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Britain and France: Empires under fire

For Britain and France, victory in the Second World War came at a price, says Martin Thomas: the bloody, chaotic unravelling of their imperial projects...

Canadian troops returning from the combined operations raid at Dieppe. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Published: April 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm
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In the spring of 1939, four young French army officers stepped astride motorbikes outside the Paris Military Academy. They were cheered along the Champs de Mars as they began an epic journey to Dakar, French West Africa’s federal capital.

Reports from their road trip were relayed home to enliven a two-week ‘imperial market fair’ held in April, with a galaxy of colonial products on display to help distract Parisians from the ominous threat of Nazis massing across the Rhine. Some three miles of roadside stalls lined city boulevards, offering something exotic from the colonies to suit every taste and pocket. Intricate African carvings sat alongside Malagasy vanilla pods, musky Vietnamese perfumes and leopard-skin coats. ‘Buy empire’, a slogan to which British consumers were by now well attuned, echoed through Paris.

As war loomed, this colonial product placement invited the French public to take solace in the vastness of their imperial assets. But could the empire continue to deliver such bounty when peace turned to conflict?

The arrival of total war challenged those who ruled the British and French empires to fashion their overseas possessions into strategic assets – global power systems rather than the existing diffuse collections of territories, peoples and interests. More than ever, raw materials, colonial revenues, strategic bases and, above all else, additional manpower were the hard currency of imperial power.

But far-flung colonies, distant naval bases and other coveted prizes were exposed and hard to defend. Imperial resources and empire attachments might be precious, but the financial and strategic implications of keeping global empires intact against up to three powerful enemies – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and imperial Japan – were terrifying.

The predicament created painful choices. The surest protection against Nazi invasion was a western front manned by forces from the respective empires of Britain and France, as well as home troops. Yet exposed colonial territories could only be protected by conserving their own limited military capacity, which in turn reduced the resources available for the war in Europe.

Policy-makers on both sides of the Channel thus came to regard some colonial settlements – French Saigon and British Hong Kong, for instance – as hostages to fortune. While a number of colonies became warehouses, their raw material exports indispensable, several dependencies faced hostile occupations.

Yet the challenges facing the world’s two great imperial powers didn’t end there. Though they may not have realised it at the time, the ways in which Britain and France went about coercing colonial populations into serving the war effort would have a catastrophic impact on the very future of their empires. Indeed, in those locations where anti-colonial sentiment was most virulent – India, Burma and Palestine among British territories, Algeria and Vietnam among French ones – the Second World War would spark outbreaks of anti-colonial violence that would herald the first wave of decolonisation.

Entente cordiale?

Britain and France entered the conflict as European allies, but were they imperial partners as well? Franco-British staff held talks in London, Beirut, Singapore and Aden over the summer of 1939 to map out regional strategies for the protection of neighbouring imperial territories.

These meetings were certainly panoramic: a ‘Balkan front’ alongside Turkey, naval co-operation in the South China Sea, a joint defence plan for the Indian Ocean. But their results were limited. Turkey, having signed a tripartite alliance with Britain and France on 19 October, stayed out of the war, alarmed by the implications for its northern frontier of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. In the far east, British naval planners remained unwilling to venture into the waters off French-ruled Cambodia and Vietnam.

The picture of closer Franco-British partnership with limited outcomes was equally apparent in economic affairs. Joint discussions on inter-imperial economic co-operation got under way in London in January 1940 but unrestricted trade between British and French territories was never really considered.

Despite this, Britain was to bankroll those French colonies that ‘rallied’ to General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement in the months following France’s fall to Germany in June 1940. Much of Francophone black Africa fell in with Britain’s war effort, supplying primary products in return for the cash needed to finance de Gaulle’s supporters.

Part military force, part quasi-government-in-exile, Free France was determined to keep fighting the Axis powers. But it operated outside France for most of the war. Until mid-1943 its principal assets were in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the Free French should not be confused with the numerous civilian resistance networks to emerge inside France. Indeed, these mainland resisters vied with Free France for influence once the collaborationist Vichy regime in southern France, established under Marshal Pétain, started to work more closely with the Germans from 1941 onwards.

Meanwhile, because their movement coalesced around General de Gaulle in London and among his supporters in the colonies, followers of Free France – a politically diverse group of armed forces personnel, politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, and African colonial troops – were often misleadingly described by the catch-all term ‘Gaullists’.

For some, support for the general and his unique vision of French greatness – or grandeur – was almost messianic. For others, de Gaulle’s attractions were incidental to the more urgent priorities of fighting fascist occupation, overthrowing Vichy, and restoring republican democracy to France.

As for Free France’s colonial troops, who fought in north Africa, Italy and southern France, serving de Gaulle was, initially at least, as much circumstantial as deliberate.

It usually reflected the particular location of a garrison or the loyalties of its senior officers, not the political leanings of the rank-and-file.

The estimated 16,500 Free French military losses during campaigning in north Africa and Italy were primarily colonial. Villages in Morocco, Mali and Algeria, not Brittany, the Ardèche or the Pas-de-Calais, mourned the largest numbers of soldiers killed in French uniform after June 1940.

Yet there’s a great irony here. For much of the Second World War, the French weren’t fighting the Axis powers, but themselves – in an undeclared civil war, prosecuted on colonial territory, between Vichy and its domestic enemies.

This internecine struggle was about the future of France, not its colonies. Yet it was fought in the midst of colonial subjects and frequently exploited them to do the actual fighting. All the while, it remained curiously removed from the daily lives of colonial communities for whom more fundamental questions of food supply, employment and basic rights proved more pressing.

Even when the wider war interceded, as, for instance, when Japanese forces occupied Southern Indochina in 1941, or when US and British imperial forces fought to expel Erwin Rommel’s army from French Tunisia in 1943, the quarrels between Vichy supporters and their resistance opponents predominated in French minds. Empire provided the terrain but not the agenda for the French leadership contest fought out between 1940 and 1945.

The British empire, of course, was also fighting for its existence, a fact that left no room for sentiment about the fate of former allies. The British naval bombardment of French Mediterranean fleet warships at anchor in the Algerian port of Mers el-Kébir on 3 July 1940 drove the point home. Intended to nullify the risk of the French vessels falling into Axis hands, Royal Navy shelling killed 1,297 French sailors.

The inevitable cries of Perfidious Albion went up loudest among French naval commanders – and their anger had long-term implications. Several French admirals, notably Jean-François Darlan, scaled the political heights of the Vichy regime as ministers and colonial governors. This made the task of persuading French colonial administrations to join the Allied cause all but impossible.

Mental somersaults

Following the fall of France, British military engagements took a more desperate turn. After an abortive September 1940 attempt to install de Gaulle as political supremo in French West Africa, Britain’s colonial secretary, Lord Lloyd, put things bluntly: “Since the French collapsed we have had to do a complete mental somersault… The magnitude of our African interests is out of all proportion to our defences.”

The British empire’s war thereafter was one of paradoxes, revealing the best and the worst of imperial connections. Dominion engagement was, for the most part, willingly offered. Only Eire chose neutrality, although Afrikaner opinion in South Africa initially favoured it as well.

Once committed, every Dominion provided invaluable support. Even neutral Ireland contributed 43,000 volunteer servicemen and women. It was Canada, however, that made the most decisive Dominion contribution to the British empire’s struggle for survival. Over 85 per cent of the 1,086,771 male and female service personnel from Britain’s oldest Dominion were volunteers. So many passed through Britain that the BBC Forces Programme broadcast ice hockey highlights on Sunday evenings. Many were lost in dreadful circumstances – as members of the isolated Hong Kong garrison that surrendered to a rapacious Japanese assault on Christmas Day 1941; or as the hapless assault force cut down in the August 1942 Dieppe Raid.

India’s contribution to Britain’s war effort was larger still in human terms but its involvement in the war – demanded, rather than requested, by Viceroy Lord Linlithgow in September 1939 – exposed the fallacy of British claims to fair and equal treatment of its subjects overseas.

The All India National Congress, although internally divided over its attitude to the war, was uniformly outraged at Britain’s suspension of reform. Congress representatives promptly resigned from seven of India’s 11 provincial governments, a forewarning of what would later emerge as the ‘Quit India’ movement.

Popular discontent


Several ministers in Churchill’s coalition wanted to restart negotiations, most famously Stafford Cripps. Instrumental in thawing relations with Soviet Russia as ambassador to Moscow, Cripps was rewarded with the post of Lord Privy Seal in early 1942. He quickly harnessed growing public support for talks with Indian leaders.

As George Orwell commented, the subsequent ‘Cripps Mission’ was “a bubble blown by popular discontent”. During March and April 1942 Cripps and his advisors – known as ‘the Crippery’ – tried to persuade Congress and the All India Muslim League to join India’s wartime administration. The British didn’t promise national independence – at least, not for now, leading to Gandhi’s well-known dismissal of Cripps’ proposals as a “post-dated cheque” from a failing bank.

A harsh judgment perhaps, but thereafter, as Yasmin Khan has suggested, India occupied an uncomfortable, median position between loyal imperial home front and restive, quasi-war zone. Even so, the Indian contribution to British empire defence was staggering. Aside from becoming a major lender to the British Treasury, India raised a military force of 2.5 million, of whom 24,338 were killed and 79,489 taken prisoner, mostly by the Japanese.

Other colonial peoples made significant sacrifices in defence of the empire, whether eagerly or not. In their cases the discomfiting juxtaposition between imperial patriotism and the empire’s structural racism was even harder to ignore. The colour bar that prevented non-white service personnel from becoming officers was formally relinquished in October 1939. But its spirit lived on. Black African troops fought Italians in Ethiopia and Japanese in Burma, but still in white-officered colonial units. To avoid ‘cross-contamination’, even military blood banks kept separate stocks for whites and non-whites.

Beyond the military, some 5,000 merchant seamen, from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, gave their lives – almost a sixth of the merchant navy’s total losses. Yet, despite the massive contribution to the war effort made by empire peoples, nothing could mask the cracks that began to appear in both British and French empires as the conflict unfolded.

Throughout the war years, hyper-inflation, food shortages, social exclusion and political repression were to have a far greater impact on colonial lives than the progress of Allied campaigns or political changes at the top of the colonial tree.

In January 1944 the governors of the Free French empire assembled in Brazzaville, the sleepy Congolese capital of French Equatorial Africa, to consider how to put the empire back together. Their discussions were profoundly cautious. Those regions where wartime disruption and dissent ran deepest were scratched from the conference agenda. As a result, neither France’s three north African territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, nor the Indochina Federation of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were discussed at all.

Plans for administrative restructuring, economic diversification and greater electoral representation in territories south of the Sahara were framed – but not in terms of preparation for independence. In other words, wider citizenship rights, greater inclusion and improved living standards were intended to make colonial peoples more French, not less.

Meanwhile, Britain’s efforts to spread limited military resources widely enough to safeguard its empire against all potential threats had met their nemesis once Japan began its southward drive towards the oil wells of the Dutch East Indies. The fall of Singapore in February 1942, the worst military reverse of the British empire’s Second World War, was, in human terms, eclipsed by the social calamity of famine in north-east India during 1943 and 1944.

Determined to speak for the famine’s 3 million victims, Jawaharlal Nehru, imprisoned for his role in the ‘Quit India’ movement in August 1942, took up his pen in Ahmadnagar fort. Their deaths, he noted, bore witness to the chasm between the Allies’ ‘Four Freedoms’ rhetoric (one of which was ‘Freedom from want’) and the reality of mass starvation in a colonial society. The Bengal famine not only exposed the emptiness in British claims of effective colonial administration but revealed something deeper about the war’s impact on colonial rule. The stresses of trying to maintain a global empire intact in wartime had undermined the entire construct.

The door was thereby opened to those demanding colonial change as soon as the fighting ceased. Britain’s postwar turn towards imperial withdrawal, soon to reach fulfilment in the Indian subcontinent, was rendered possible, imperative even, by the preceding commitment to keep the empire together during global conflict. This connection between victory and empire dissolution was, at once, paradoxical and remarkably simple. The imperial cost of Britain’s triumph of arms was decolonisation.

The cost of victory

For the French, the collapse of empire was no less dramatic. From June 1940 until Japan’s military occupiers finally overthrew the pro-Vichy colonial regime in Vietnam on 9 March 1945, the French empire was torn apart by the undeclared war between the politicians, soldiers and administrators who ran it. Its endless factionalism antagonised the local elites who were essential to the day-to-day running of empire affairs. More radical anti-colonial groups like Algeria’s People’s Party, driven underground by a legal ban in 1939, and the Vietnamese communists, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1941, acquired wider popular support, thanks in large part to their wartime activities.

Famine struck in Vietnam as well, the result of punitive rice requisitioning. Entire villages perished, some families clustering inside their homes to die. Others fled to Hanoi where residents described a nightmarish streetscape: “Elderly twisted women, naked kids huddled against the wall or lying inside a mat, fathers and children prostrate along the road, corpses hunched up like foetuses, an arm thrust out as if to threaten.”

Ultimately, though, it was Japan that did most to knock over France’s house of colonial cards. Its occupation of Indochina, partial at first, total and brutal at last, catalysed the first of France’s major wars against decolonisation. What followed was an eight-year conflict against Ho Chi Minh’s communists that reverberated throughout south-east Asia and the colonial world.

The Second World War triggered a crisis of legitimacy that the French empire never quite shook off. Now it was paying the heaviest of prices.

The French empire implodes



The wartime regime of Marshal Pétain, head of the Vichy government, was locked in civil war with de Gaulle’s Free French forces in many of France’s colonies


Mers el-Kébir, 1940

Fearing French warships falling into German hands, Winston Churchill orders British ships to attack the Algerian naval base of Mers el-Kébir, killing 1,297


“Three colours, one flag, one empire”

A c1940 Vichy government poster paints a picture of unity across north and sub-Saharan Africa and Indochina to recruit soldiers in its fight against Free French forces in the colonies



Japanese troops occupy Saigon in 1941, pictured below. Viet Minh resistance to Japan, along with famine caused by rice requisitioning, turned local sentiment against France


Casablanca conference, January 1943

General Giraud, commander of French forces in Africa, meets President Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. Nascent independence struggles and fighting between Gaullist and Vichy forces dominated France’s African colonies


French West Africa

More than 200,000 tirailleurs sénégalais – west African soldiers – were recruited by France. Many experienced degrading treatment, fuelling anti-colonial sentiment

The British empire on the precipice

Hong Kong falls

British women and children board a ship sailing to the Philippines during the evacuation of Hong Kong before the territory fell to Japan in December 1941

Canada joins the fight

Canadian soldiers return from the failed raid on Dieppe in August 1942 (pictured below). Canada provided nearly 1.1 million service personnel; more than 45,000 were killed

India rises – and starves

Britain sought support from Indian leaders (notably Nehru, pictured below, with Stafford Cripps in 1942) by offering dominion status. Famines killed 3 million, underlining flaws in colonial administration


Martin Thomas is professor of imperial history at the University of Exeter. His book Fight or Flight: Britain, France and their Roads from Empire was published in March by Oxford University Press.


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