Distant Drums

Saul David looks at a book on the role of colonies in British imperial warfare

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Reviewed by: Saul David
Author: Ashley Jackson
Publisher: Sussex
Price (RRP): £55

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The crucial role that India and the ‘white’ Dominions – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada – played in Britain’s system of imperial defence is well known. Jackson’s aim is to underline the vital contribution of those 50 or so other imperial territories ruled through the Colonial Office.

“Colonies were woven into the tapestry of British warfare and Britain’s presence on the world state as the foremost power,” writes Jackson. “Yet the military history of the colonial empire has been overlooked”. Why was this so? Partly, explains Jackson, because the Dominions and India provided the empire with its “main non-British defence assets that could be utilised for imperial purposes”. The colonies, on the other hand, had no warships or air forces, and their armies were relatively small during peacetime and intended “primarily for internal policing”. And when they did make significant military contributions – in both world wars, for example – it was often by the less glamorous provision of essential military labour to support fighting fronts, rather than front-line soldiers.

Yet, according to Jackson, colonies have always been central to imperial defence. Many were acquired precisely because of this utility, and “small” wars on the colonial frontier were the “meat and drink of the British military” for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The “base infrastructure” of colonies – from fortresses to aerodromes – was essential to the functioning of the British military system, as was their provision of human resources. During the Second World War, the colonies supplied more troops to the imperial cause than all of the ‘white’ Dominions combined, including the 100,000-strong logistical support force that enabled Montgomery’s victorious 8th Army to sweep all before it in north Africa.

After Indian independence in 1947, colonies became even more important to Britain’s imperial defence planning, though large garrison forces were gradually replaced by carrier battle groups, strategic air lift and jet fighters.

Nor has the empire entirely disappeared. Today Britain has overseas territories in the Caribbean, Antarctica, Mediterranean, the South Atlantic, the Indian and Pacific oceans, and one of its core defence missions is still protection of these possessions and the retention of overseas military bases.

“The fact,” writes Jackson, “of Britain’s continuing commitment to a global military presence, irrespective of the Cold War and the downsizing of the armed forces, should come as no surprise”. This important and long-overdue book confirms Jackson’s growing reputation as a leading historian of British imperial warfare. 

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Saul David is professor of war studies, University of Buckingham. His books include the novel Zulu Hart (Hodder, 2009)