Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers

Mike Wood - April 7, 2017

The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is upon us, marking the centenary of what is arguably the greatest victory in Canadian military history. The contribution of Canadian soldiers – crucial to the final victory of the Entente forces – has never been forgotten north of the 49th Parallel, and their role in forming an independent Canadian identity can never be overstated, but the wider role of soldiers from the Commonwealth is often overlooked in the retelling of the story of the First World War.

Some two million from the colonies – which would later become the Commonwealth – answered the call of the British Empire and estimates hold that a full quarter of those who died fighting for King and Country were not British at all. There were Australians and New Zealanders, Irish and Canadians, Indians, West Indians and Africans. As much as Onward Christian Soldiers was sung by those going to the front, it might well have taken in the thousands of Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and Hindus who also made up the British ranks. Even the famed lines “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row” that mark Remembrance Day throughout the world were written by a Canadian doctor, serving in Belgium.

In 2013 the British government made a special pledge to further the story of the colonies and dominions in the First World War, bringing their sacrifices to the fore in commemorations. Here we tell the stories of some of the most significant battles of the Great War that were fought by soldiers from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers
Canadian soliders advance at Vimy Ridge. Wikipedia.

1 – Canadians at Vimy Ridge

To understand the importance of Vimy Ridge in the history of Canada, one must first understand the story of Canada itself. Back in 1917, Canada was not an independent nation, rather a confederation of British colonies – broadly corresponding to the modern day provinces – grouped into the Dominion of Canada. While they had held this status since 1867, Canada remained part of the United Kingdom with no foreign policy of its own, and thus when the British went to war with Germany in 1914, Canada went with them.

As the vast majority of Canadian residents had British ancestry, recruiting to fight for the King was not hard and the Canadian Expeditionary Force would assemble over 600,000 soldiers over the course of the war. Of those, it is estimated that two thirds had been born in Britain. As Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister of Canada from 1896-1911 put is: “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”

Their greatest contribution would come at Vimy Ridge. The town of Vimy, situated just outside Arras in Northern France, lay in a section of the line that had been commanded by Canadians since late 1917. With Arras of huge strategic importance in the British advance, it was necessary to capture the high ground around Vimy – the ridge above the town – in order to shield other areas from artillery fire. As the weather cleared in the spring, the Canadians occupying the trenches around Vimy were asked to take the high ground.

The attack was scheduled for the morning of April 8, and then postponed due to French requests not to begin on Easter Sunday, which was to be marked that day. At dawn on April 9, the barrage began. Using the tactic of the creeping barrage – in which infantry slowly marched forward, with artillery laying a platform in lockstep – the Canadians advanced, while hundreds of pre-laid mines under the German lines were detonated. Every artillery gun that the Canadians had was put to use, resulting in an attack that allowed them to capture their initial positions in just over an hour. The plan then called for secondary units to overlap the forward parties and take further objectives, which they did amid severe casualties. With the German third defensive line set strong, they held for the night.

The next two days would continue with ferocious fighting, before finally on the evening of April 12, the whole of Vimy Ridge was under Canadian control. The offensive marked the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had fought together under Canadian commanders. Of the near 100,000 Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge, some 3,598 lay dead and another 7,000 were injured. Four would later receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour the British Empire had to give. The trenches that still mark the site of the battle – now Canada’s largest war memorial – are still too dangerous for the public to enter because of the unexploded ordnance found throughout them.

One area that is open is marked by a maple leaf, carved into the chalk walls. The significance of Vimy Ridge to the formation of a Canadian national identity cannot be understated. As the first place where all Canadian units fought as as whole, it can be seen as emblematic of the moment at which the disparate settlers and migrants that made Canada came together as Canadians. At the end of the war, the Canadians sat separately from the British, a key moment in the gradual move towards independence.

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers
New Zealand soldiers land on the Dardanelles. Wikipedia

2 – Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli

For all the significance of Vimy Ridge to Canadians, it might well be trumped by the enduring story of Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Campaign – as Gallipoli is also known – is part of the founding myths of three countries, with Australia, New Zealand and Turkey all drawing integral parts of their national identities from the battle. In contrast to Vimy Ridge, however, it is not the glory and the successes of the battle that have given Gallipoli its significance, rather the needlessness and futility of the slaughter that ensued in this small corner of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

The story of Gallipoli cannot be told without starting with the contributions of Commonwealth soldiers, as they were central to the initial plan of the British. Some historians claim to this day that the British high command that ordered the offensive in the Dardanelles sent the troops from the dominions into a death trap to which they would never have sent their own native countrymen. While that may debated – the ability of First World War British generals to massacre British troops should never be underestimated – the significance of the battle to those who fought from the Commonwealth nations cannot be underestimated.

The particulars of the Gallipoli Campaign can be split into two periods: a short, bloody battle followed by a protracted trench engagement. The Dardanelles peninsula was crucial to any hope of Britain opening a naval route to their Russian allies via the Bosphorus Strait, as well as opening an Eastern Front that could distract from the struggles in Western Europe. An initial naval attack was thwarted by sea mines and a land invasion followed.

Allied forces were able to form a beachhead on Ottoman soil, but lacked reinforcements and, unable to advance, dug trenches. The trench battles would last for eight months before the Allies withdrew. Ammunition supplies gradually ran low, illness ravaged the Allied camps and constant fighting sapped morale. The casualties were so bad that both sides declared a brief truce in order to clear the No Man’s Land of the dead. As songwriter Eric Bogle put it:

And the band played “Waltzing Matilda”

As we stopped to bury our slain

We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs

Then we started all over again.

Australia lost 8,709 men at Gallipoli, over 10% of their whole losses in the war, while nearly 3000 New Zealanders were killed, some 20% of their whole strength in the battle. Alongside them, a further 1358 Indians lost their lives and an innumerable number of Irish fighting within the British forces. These numbers are just the military deaths too, and do not factor in the thousands more who succumbed to the rampant disease that blighted the entrenchment period of the battle.

On the other side, the Ottoman Empire, soon to become Turkey, lost 56,000. Mustafa Kemal, who commanded the Ottoman forces at Gallipoli, became a national hero after the battle and eventually lead a movement that proclaimed Turkish independence in 1923. Gallipoli is seen as the moment at which a distinctly Turkish identity, as opposed to an Ottoman one, was forged.

The so-called “Anzac Spirit” that was to be found among the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) has been co-opted into the idea of what it means to be Australian: ideas of courage and indefatigability, of looking out for your mates and maintaining a good humour, of flouting authority and ruthless egalitarianism. Whether these characteristics are true of those who fought at Anzac Cove or not, the way that they have been subsumed into the national founding myth is very real. The centrality of Gallipoli to Australian national identity is summed up by their national poet, Banjo Paterson, who wrote these words in reaction to the battle in 1915:

“The mettle that a race can show

Is proved with shot and steel,

And now we know what nations know

And feel what nations feel.”

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers
The Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme. Wikipedia

3 – Irish at the Somme

If the contributions of the Anzacs at Gallipoli has gone down in history as the moment at which Australia and New Zealand became nations, the same could not be said for the Irish at the Somme. In fact, the Irish soldiers of the Somme went all but forgotten for nearly a hundred years in their own nation.

The role of Ireland in the First World War is very complex, made even more so by the contemporaneous uprising against British rule and subsequent War of Independence that resulting in separation from the United Kingdom in 1922. When the war began, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom with representation in the parliament. Volunteers joined as gamely as anywhere else in the UK, and support for the war was consistent across both those who wanted independence and those who wished to remain British.

In 1916, however, the Easter Rising against British rule began and was swiftly and brutally put down by the authorities. While many had not supported the Rising – believing it ill-timed when many other Irishmen were away at war – the manner in which the participants were dealt with turned many against the British: the leaders were executed, thousands were interned and atrocities were committed across the island by British forces against those perceived as Republican sympathizers.

By the introduction of conscription in 1918, public opinion had changed drastically against the British. The Rising and its aftermath had had an effect, but so had the horrors that returned from Europe with the wounded soldiers. Irish regiments had been sent everywhere that British ones had gone, with particular losses suffered at the Somme: the 36th Ulster Division, formed from Protestants in the north of Ireland, lost 2,000 men on the first day of the battle alone.

While many nationalists would forego the memory of the Irishmen who died fighting for Britain in the First World War, the Unionist community in the North would form an identity around them, casting themselves as the British subjects who showed the utmost loyalty to the Crown while their Irish comrades further south rebelled against it.

The total casualties of Irishmen fighting for Britain in the First World War is estimated at around 35,000. Thousands more died in American units, representing the land to which they had earlier emigrated. After the war, the 100,000 veterans returned to a nation that WB Yeats described as “changed, changed utterly”. A further 70-80,000 chose not to return at all, fearing that the change of atmosphere and unfavourable economic conditions that had followed the Rising would leave them vulnerable.

The mood was expressed by the the folk song The Foggy Dew, written in 1919. The idea of joining the British in the war to help Belgium is skewered by the line: ‘”Twas England bade our wild geese go, that “small nations might be free”; Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the great North Sea.”, referring the huge casualties at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles and the Somme. It sums up the feeling held by many Irish at the end of the war: “Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar”.

Many of the returnees joined the police or stayed in the British Army, while others were shunned by newly nationalistic Ireland for having sworn an oath of allegiance to the British crown. In the War of Independence that followed, they fought other Irishmen. When independence came, the new authorities were more inclined to commemorate those who died fighting for the Republic above those who fought for Britain. Attempts to hold ceremonies were often marked by rioting between nationalists and unionists and the national memorial was built well away from Dublin city centre in Islandbridge. The first official, state-sanction commemoration came only in 2006, where the beginning of the Battle of the Somme was marked by the President and Prime Minister.

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers
Indian soldiers on the march in Belgium. Wikipedia

4 – Indians at Ypres

Arguably the largest contribution from Commonwealth soldiers – certainly the largest numerically – came from the Indian Army. More than a million subcontinental soldiers bolstered the King’s forces in the Great War, with men coming from the modern day nations of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Indeed, at the beginning of the war, India possessed the second largest volunteer army in the world, behind only the British Army itself. The man tasked with mustering forces for the British was Lord Kitchener – the iconic figure whose face would adorn the famed “You Country Needs You!” posters – was acutely aware of the potential of mobilising India: he had been Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army from 1902 until 1909.

The Indians were not organised like their counterparts from the colonial master: infantry were Indian and officers predominantly white and English, even in the Indian Army itself; divisions were segregated by caste, religion and tribe. When the war began in Europe, the Indian soldiers were immediately mobilised, with some sent to Western Europe, some facing off against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and others staying at home to defend against attacks against the valuable Raj itself.

Within two months of the start of the war, Indian soldiers were in France and Belgium. They were beset by problems almost from the start. They were issued with rifles with which they were unfamiliar and given practically no heavy weaponry, instead requiring other nearby battalions to support them when they advanced. Their clothing, too, was woefully inadequate for the trenches and mud of Ypres and Passchendaele.

British Army protocol had it that when a regiment lost officers, as would inevitably happen, replacements would be drafted in their stead from other regiments – but with the Indian soldiers, the reinforcements were unfamiliar with the operations of the colonial soldiers and, of course, unfamiliar with the language. Leaderless, under supplied and freezing cold, it isn’t surprising that moral plummeted. By 1915, the Indians had been removed from the Western Front.

Under more favourable conditions, however, the Indians would flourish. In East Africa, regiments from Bangalore, Derajat and the Punjab all served with distinction. Indeed, it was the contribution of soldiers from the colonies that in the end won the day for the Entente, as the German plan in the region had been to occupy British forces for as long as possible. The British counteracted by moving the soldiers who were less comfortable with fighting in the cold and wet of Europe to a climate in which British fighters themselves were less effective, being unsuited to the heat.

The valour of Indians in the First World War did not go unrewarded. 12 Victoria Crosses – the highest medal available to Crown forces – were awarded, with Khudadad Khan, from the Chakwal district of modern day Pakistan, became the first Indian recipient in December 1914. He was commended for his bravery after maintaining his machine gun post, despite suffering wounds himself, when all around him had been killed, allowing other regiments to reinforce the line.

Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers
The British West Indies Regiment. Wikipedia

5 – West Indies Regiment in Palestine

The Indians of the subcontinent were not the only Commonwealth soldiers known by that epithet. From the other side of the world came the West Indian Regiment, a group of some 15 and a half thousand men from the Caribbean who distinguished themselves at various points in the Great War. Not to be confused with the similarly named but functionally separate West India Regiment – which was drawn from the Caribbean but had been in existence since 1795 – the West Indies Regiment was first mustered in 1915.

The idea of a battalion solely of black Caribbean soldiers was one which the British Army had long resisted and initially, the West Indies Regiment was reserved for logistical support – in practical terms, manual labour. Some stacked shells ready to be fired, they built roads and loaded supplies, while other engaged in more perilous duties such as building gun emplacements and carrying stretchers, often in full sight of snipers and within range of artillery. At no point were they considered the equals of their white fellow soldiers and efforts were made to ensure that they never fought alongside one another.

This was to change in the Palestine campaigns towards the end of the war. In the vital battle for Jerusalem in 1918, black Caribbean soldiers proved invaluable in clearing the way to the city, destroying enemy emplacements and laying the platform for the eventual capture of the Palestinian capital.

The discrimination suffered by the West Indies Regiment would come to a head at the end of the war. Sick of ill-treatment at the hands of officers, of constant backbreaking labour tasks and of poor pay and conditions – particularly a pay rise for the all-white Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps that was not extended to the black soldiers – WIR members stationed at the southern city of Taranto went on strike. For four days, various battalions refused to work and eventually, after a series of fights broke out, the Worcestershire Regiment was sent in to quell the mutiny. 60 men were tried for their role in the uprising and one was executed. The mutiny would be successful, however, as in February 1919, the West Indies Regiment was granted the same pay rise that their white counterparts had received.

The effects of the mutiny would be long-lasting. Around 50 of the sergeants continued to meet and took the unity formed through fighting side by side in the West Indies Regiment and turned it to a political movement known as the Caribbean League, which promoted the unity of Jamaican, Trinidadian, Barbadian and Guyanese people across the whole West Indies. From their cadre emerged men such as Arthur Andrew Cipriani, founder of the Trinidad Labour Party, Samuel Alfred Haynes, a prominent Belizean anti-racist activist and Clennell Wickham, a noted journalist and anti-colonial leader in Barbados.