A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

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