Britain was able to call upon service personnel and civilian workers from across the Commonwealth nations during both world wars.
In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the British Army consisted of less than 1 million trained soldiers, which was a small number compared to those of the German, Russian and French armies. Domestic volunteers and conscripts bolstered the United Kingdom’s numbers along with recruits from across the British Empire. Men and women from every corner of the world came to the aid of the Allied cause and their help was essential in order for the UK to meet its military commitments. By the end of the war, these recruits had helped to create a military force that was more than five million strong.
Men from the Caribbean mostly served in the West India Regiment and the British West Indies Regiment in Africa, France, Italy and the Middle East. Many worked as labourers, often coming under heavy fire, but near the end of the war, two battalions from the British West Indies Regiment fought in Palestine against the Ottoman Turks.
Soldiers and support workers from India also made a decisive contribution to the struggle, with well over 1 million Indians volunteering as combatants or labourers. During the war, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton became a hospital for Indian soldiers wounded on the Western Front.
Troops from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda and Nyasaland (now Malawi) served with distinction in both East and West Africa. White South Africans also fought in the region as well as on the Western Front where their black compatriots worked in support roles, as their government forbade them to carry arms.
At the time, Newfoundland was independent of Canada and sent troops to assist the Allied cause. Canada sent the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) to the front, who fought in some of the most famous battles of the war, including the Second Battle of Ypres (1915), the Battle of the Somme (1916) and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917). A huge Canadian National Memorial stands at Viny Ridge, the site of another pivotal battle that took place in April 1917.
Help came from the other side of the world too. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) made major contributions on the Western Front and in Palestine, and were famously involved in the Gallipoli landings, an audacious but ill-conceived bid to eliminate Ottoman Turkey from the war. Although the campaign proved unsuccessful, the spirit of the soldiers known as Anzacs left a lasting legacy.
Soldiers from Newfoundland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and the West Indies made a significant contribution to the Somme offensive in 1916.
During the Second World War, Britain faced the Nazi invasion of Europe, the desert war waged by Italy in North Africa, and the occupation of its colonies in Asia by Japan. Once again, troops from British territories around the world fought in every theatre where Britain was involved.
As part of a huge recruitment drive, pilots from countries such as Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand became part of the Royal Air Force (RAF), with many black volunteers from Britain’s imperial territories joining ground staff and aircrews as pilots, navigators, gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers. As casualties mounted, recruitment rules were relaxed in the other services, which saw thousands of black men and women sign up to serve. After the war, many of them chose to settle in Britain, helping to rebuild a shattered nation.
At sea, the Royal Australian Navy supported the British navy in the Mediterranean as well as the Far East, with the Royal New Zealand Navy making a similar contribution. As an island nation, the UK was dependent on vital supplies coming across the Atlantic – making it a key battleground – and the Royal Canadian Navy provided escorts for the shipping convoys that regularly crossed this stretch of water.
Just as they had during the First World War, Indian forces served with distinction in the Second World War. Mule transport companies supported the British Expeditionary Force in France, including during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, whilst the Indian Air Force along with the Indian aircrew serving in the RAF risked their lives in the air. On the ground, Indian troops served in Europe, Singapore and Malaya, Hong Kong, the Middle East, and in North and East Africa, and made up a significant part of the Fourteenth Army which participated in the hard-fought campaign to retake Burma (now also known as Myanmar). Troops from East and West Africa also fought in this campaign against the Japanese in Southeast Asia.
All over the world, war memorials and cemeteries stand to remind us of the sacrifices made by the people who worked, fought and died defending the UK’s interests thousands of miles from home. Without their contribution, history might have taken a very different path.