To what extent was the Second World War responsible for the end of Empire?

Introduction

In 1939 the British Empire was made up of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, The Irish Free State, India, Pakistan and Ceylon.[1] However, this essay’s main focus will be on evaluating Britain’s hold on Canada and India throughout the Second World War; with the question lending itself to debate on whether the war brought about cohesion or divergence from these countries under British control.[2] This can be assessed through the examination of war effort contribution from the Dominions in comparison to examples of rebellion such as the Quit India movement of 1942.[3] Arguably however, the Dominions had been moving towards independence, and consequent separation from the Empire, since their participation in First World War.[4] Whilst the Second World War could be responsible for the end of Empire in a negative way in terms of straining Imperial power and losing its power status in the global structure, in a positive light the fighting allowed the armies and governments to develop and outgrow the Empire.[5] Whether the Second World War was responsible for the end of Empire or not, was this important to Britain, or was the lack of interest in the Empire it’s downfall?[6]

Main Text

Historians state that it is difficult to argue that World War Two did not speed up the end of Empire despite Britain’s efforts in trying to safeguard it.[7] Nevertheless, the full responsibility of the end of Empire cannot be blamed on the Second World War alone, due to the First having initiated beginning of the end, allowing for the Dominions to gain more independence during the interwar period.[8] In the post-First World War Resolution, Britain promised Dominion voice as a concession for the burden they had shared.[9] It can be assumed Britain knew from this that assistance from the Dominions during the Second World War would result in yet more concessions to the Dominion states, allowing them to progress further along the path to eventual independence. This would imply that whilst the Second World War cannot hold total responsibility, the close succession of the World Wars caused the end of Empire; with the second perhaps appearing to be more accountable for the loss as the final hurdle, reflecting historians’ view that the Second World War was the British Empire’s ‘final titanic military struggle’.[10] This is true in that the war exemplified the problems Britain faced in depending its global imperial system.[11] Arguably, whilst the Empire survived the War ‘intact’, it suffered from ‘imperial exhaustion’.[12] This meant that British power was no longer guaranteed, particularly when in competition with America.[13]

The Second World War highlighted Britain’s ‘inability’ to fight a heavy war unaided, relying largely on America’s political and economic assistance.[14] Charles Ritchie stated that the English hated ‘being rescued by the Americans’, most likely because their aid threatened Britain’s Imperial status in the world as they could not be the great power they were claiming to be if they were needing such great assistance in fighting their wars.[15] American critics would go as far as arguing that it was their military assistance that held Britain’s Empire together during the Second World War.[16] This was problematic for Britain, as their status in the Empire depended upon their perceived prestige and superiority in the wider world; if the Dominion’s saw Britain’s power lowered to just being a ‘junior partner of the Big Three’, this could affect Britain’s Imperial position.[17] America took advantage of this vulnerability, making it clear that Britain would have to open up their Empire to the United States in concession for their contribution to the war effort, thus increasing their growing global predominance whilst weakening Britain’s.[18] This increase in America’s importance at the expense of Britain’s became evident after Pearl Harbour left Canada feeling vulnerable and abandoned, creating a sense of loss of confidence in the British, which was transferred to seeking security from America in the Ogdensburg Agreement.[19] Furthermore, the Canadians began not to show at the nightly British Commonwealth meetings, emphasising this breakdown in alliance and their increasing ties with the United States.[20] Whilst from this it can be inferred that the Second World War cost Britain the Empire due to their decreasing global status and the rising of their rivals, this doesn’t seem to have had a detrimental effect on the Dominion’s willingness to partake in the war alongside Britain.[21]

The voluntary response of the Dominion’s to Britain’s involvement in the Second World War would suggest that the Empire was as strong as ever during this period, providing a total of around 1,309,000 men;[22] Canada’s population contained British settles who could resonate with Britain’s concern of Germany’s growing power, pulling at their emotional ties.[23] Furthermore, under the Imperial system, the Dominion states shared the sovereignty of Britain, therefore their allegiance to the crown provided a sense of duty to rise together to defend common interest.[24] For this reason, historians would argue that during global conflict the Empire was most Imperial as it advocated unity between the countries.[25] This is supported by all of the Dominion states coming to Britain’s aid in 1939, with the exception of the Irish Free State which wished to remain neutral.[26] Although the length of time between declaring support varied between the Dominions, Sir Edward Bridges claimed at the time that even the ‘least enthusiastic’ would join Britain’s cause eventually.[27] Canada showed their enthusiasm to support Britain before war had even been declared, with Prime Minister Mackenzie, guaranteeing their aid.[28] Canada’s ‘decisive’ war effort was to fund the Empire Air Training Scheme, in addition to leading and providing most of the recruits.[29] This large contribution to the war effort shows Canada’s initial enthusiasm to fight within the Empire. Although they were anxious to avoid the same casualties suffered during World War One, their support for sending troops was still strong.[30] With regards to the outbreak of war at least, the Second World War is showing examples of the strength of the Empire rather than its end, and therefore the occurrence of war was not responsible for the deterioration of Empire. For the time being at least, they trusted the ‘Mother country’[‘s] Imperial defence.[31]

In contrast, the Second World War can be said to take full responsibility of bringing about the end of Empire as Indian resentment grew over the period of fighting. In 1939, minor acts of rebellion occurred within the RIASC in Egypt, whereby 34 men were arrested after refusing to be porters, highlighting a lack of enthusiasm for India’s involvement in the war effort, alternatively dislike for the inequality they felt they  faced due to the orders coming from British officials.[32] Further acts continued in the Sikh CIH squadron in 1940, with soldiers refusing orders to leave Bombay to turn to Egypt; although this was immediately dealt with by removing the squadrons and sending them on against their will.[33] Whilst these are considered acts of rebellion against the Empire, of which the discontent of participating in Second World War can be held accountable.[34] However, these minor revolts showed the Indian Empire’s ability to suppress rebellion, implying there was a general willingness to fight as part of the British Empire, supporting Judith Brown’s opinion that the ‘overall security of the Raj was never endangered.’[35] In contrast, the Quit India campaign, advocated by Ghandi in 1942, is a clear example of India wanting to leave the British Empire due to their involvement in the Second World War.[36] This movement by the Indian National Congress party caused disruption among troops, resulting in decreasing morale.[37] To secure Indian involvement during the war, the British launched the Cripps mission which gave India the opportunity to achieve full dominion status post-war, or secede from the Empire Commonwealth entirely.[38] This would argue that the Second World War was largely responsible for the loss of Empire, as the fighting resulted in a lack of morale and increase in resentment towards the British, forcing Britain to make concessions to India for their participation in order to secure their participation, paving the way to achieving the eventual independence India desired.[39]

Arguably all countries were gradually evolving socially and politically during the interwar period.[40]  With the increase in communications technology, the Dominions were made aware of the colonial intrusion they were facing; overseas travel allowed Dominion citizens to gain skills elsewhere and encounter non-colonial personnel which ultimately broadened the countries’ horizons, planting the desire to gain independence.[41] Furthermore, with this general trend of advancement, legal measures proceeding the Second World War were introduced which began the process of the Dominions gaining independence; the 1931 Statute of Westminster declared that Britain could only legislate the Dominions at their request and with their permission, but the Dominions could amend or repeal acts they were not in favour of.[42] From 1939 onwards, the Dominions began gaining more autonomy and becoming more ambitious; Canada’s desire to influence world policy and separate from the Empire to tie with the US was impossible for Britain to quell, with conferences highlighting ‘independent and vigorous personalities’.[43] This shows that the Dominions, particularly Canada, were increasing in political strength, especially with regards to their increased confidence in managing foreign policy and military strength.[44] Similarly, the Indian army began to learn from their military mistakes and adapt to circumstances; despite their ‘crippling defeats’ at the start of the War they were ‘victorious’, increasing their nationalist pride. Historians argue that it was not a question of ‘if’ India would achieve Dominion status, but ‘when’.[45] This statement would appear to be correct, starting with the Indianisation of the Army.[46] Auchinaleck proposed that all services would be officered by Indians, ‘so far as possible’, restricting European officers to the areas which the Indians lacked training.[47] The goal was to achieve full Indianisation by 1945 leading up to the anticipation of India achieving Dominion status and independence; although it was estimated that this would take 20 years to complete, by April 1945, The War Cabinet formally agreed that the Indianisation of the army was ‘inescapable’.[48] Whilst it could be argued that these are examples of the Second World War indirectly contributing to the breakdown of Empire, in that it allowed the Dominions armies and politics to progress, I would argue that this was more of a global trend towards advancement that would have occurred eventually regardless due to the natural evolution of society, agreeing with the opinion that the Empire was ‘growing up’ as opposed to breaking up, to which the Second World War cannot be held accountable for, despite perhaps speeding the process up.[49]

Ultimately one could question whether the existence of the Empire mattered to the British. Determining ‘responsibility’ is to suggest blame for a negative incident, but if the British were intending on letting the Dominions gain eventual dependence, it should not have particularly mattered then had the Second World War sped up the process. Some historians would argue that Britain didn’t have the desire for an Empire, holding no detailed plans for its future.[50] This is supported by the fact that expansion first occurred because of securing British interest, rather than achieving a goal of creating an Empire.[51] Taking this into account, the British, as opposed to the war, can be blamed for the break-up of the empire due to their lack of interest in its affairs.[52]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Second World War was directly and indirectly responsible for the end of Empire, however this cannot be where the sole blame lies as the concessions from the First World War began to pave the way to the Dominion’s independence; it is just due to the Second succeeding it that it appears to take responsibility for having lost the Empire, despite it surviving the war intact. The War changed the appearance of Britain’s status on a global scale which indirectly caused Canada to seek alliance with the United States instead, parallel to the growing Indian resentment and quit India campaign because of a lack of faith in the Mother Country as the war progressed, causing disobedience and decreased enthusiasm. Arguably this is due to the execution of Britain’s foreign policy rather than the outbreak of war itself, as the Empire was seen at its strongest with the Dominions voluntarily supporting Britain, but still the responsibility of the Second World War. Perhaps if the British had more interest in Imperial affairs, they could have managed the Empire throughout the War and not seen it’s end, but ultimately, the world was continuously advancing politically and militarily, arguing that the Dominions would have grown out of the Empire regardless, lessening the responsibility of the Second World War which can only be responsible for having sped up the process.

 

Bibliography

Butler, LJ.The Impact of the Second World War’ in Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a post-Imperial world, I.B. Tauris, London, (2001)

Jackson, Ashley.An Imperial War’ in The British Empire and the Second World War, Hambledon Continuum, London (2005)

Marston, Daniel. The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, Cambridge University Press (2014)

Stewart, Andrew. Empire Lost: Britain, The Dominions and the Second World War, Continuum, UK (2008)


[1] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost: Britain, The Dominions and the Second World War, Continuum, UK (2008), p.viii

[2] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.3

[3] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, Cambridge University Press (2014), p.68

[4] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’ in Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a post-Imperial world, I.B. Tauris, London, (2001) p.29

[5] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.189; p.167

[6] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.124

[7] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.viii

[8] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.29

[9] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.4

[10] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.vii

[11] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.28

[12] Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’ in The British Empire and the Second World War, Hambledon Continuum, London (2005), p.40

[13]Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.viii

[14] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.28; Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’ p.25

[15] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.84; LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.43

[16] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.166

[17] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.189

[18] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.43

[19] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.38

[20] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.149

[21] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.29

[22] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.29; Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.3

[23] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.3

[24] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.10

[25] Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’, p.21

[26] Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’, p.22

[27] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.18

[28] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.28

[29] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.29

[30] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.29

[31] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.39

[32] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.101

[33] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.102

[34] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.102

[35] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.103

[36] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.41

[37] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.68

[38] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.68

[39] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.40

[40] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.34

[41] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.34

[42] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.9

[43] LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.38; Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p. 134; p.157

[44] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.158

[45] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.45; LJ Butler, ‘The Impact of the Second World War’, p.42

[46] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.90

[47] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, p.92

[48] Daniel Marston, The Indian Army and the end of the Raj, pp.9899

[49] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.167

[50] Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’, p.21

[51] Ashley Jackson, ‘An Imperial War’, p.21

[52] Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost, p.105

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