How the British Empire made WW1 possible
WW2 Treasure Hunters is back for a second series, and this time it’s digging deep into… WW1. Is this some kind of madness? Well, Suggs may be presenting the show, but no. It’s actually because the diggers are marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War with a special episode on a very special place.
Madness frontman Suggs and military expert Stephen Taylor head just outside the quiet town of Winchester, where – during WW1 – a network of camps were set up for soldiers en route to the trenches in Europe. Over the years, more than two million men passed through the camps, coming from all across the world. Our intrepid duo finds all sorts buried in the soil, from dog tags to remains of pith helmets. You know, those safari hats you usually see men with bushy moustaches wearing in adventure stories set during the British Empire.
Which is pretty fitting, as millions of men were indeed brought in from all corners of the Empire to fight for king and country. It’s a fascinating story, often overshadowed by our mental images of British tommies stuck in the trenches.
As soldiers from the Empire go, the men of Australia and New Zealand tend to get most of the historical limelight. That’s because of their involvement in the famously terrible quagmire of the Gallipoli campaign, which led to the slaughter of so many Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).
There was huge patriotic zeal among the men from Down Under. When war was declared, Australian PM Andrew Fisher spoke proudly of the ‘mother country’, and how ‘Australians will… defend her to the last man and the last shilling’. While Gallipoli was a debacle, the war represented a milestone for the young nation, which had only come into existence in 1901. The war was regarded as a bloody baptism for a new nation, a kind of violent declaration of unity and identity on the world stage – almost the equivalent of the United States’ War of Independence.
How about Canada? The story here is a little more complicated, as the French-Canadian population were rather cynical about the war, while the British-Canadians were keen to get behind ‘mother country’. These differing attitudes caused a lot of political tension within Canada and on the front lines. As one soldier wrote, ‘The consensus seems to be that the fewer French Canucks the better’.
Yet the Canadians would play a crucial role in the war. They had their own Gallipoli in the shape of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Unlike Gallipoli, it was a triumph, but like Gallipoli it has become enshrined in Canadian legend as a seminal moment of national unity, bringing together all the Canadian divisions to fight as one.
Canadian soldiers were also key in the Second Battle of Ypres, the infamous confrontation which saw the first large-scale use of poison gas on the Western Front. The sight of the eerie, alien, mist floating over the battlefield heralded a horrifying new kind of warfare. One soldier recalled how the officers stood, ‘awestruck and dumbfounded’ at the gas as it came towards them. Right amid the chaos was perhaps the most famous Canadian soldier of them all: John McCrae, a medic who would pen the immortal poem, In Flanders Fields.
Meanwhile, down in South Africa, old wounds were reopened by World War One. While the governing officials patriotically pledged to fight for the Empire, many Afrikaners still had vivid memories of the Second Boer War against the British. Never mind ‘mother country’ – as one veteran of that previous conflict angrily said, ‘It is sad that the war is being waged against the 'barbarism' of the Germans. We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.’
An armed uprising ensued, with thousands of rebels pledging allegiance to Germany and announcing themselves free of British control. Martial law had to be declared before the rebellion was eventually crushed, with hundreds killed. South African soldiers then embarked on a campaign against the neighbouring German colony in what is modern-day Namibia.
Gurkhas, too, played an important role in WW1. These Nepalese warriors already had an awesome and long-standing reputation for fearlessness, ever since they’d amazed British onlookers during the Anglo-Nepalese War of the early 19th Century. Hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas served in the Great War, one of them being Kulbir Thapa, who became the first Gurkha to receive the prestigious Victoria Cross. While he was himself injured, Thapa came across a wounded British soldier in no man’s land and stayed with him throughout the night, later dragging himself through the battlefield while bullets flew past. He also carried other wounded soldiers to safety, his bravery so immense that German soldiers literally applauded.
As well as the Gurkhas of Nepal, men from across India fought for the Empire in the Great War. Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike found themselves in the trenches, and new arrivals were greeted by the French in Marseilles with the words “Vivent les Hindous!”
However, they faced not just the horror of war but a severe culture shock. The language barrier made logistics difficult, the climate and surroundings were utterly alien, and – by comparison with the merry jingoism of the Aussies and Canadians – morale was sapped. As the poet Rabindranath Tagore wryly put it, 'We, the famished, ragged ragamuffins of the East are to win freedom for all humanity!'
It didn’t help that the movement for Indian independence was well underway, with the war used as a kind of bargaining chip for greater freedom. Gandhi himself supported the war effort for this reason, but the British would eventually back-pedal on their assurances of self-rule for India.
The uneasy truth is that xenophobia and outright racism did also exist among the allies of the Empire. The men of the British West Indies Regiment, who were dispatched to the frontlines in the Middle East, signed up with pride – one veteran later recalled that 'We wanted to go…The country called all of us' – and there was a feeling that fighting in the war for the mother country would help encourage reforms in the colonies. Yet these volunteers were routinely called 'darkies' by their British brethren, suffered inequality in pay, and were often assigned gruelling manual labour tasks.
The story of the men of the Empire is in equal parts triumphant and heartbreaking, and it changed the course of the world. And, as Suggs and Stephen Taylor find out, there’s a corner of Winchester that will forever harbour some of its secrets.