In 1884, the Imperial Federation League was established with the purpose of promoting a Federation of the British Empire governed by an Imperial Parliament with representatives from Britain and the colonies. Firm proposals were drawn up for imperial free trade and for a parliament in London with M.P.'s from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies. It was proposed that M.P.'s from India and other colonies would be added later. The idea of a global inter-continental state was far ahead of its time as international communications and travel were very slow at this time. Joseph Chamerberlain, the Secretary for the Colonies in the early 1900's, was an avid supporter of the idea. However, it was opposed by many Canadian and South African politicians. The movement dissolved in 1911 due to disagreement and the last proposal for an imperial federation parliament was put forward in 1919. However, the movement was successful in getting Imperial Conferences established, which continue today as Commonwealth Conferences. Colonial Conferences in London of leaders of the various parts of the British Empire began in 1887, being restyled as Imperial Conferences in 1911 and continuing as such until 1937. They then stopped due to the Second World War, but then resumed in 1944 as British Empire and Commonwealth Conferences, becoming just Commonwealth Conferences in 1949. Since 1973, they have been held every two years in all different parts of the Commonwealth and are called CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting. Empire Free Trade was established at Ottawa in 1932. After the First World War, the idea of drawing the British colonies closer together in imperial federation faded away to be replaced by greater colonial self-government and cooperation. The last Imperial Federation proposal put forward in 1919:
British Empire Federal Parliament: 300 Seats
England and Wales: 185 seats
Scotland: 25 seats
Ireland: 40 seats
Canada and Newfoundland: 20 seats
Australia: 15 seats
New Zealand: 5 seats
South Africa: 5 seats
West Indies: 5 seats
Click on the gallery of British Empire maps from 1898 to 1927 below to enlarge them
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The First World War
In August 1914, when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and its allies, all of the British Empire was automatically at war.
Canadians and Newfoundlanders mainly fought in Europe alongside the British and distinguished themselves in the Battles of Ypres and Vimy Ridge. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was a First World War army corps of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force that was formed in Egypt in 1915 and operated during the Battle of Gallipoli. The corps was disbanded in 1916 following the evacuation of Gallipoli. The corps is best remembered today as the source of the acronym ANZAC which has since become a term, "Anzac", for a person from Australia or New Zealand. South Africans mainly fought in Africa and conquered German East Africa and German South West Africa. The war gave the dominions a sense of nationhood and individuality. Separate Dominion armies and navies, later followed by air forces after the war, were created to help Britain. As far as India was concerned, the war began with an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill towards the United Kingdom from within the mainstream political leadership, contrary to initial British fears of an Indian revolt. India under British rule contributed massively to the British war effort by providing men and resources. This was done by the Indian Congress in hope of achieving self-government as India was very much in control of the British. The United Kingdom disappointed the Indians by not providing self-governance, leading to the Gandhiian Era in Indian history. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers and labourers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while both the Indian government and the princes sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. In all 140,000 men served on the Western Front and nearly 700,000 in the Middle East. 47,746 Indian soldiers were killed and 65,126 wounded during World War. Zones of French and British influence and control in the Ottoman Empire were established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French governments on 16 May 1916.
More than 65 million - that's more than the population of Britain today - fought in the 1914-18 conflict. More than half were casualties: listed wounded, missing in action or killed. There were about 42 million Allies and 23 million within the Axis of Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria. Among the Allies there were 12 million Russians. The second biggest group were the nearly 9 million from the British Empire: 15 African countries, from Basutoland to Zanzibar. Five British Atlantic islands. More than 20 islands in the Pacific and Australasia - from Borneo to Tonga. Ten islands in the West Indies, 2 in the Mediterranean , 5 in the India Ocean plus Canada, India, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Singapore.
During the First World War, the British encouraged an Arab revolt against the Turks, the Ottomans. The revolt started in June 1916 but most Arabs in the important provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul did not support the British backed leader of the rebellion, the Sherif of Mecca. The revolt was not a success. During this period, the British had invaded Mesopotamia (Iraq) because among other considerations they they believed intervention would stretch German and Turkish resources. In spite of dreadful conditions of heat and disease, they secured southern Iraq. But General Sir Charles Townshend then decided to assault Baghdad. Townshend's army, was defeated and retreated to Kut-al-Amaya where, it was besieged by the Turks for five months when, 9,000 British and Indian troops surrendered.
In 1917 General Stanley Maude's re-organized the army and took Baghdad. The mandate to stay in Iraq came through the post war treaties when the French were given a mandate to run Lebanon and Syria and the British, Iraq and Palestine.
In 1921 a conference was held in Cairo to decide the future of Iraq. The colonial secretary was Winston Churchill who rightly believed that Britain couldn't afford to defend Iraq and thought if he could show big savings it would help his ambition to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. The conference chose Faisal the Hashemite son of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali as Iraq's first king. T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, was at the Cairo conference - reluctantly perhaps - and supported Faisal from his personal knowledge and friendship. The Cairo Conference introduced a twenty year plan that would let Faisal rule but with British advice. In August 1921 Faisal became king and the British ruled.
Egypt made Independent
New Guinea Territory
Historical Atlas of the British Empire
Irish Free State
Britain and her Empire partners were shouldered with these responsibilities: Britain received the mandates for Mesopotamia (later renamed Iraq), Palestine, Transjordan, Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa), and the Island of Nauru. In addition the mandates for the Cameroons and Togoland were given jointly to Britain and France, and later agreements defined the areas of control. German South West Africa, renamed the South West Protectorate, was placed under the Union of South Africa. All the German Pacific Islands south of the Equator were assigned to Australia, which included the Bismarck Archipelago, the German Solomon Islands, and German New Guinea. North of the Equator Japan was the mandatory Power. German Samoa was given to New Zealand, and its name changed to Western Samoa. The Empire expanded from 1/4 of the world to 2/5 of the world - it's greatest extent ever.
In addition to the British territories around the world, customarily shown in red or pink on maps of the world, there was the British sphere of influence, often known as the ‘Informal Empire’. These were countries which had either been occupied by British troops at one time or had been of strategic or of economic interest to Great Britain. They were independent, but British military and/or economic involvement was significant. Argentina, in South America, was occupied by the British from 1806 to 1807 in an aborted attempt by Britain to build a South American empire. After the country gained its independence in 1816, many British people continued to settle there and the country was built up on British investment and finance. It has the only Welsh-speaking community outside of Wales. Other South American countries such as Chile and Uruguay were also part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ due to heavy British investment in their economies. Egypt was occupied by British troops in 1882 to safeguard the Suez Canal. The country was declared as a formal protectorate of Britain in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. However, after a nationalist revolt in 1919, Egypt received nominal independence in 1922, but British troops remained in the Suez Canal Zone until 1954. Afghanistan, on the North-West Frontier of the Indian Empire, was invaded by British troops in 1839. An informal protectorate over the country was declared in 1880 with Britain controlling the country’s foreign affairs, but it was abandoned in 1919 as it was difficult to defend during the Third Afghan War (1919-1921). Nepal, a kingdom on the northern frontier of India, though never annexed into the Indian Empire, was definitely in the British sphere of influence. The famous Ghurkas in the British Army come from Nepal. Its independence was recognised by treaty in 1923.
In 1904, the Viceroy of India sent troops into Tibet, immediately north of Nepal, to open up a trade route to China, but this invading force quickly withdrew after meeting heavy resistance. British influence in Tibet did remain for some time. In addition to colonies along the China coast, Britain also had a large area of influence over southeastern China along with France, Germany, Russia and Japan which also had coastal colonies and spheres of influence in other parts of China. British, Americans and French nationals also inhabited the Shanghai International Settelement, a part of the City of Shanghai occupied by foreigners. The Europeans had just carved up Africa among themselves and now they were starting to carve up China. This increasing of foreign spheres of influence over parts of China led to the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901 in which Chinese nationals attacked foreign properties. This was put down by the armies of the foreign powers. Japan went on to occupy most of eastern China in the 1930's and 1940's. The Chinese Revolutions of 1912 and 1949 helped to end foreign spheres of influence over China.
Cartoon from 1900 depicting China being divided up by Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan while Chinese anger over the situation grows.
In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Convention divided Persia (now Iran) into three zones including a British Zone in the southeast, a Russian Zone in the north and a Neutral Zone between them. Afghanistan had also been in the British Sphere of Influence as a virtual protectorate since 1881. It remained so until the Third Afghan War in 1919, when the country proclaimed its complete independence. After annexing Iraq, British troops entered Iran (Persia) at the end of the First World War and an informal semi-protectorate was declared over the country in 1919. A more ambitious plan to create new British Protectorates in the Caucasus region after the fall of the Russian Empire, in Georgia and Azerbaijan, was not pursued. The semi-Protectorate in Iran was abandoned also as unworkable. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company opened up much business between Britain and Iran. The British sphere of influence began to fade after the Second World War, but much British investment remains in countries all over the world.
Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera
The outbreak of war made the position of Britain in Egypt a difficult one. The situation was met by the declaration of a British Protectorate over the country on 18th December 1914, when the Khedive Abbas Hilmi was replaced by a Sultan. An uprising against the British in Egypt in 1919 required a tactful solution. On the 28th February 1922, the Protectorate was brought to an end, Egypt was declared sovereign and independent, and the reigning Sultan proclaimed King as Fuad I. Britain was allowed to keep troops in the country, particularly to guard the Suez Canal. This was reviewed with a new Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed in 1936 when British troops were reduced to just the Suez Canal Zone. The British High Commissioner in Egypt was replaced by an Ambassador.
The final large expansion of the British Empire came after the First World War in 1919, when former German colonies in Africa and the Pacific became British, thus completing the British ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor in Africa, and the annexation of former Ottoman Turkish provinces in the Middle East of Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq).
After victory by the Allies in 1918, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the British Dominions insisted on signing the peace treaty separately but were happy to participate in a British Empire delegation. The territories of the defeated powers were divided up among the victorious powers in a mandate system organised by the newly-established League of Nations. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were the British Empire beneficiaries of this. All the territories subject to League of Nations mandates were previously controlled by states defeated in World War I, principally Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The mandates were fundamentally different from the protectorates in that the Mandatory power undertook obligations to the inhabitants of the territory and to the League of Nations.
Germany's divestiture of territories was accomplished in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 and allotted to the Allied Powers on May 7, 1919. Ottoman territorial claims were first dispensed with in the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 and later finalized in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. The Turkish territories were allotted to the Allied Powers in the Conference of Sanremo of 1920. While most mandate territories were situated in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the régime was also applied in Europe, notably to the Danzig, Memel and Saar territories of Germany which went to a newly-independent Poland. The British Protectorate in Egypt, declared in 1914, was recognised by the international community in 1919, but following a revolution in Egypt during that year, Britain unilaterally recognised Egypt’s independence in February 1922 with some reservations regarding defence and security. The exact level of control by the Mandatory power over each mandate was decided on an individual basis by the League of Nations. However, in every case the Mandatory power was forbidden to construct fortifications or raise an army within the mandate and was required to present an annual report on the territory to the League of Nations. Despite this, mandates were seen as de facto colonies of the empires of the victor nations.
The mandates were divided into three distinct groups based upon the level of development each population had achieved at that time: The first group or Class A mandates were areas formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire deemed to "...have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory."
The second group or Class B mandates were all former Schutzgebiete (German territories) in the Subsaharan regions of West - and Central Africa, which were deemed to require a greater level of control by the mandatory power: "...the Mandatory must be responsible for the administration of the territory under conditions which will guarantee freedom of conscience and religion". The mandatory power was forbidden to construct military or naval bases within the mandates.
The final group, the Class C mandates, including South-West Africa and certain of the South Pacific Islands, were considered to be "best administered under the laws of the mandatory as integral portions of its territory"
A major challenge to the Empire came from Ireland, where it can be argued the British Empire began when Henry II declared himself `Lord of Ireland' in 1171. Ireland had been under English rule for 630 years and 120 years as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since 1801.
Home rule for Ireland within the United Kingdom had been sought by Charles Stewart Parnell from 1880. Irish nationalist leader John Redmond had achieved the Home Rule Act of 1914 through parliamentary proceedings, but it was shelved due to the outbreak of the First World War. More extreme Irish nationalists had unilaterally declared an independent Irish Republic in 1916 which was formally established in January 1919 when a more extremist party called Sinn Fein which wanted outright independence for Ireland, won all of the seats in Parliament in Ireland, except for the Protestant northern counties. They refused to take their seats and demanded immediate independence. This was followed by the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) with the rest of Britain, which was ended by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The predominantly Protestant counties in northeastern Ireland remained fervantly loyal to Britain.
Implementation of Irish home rule was resumed after the First World War. However, due to the opposing views of Catholic and Protestant Irish, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 was passed by the British Parliament which established two autonomous provinces in Ireland with home rule within the United Kingdom. The partition of Ireland between six north-eastern counties and the rest of Ireland took place on 3 May 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The 1920 Act created two jurisdictions on the island :Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland both of which were part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. However, with continued violence and this not being satisfactory in Southern Ireland, further negotiations resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, which took effect exactly one year later.
On 6 December 1922, in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922, the entire island of Ireland became the Irish Free State, a dominion in the British Empire. British forces would withdraw from most of Ireland which was to become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire; a status shared by Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa. As with the other dominions, the British monarch would be the head of state of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) and would be represented by a Governor General. The National Army of the Irish Free State was established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and fought the Irish Civil War between June 1922 and May 1923 against republican opponents of the treaty.
The Treaty was given legal effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That Act established, on 6 December 1922, the new Dominion for the whole island of Ireland. Legally therefore, on 6 December 1922, Northern Ireland became an autonomous region of the newly created Irish Free State. However, the Treaty and the laws which implemented it also allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of the Irish Free State. Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its opt out by presenting an address to the King requesting not to be part of the Irish Free State. Once the Treaty was ratified, the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had one month (dubbed the Ulster month) to exercise this opt out during which month the Irish Free State Government could not legislate for Northern Ireland, holding the Free State’s effective jurisdiction in abeyance for a month.
On 8 December 1922 the Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland exercised its right in accordance with Section 12 of the Act and presented to the King an Address whereby it opted out of the new Dominion. The making of the Address had been passed in Belfast the previous day. With this, Northern Ireland had left the Irish Free State and rejoined the United Kingdom. If the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had not made such a declaration, under Article 14 of the Treaty Northern Ireland, its Parliament and government would have continued in being but the Irish Free State parliament would have had jurisdiction to legislate for Northern Ireland in matters not delegated to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. Northern Ireland had been part of the Irish Free State for two days. The six counties in the north of Ireland chose to remain in the United Kingdom as the province of Northern Ireland, which it continues to be today. Northern Ireland was a self-governing province of the United Kingdom with its own parliament. It had a Prime Minister and a Governor representing the Crown. Northern Ireland was almost a Dominion, but it sent members to the British Imperial Parliament at Westminster as well. In 1927, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was renamed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which it remains today, to reflect the departure of most of Ireland. The King's title was changed accordingly.
The Free State had Dominion status but in contrast to the relatively amicable and gradual develvement of the four other existing Dominions, only after centuries of hatred culminating in civil war. A new constitution adopted by the Free State under the leadership of Eamon de Valera in 1937 dropped the name Irish Free State, renaming it as Eire and declaring it to be a `sovereign independent state'. The Governor General was replaced by a President, though Eire was not technically a republic. This was because the principal key role possessed by a head of state, that of symbolically representing Eire internationally remained vested under statutory law, in the British king as an organ of the Irish government. . The break was completed in 1949 when Eire became the Republic of Ireland outside the Commonwealth, though remaining in a special relationship with the now United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and becoming a fellow European Union member.
The desire for home rule or Dominion status, similar to Ireland, began to grow in the rest of the United Kingdom. A Scottish home rule bill was first presented to the British Parliament in 1913, its progress, along with that of the Irish Home Rule Act 1914, was interrupted by the First World War and subsequently became overshadowed by the Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence, although the Scottish Office was relocated to St. Andrew's House in Edinburgh during the 1930s. The Scottish National Party was founded in 1934 after the union of two previous nationalist parties and quickly advocated self government for Scotland, probably as a Dominion. Welsh nationalists demanded Dominion Status for Wales also as early as 1934. In 1946, some Ulster Unionists began to consider full Dominion Status for Northern Ireland.
Irish Free State 1922
Kingdom of Egypt 1922
Additions to the British Empire
Union of South Africa