simply because of the fact that they had capability and courage to fight. Another grave case of politics in the recruitment of the colonial soldiers during the WWI was the segregation of soldiers into different camps depending on the caste they belonged too (Pati, 1996). The last thing that the colonial masters never wanted was the amity between different castes of India. This was extrapolated even to the battlefield during the WW I. There was no conscription and explicit cases or forceful recruitment while recruiting colonial soldiers. The British colonial army was all about volunteers from different colonies (Jackson, 2014). While in case of French colonial troops conscription was also a part of recruitment policy in case of inadequate participation. This is not to say that the recruitment policy of the British Colonial power was benign.

Among the non-white, it was only the colonial troops of India that were considered capable of combatant role. In case of the Africa, recruitment of ‘blacks’ was only for non-combatant role. It was the color that categorized one into combatant and non-combatant (Kulingray, 2016). They were recruited to do the auxiliary works. Most of them were ‘carrier corps’ and laborers. Colonial power were apprehensive that if the non-whites are given the combatant role then in future they may rise in arms against their colonial masters only (Vandervort, 2012; Kulingray, 2016). Thus they were kept at bay from the use of weapons and artillery.

Dominions enjoyed place in the decision making right before the start of the WW I, whereas the colonies had no say (Jackson, 2008). Dominions were party to the Committee of Imperial Defence which existed at the time of war and took important decisions pertaining to war. In case of the recruitment of soldiers from the dominions there was no segregation as was in case of colonies because the dominions were populated by the ‘whites’ (Brock, 1951). Unlike the colonies which did not have any say in the recruitment policy of the British, the dominions enjoyed some say in decision making in Imperial Conference (Vandervort, 2012). Their participation in the WW I was guided by the by the decisions taken at the Imperial Conference of 1907. According to which the dominions were to maintain the force as per the domestic need and pool them when and where required by the British Empire.

Differential Treatment at the Battlefield: Humiliation of Colonial Troops

Racist policies were not only limited to the recruitment but were transported to the deployment in the battlefield. The colonial army was still carrying the outdated weapons which included single-shot rifles, while they were deployed at the western front against the well-equipped forces of Germany (Koller, 2008). The British thought that if these native colonial troops will be trained in modern warfare then they may rise in arms against them only (Storm & Tuma, 2016; Kulingray, 2016). Though machine guns, breech-loading and other quick firing artillery were in vogue but were deliberately not given to the colonial soldiers. It was due to the lack of proper training and arms that the Indian colonial army faced number of casualties and at the western front in Europe and thus were withdrawn from there and moved majorly to Mesopotamia (Omissi, 2016). Dominion soldiers did not undergo such discrimination. There was a uniformity in training of the dominion forces along with the British armies (Brock, 1951). They were provided with the best armaments and equipment. Unlike the native colonial army, the dominion army was merged with the British Armies fighting on the western front. Colonial army was never part of a homogenous military force of the British (Bostanci, 2014). Due to the shortage of the experienced colonial and dominion military officers the reigns of the regiments were in the hand of British military officers (Aldrich & Hilli, 2012). This was the case till 1917 after which the dominion force of Canada came under a Canadian General Arthur Curie and responsibility of Australian troops was handed over to Sir John Monash (ibid.). The Indian colonial army still continued to be under the control of British officers.

Racial stereotypes were prevalent in Europe, which depicted the colonial soldiers as barbaric and savage (Koller, 2008; Kulingray, 2016). Germans came up with propaganda politics, they claimed that the practices adopted by the colonial troops were not according to the international laws (Koller, 2008).

“Alleged atrocities committed by colonial soldiers included violations of international regulations on the treatment of wounded combatants and prisoners captured on the battlefield, the hunt for trophies such as fingers, ears and heads, and the use of allegedly unlawful weapons such as the coupe-coupe( long bush knives), in close combat.” (ibid, p.122)

Some of the most prevalent racial slurs prevalent in Europe, as mentioned by Christian Koller were 'devils', 'dead vermin of the wilderness', 'auxiliary rabble of all colours', ' a motley crew of colours and religions' etc. (Koller, 2008). Germans condemned the policy of the British and the French to recruit colonial soldiers because they thought if non-whites will see the vulnerability of the whites and that the whites are fighting among themselves then the image of whites being the supreme race will be in question and this will translate into the impact on the whole colonial system (ibid).

Soldiers perceived their African counterparts not as someone who is equal in stature, most of these African colonial soldiers4 were employed for dangerous auxiliary tasks instead of fighting in the war front. They were used as carrier corps transporting supplies, they cleaned latrines, dug trenches and cleaned the debris from the battlefield after war, and they were also made to bury the dead corps (Kulingray, 2016). Their aspirations to hold gun and fight at the front were shattered.

Many of the colonial soldiers were made to fight in the East Africa instead in Europe. The conditions were extremely terrible in these places. The extreme climate condition, and diseases like malaria and dysentery made the condition worse. It was for the same reason that troops from the British colonies took guard in East Africa replacing the troop from the South African dominion (Storm & Tuma, 2016). It is quite discernible how the racial discrimination played role where the troops from colonies were made to move to unsafe places. The colonial troops were kept separate from their white counterparts until unless they went together for any confrontation. Unlike the case with the other Australian soldiers, there was no encouragement for the Aboriginals in Australia to fight in WW I, but those who got recruited in the army fought along with the British Army (Aldrich & Hilli, 2012). There was no segregation in this case as was the case with the colonial soldiers.

Humiliation of the non-whites by the whites was a common sight during the WW I. The degree of freedom of movement of the black soldiers were also restrained in many cases. Black South African troops were housed under the supervision of the white troops. In this case it was the white troops from the South African dominion that guarded the blacks. Dick van Galen Last crudely paints the treatment meted to black colonial troops, where he says-

Black South Africans and soldiers of the BWIR were not permitted to enter French cafes should they yearn for something other than British Army food. A chaplain complained to the Governor of Jamaica that the troops of BWIR were being cared for in unheated hospitals, given bad food and treated worse than German prisoners of war. (Last & Futselaar, 2015, p. 87)5

Unsung Heroes of the WW I

There were about 1.3 million Indian soldiers6 who fought in the WW I, out of which some 74,000 lost their lives and many were rendered injured (Omissi, 2016). India’s support for the British was there right from the outbreak of the war. Different political parties, Indian communities and autonomous princely states assured the British of unconditional support. The members of the Indian Legislative Council joined hand in hand with the British (Pati, 1996).

But after the war contribution of the soldiers were neglected by the British and then forgotten by the people of their own country. The same nationalist who were so devoted for the cause of the British ignored the contribution of their own soldiers which they themselves promoted earlier. Partly the reason for the same could be the false promise of the British to give Indian the ‘Dominion’ status which was by then reserved only for the ‘White Commonwealth’. This was another case of racial discrimination where the colonies being ‘non-white’ were kept away from any form of independence (BBC, 2015). British betrayed India thus for the nationalists and the people of India the sacrifice of their soldiers was of no value. Despite of the fact that they fought with unknown enemy, in unfavorable condition and different mode of warfare which was alien to them, they were not revered. Had the British granted self-rule to India, who knows the soldiers might have received the position thy deserved.

The common belief among the people was that they fought for someone who oppressed their own people back home (Vandervort, 2012). Soldiering was simply conceived as their passion not a sacrifice for their country. There were instances where the soldiers who returned back home were seen as a shame by their own society just because they fought for the oppressive British Empire. India does not have any National War Memorial till date (BBC, 2015). However, it was the British who constructed India Gate at Delhi to commemorate the war (ibid).

Dominions also participated in huge number in the WW I (Crawley, 2015). Their foreign policy was still under the British which made them also a partner to the War. There was great enthusiasm among the leaders of the dominions for the support to the British. It was seen as a patriotism while serving the British (Jackson, 2008). Imperial sentiments were high enough to contribute to the army of the British. Royal Australian Navy and ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps), Canadian Expeditionary Force were the major contribution of the dominions (Aldrich & Hilli, 2012). British did not cheat the dominions as was the case with the colonies. In the Imperial War Conference of 1918 it was decided that the dominions will have more voice in their foreign policy (Aldrich & Hilli, 2012). One of the outcome of such decision was the dominions being the independent signatory to the Paris Peace Treaty. In 1920’s the British officially gave the power to decide their foreign policy to South Africa and Irish Free State (ibid). The contribution of the army from the dominion was celebrated by the British as well as by the people back home. They were commemorated by their own government. The Returned Soldier Association was formed in New Zealand in order help the soldiers who faced severe injuries and arrange homes for them (Philips, 2011). In most of the cases the construction of the war memorials were done by the local groups in the community. There were groups of veteran soldiers who also played important role in the construction of memorials in Canada (Vance, 1997). There was also a Canada War Memorials Fund which provided financial support for the construction of war memorials (ibid).


The colonial troops faced racial discrimination right from the process of recruitment. They
underwent extreme humiliations during the course of their deployment. Never were they treated equal to their ‘white’ counterpart. On the contrary the troops from the dominions were kind of assimilated in the British troop and did not encounter any discrimination given the fact that they were also ‘whites’. Racial dynamics played a role even after the end of WW I. The promises of self-rule’ made to the colonies were all shattered while there were relatively more independence gifted to the dominions for their assistance in the war. This became one of the compelling reasons why the colonial troops did not find a place they deserved back home, while on the other side the soldiers of the dominions were celebrated and revered by their own state as well as local people.


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1. Here the term colonies refer to the British colonies. In this paper I have focused on only British colonies of Africa and India.

2. Dominions were semi-independent states, these were independent in their domestic affairs but their foreign policy was still under the British (Jackson, 2014). Here dominions refer to those countries who received this status before the First World War. New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and New Foundland were the British dominions during the WW I.

3. British Empire fought in World War from the side of Allied Powers( included mainly France, Russia, British Empire, United States, Italy , Belgium And Serbia) against the Central Powers ( which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman empire and Bulgaria)

4. The South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) was particularly recruited for the auxiliary works from among the natives of South Africa (Aldrich & Hilli, 2012).

5. BWIR stands for British West Indies Regiment.

6. In this section the paper talks about the case of India only, this does not mean that the situation was different in other colonies. It is just because of the lack of sources dealing with this issue in case of other colonies, though the evidences are there but scattered.

The author is a Junior Research Fellow pursing my M.Phil in Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies(CRCAS), School of International Studies, JNU a

Image Source: http://www.blog.1914sikhs.org/

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