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The British Empire in WWI

Updated on July 23, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.

This was war on a global scale. Britain had her Empire, but Germany also had overseas colonies, and it was critical for the French and British forces to move swiftly before Germany flexed its muscle in those regions.

British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith


The British Empire at War

When British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith addressed Parliament on August 6th, 1914, he had this to say:

“With the utmost reluctance and with infinite regret, His Majesty's Government have been compelled to put this country in a state of war with what for many years and indeed generations past has been a friendly Power...

…With a full conviction, not only of the wisdom and justice, but of the obligations which lay upon us to challenge this great issue, we are entering into the struggle. Let us now make sure that all the resources, not only of this United Kingdom, but of the vast Empire of which it is the centre, shall be thrown into the scale.”

Britain’s colonies, protectorates and dominions were about to enter the war.

British Empire in Red

British Empire shown in red
British Empire shown in red | Source

British Empire in 1914

At its peak, the lands that comprised the British Empire were home to one quarter of the people on earth. So vast was the Empire that it was referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”

Some of the autonomous states over which the British King had sovereignty included Canada, Newfoundland (later a province of Canada), Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Ceylon and South Africa. Colonies included Bermuda, British Honduras and Hong Kong. Protectorates stretched around the globe, including parts of the Arab world, as well as parts of south and southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of these lands had standing armies of their own and/or well-trained local militias, often with British officers in command. Young Canada, as an example, had a small permanent militia supplemented by part-time volunteer militias scattered across the country. Australia's forces were focused on coastal defense, and the country's own defense act meant that they could not send men from their regular army overseas; they would have to raise an army to come to Britain's aid. On August 5th 1914, Australia's Prime Minister stated "...when the Empire is at war, so also is Australia."

Britain was a significant sea power, but its army was relatively small in the face of a world war; its professional land army at the time war was declared consisted of just over 247,000 troops, with about half of these men already stationed throughout the Empire. The men and munitions from the dominions and colonies of the Empire were going to be needed in the war effort, particularly as the war dragged on and vast armies were wiped out.

Map Showing African Colonies

Britain (pink); Belgium (yellow); Germany (light green); Italy (lime green); French (blue); Portugal (purple); Spain (mauve)
Britain (pink); Belgium (yellow); Germany (light green); Italy (lime green); French (blue); Portugal (purple); Spain (mauve) | Source

WWI Timeline

July 28th, 1914 - Austria declares war on Serbia.

August 1st, 1914 - Germany declares war on Russia. Russia defies Germany’s warning to halt mobilization of its troops, replying that the mobilization is only against Austria.

On August 1st, France enters the fray when it orders its army to mobilize to come to the aid of its ally Russia.

August 3rd, 1914 - France declares war on Germany and Germany declares war on France.

Britain delivers an ultimatum to Germany to get out of Belgium by midnight.

August 4th, 1914 – Germany’s invasion of Belgium causes Britain to formally declare war on Germany.

World at War

This was a war on a worldwide scale. Germany and France also had overseas colonies, and it was critical for the French and British forces to move swiftly before Germany flexed its muscle in these regions. In the early part of the war, the men of the Empire, with the help of the French, occupied the German colony of Togoland, while the South African army was successful against the army of German Southwest Africa. The armies of New Zealand and Australia took the Pacific region German colonies of Samoa and New Guinea.

At home in England and in the lands that made up the Empire, the call went out. Recruiting began in earnest in the days following the declaration of war against Germany, and in the first few weeks the numbers of new recruits were strong. Canada's Prime Minister had promised 25,000 men to come to Britain's aid; by December 1914, almost 60,000 had already signed up. Australia promised 20,000. And so it went.

The men of the Indian army – "Les Hindoues" as the French called them – were among the first to answer the call, arriving to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France in September 1914. It took troops from these far away lands of the Empire so long to get to France to join the BEF that men actually worried the war would be over before they could get to the fighting.

They needn't have worried. Professional soldier or new recruit, the Empire was going to need every man it could muster.

Enlisting for WWI


  • Anon. (1923) Source Records of the Great War, Volume I. Canada: National Alumni, The Great War Veterans Association of Canada
  • Anon. (1914-1921) History of the War, Volume I. London UK: The Times

© 2014 Kaili Bisson


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