When the First World War began, Britain was still at the heart of the largest empire in history. It included over 10 million square miles of land across six continents, and over 400 million people. When Britain declared war on Germany, its colonies and dominions (semi-independent states like Canada) were committed alongside it.
The 2.5 million soldiers from the British Empire played a crucial role in helping the Allies to win the war. For soldiers in dominions, joining up was a patriotic duty, as it was in Britain. For soldiers in colonies like India, where the British government was still in control, there was very little choice.
As historian Gordon Corrigan put it, Indian soldiers were sent to “a country of which they knew nothing, subjected to a climate never before experienced, fighting an enemy the like of which they had never imagined, in a cause of which [they] knew little.”
When the war ended, attitudes towards the Empire had begun to change. Britain was forced to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice made by its soldiers — although it would be several more decades before they gained independence.
For more on the role of Commonwealth nations in the war, visit The Royal British Legion. TRBL has also created free downloadable assemblies and lesson plans with the National Literacy Trust. There are six sets of five lesson plans, two each for Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, accompanied by an assembly plan each for primary and secondary schools.
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India sent 1.5 million soldiers, the most of any country in the Empire apart from Britain itself. Find out more about them, including the first Indian to win a Victoria Cross, in this video.
- Print out and colour in this map of the European empires in 1914.
- Class debate: This house believes that British imperialism was as dangerous as Germany’s in the run-up to the First World War.
- Choose a country in the British Empire (other than Britain) and write a report on its role during the First World War. How many soldiers fought? Where? How many were killed? And did the war help change attitudes towards that country in Britain?