The Commonwealth Nations and Ireland in WW1

While WW1 casualty figures are imprecise due to incomplete sources and the normal vagaries of record-keeping in war times, it is generally accepted that the Commonwealth nations which supported Britain during WW1, lost at least 250,000 men killed and 500,000 wounded. They provided invaluable military, financial and material support and distinguished themselves in all theatres of war. Commonwealth troops developed a reliable, fighting reputation, where they they were often used in the “hot spots” of battle. This exacerbated Commonwealth casualties during WW1.

  • New Zealand lost 18,058 killed and 40,000 wounded out of the 98,950 who served overseas. This was a casualty rate of approximately 60%. With a population of over one million people, some 10% of New Zealanders served in WW1, 80% were volunteers and nearly two thirds of these would become casualties. Another 8,000 New Zealand civilians lost their lives in 1918 during the world-wide Spanish Flu pandemic – brought back to the country by returning soldiers. 2,779 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli, with another 7,959, casualties during the Somme Offensive and another 843 killed on 12th October 1917 at Passchendaele. There are well over 500 public memorials in New Zealand to the soldiers of the Great War, 1914 – 1918, reflecting few communities untouched by war casualties. New Zealanders were awarded 11 Victoria Crosses (VC) for bravery during the First World War. At least 3,370 New Zealanders served in the Australian or British imperial forces, winning a further five Victoria Crosses.
  •  Australia‘s casualties were 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, out of 318,000 who served overseas.  All were Volunteers. Australia had no conscription during the WW1. Australians served with distinction throughout WW1, at Gallipoli, in Egypt, Palestine, on the Western Front and in many other theatres of war. Their casualty rate of 68%, was one of the highest  proportions of all combatant nations. Recent research by the National Archives of Australia, suggests that Australian WW1 casualties may be even higher than officially recognised – with hospitalisation exceeding 750,000, and perhaps only 10% returning from the war unscathed. A further 8,000 former Australian servicemen had also died of war related injuries by the time of the 1933 Australian Census. From a population of fewer than five million, the heavy losses deeply affected many directly, and 1,500 war memorials were built all over the country as people sought to remember those that had been killed. 63 Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross.
  • Similarly, Canada lost 62,000 and 172,000 wounded, out of 600,000 enlistments, with 424,000 serving overseas. A casualty rate of approximately 39%. The small colony of Newfoundland also suffered 1,305 killed and several thousand wounded.  Canadians stood fast at Ypres in 1915, captured Regina Trench, the longest trench on the Somme in November 1916, climbed the heights of Vimy Ridge, and captured Passchendaele in 1917, and entered Mons on November 11, 1918. 11,007 Canadians are commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in France.  71 VC’s were awarded to Canadians during WW1
  • South Africa. Played a important strategic role for the Allies during WW1, by capturing two German Colonies in Africa and helping the Royal Navy, keep the vital sea lanes open to Australia, the Middle East and India. More than 231,000 South Africans served in South African Military Units during WW1 (146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race or Asians). They included 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps. The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600, with over 12,452 killed – more than 4,600 in the European theater alone. This was about 13% of those that served. Eight South Africans received the Victoria  Cross during WW1.
  • India. It is estimated that 1.3 million Indian enlisted to defend Britain during WW1. Of those, 400,000 were Muslim soldiers. The Indian Army formed and dispatched seven expeditionary forces overseas during World War I. Over one million Indian troops served overseas, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded. In total at least 74,187 Indian soldiers died during the war, about 7% of those that served. Indian Troops were crucial to bolstering the British Expeditionary Force in the early stages of the war, particularly at Neuve Chappelle and fought against the German Empire in German East Africa, and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The India Gate in New Delhi, built in 1931, commemorates the Indian soldiers who lost their lives during WW1. Eleven VC’s were awarded to Indian troops, during the war.
  • In addition, 100,000 men from the African and Caribbean Colonies who acted as carriers and labourers died of disease and exhaustion, with another 18,000 killed in action. Nearly a million people in Kenya, for example, served Britain, either in the carrier corps, or in the King’s African Rifles. That was one quarter of the population and in places like the Voi region, 75% of African adult men were involved in some form of military activity.      

These losses often had an adverse demographic affect on their nations. They were also faced with an economic cost of caring for the survivors, the war widows and their children. In Australia, for example, the long-term cost of medical care and welfare benefits to returned soldiers and the dependants of those who did not return was on a scale never before encountered. A peak of 283,322 Australian war pensions were being paid in 1932. By 1938, only a year before the Second World War commenced, 77,000 incapacitated soldiers and 180,000 dependants remained on pensions that by then had cost Australia nearly 148 million pounds. Their associated medical bills ran to another 8.5 million pounds.

There was growing assertiveness amongst Commonwealth nations after World War 1. Battles, such as Gallipoli, for Australia and New Zealand, Vimy Ridge, for Canada, Neuve Chapelle for India, led to increasing national pride and identity. There was a greater reluctance to remain subordinate to Britain, leading to the growth of diplomatic autonomy in the 1920’s. Loyal Dominions, such as Newfoundland, were deeply disillusioned by Britain’s apparent disregard for their soldiers, eventually leading to the unification of Newfoundland with the Confederation of Canada. Colonies, such as India and Nigeria also became increasingly assertive because of their participation in the war. The populations in these countries became increasingly aware of their own power and Britain’s fragility.

In Ireland, the delay in finding a resolution to the home rule issue, partly caused by the war, as well as the 1916 Easter Rising and a failed attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, increased support for separatist radicals. This led indirectly to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919. The creation of the Irish Free State that followed this conflict, in effect represented a territorial loss for the United Kingdom, that was all but equal to the loss sustained by Germany, (and furthermore, compared to Germany, a much greater loss in terms of its ratio to the country’s prewar territory). Ireland lost over 38,000 men in the war. Many more Irishmen died, serving with British regiments and the Commonwealth nations. The true casualty figure may never been known. There was no triumphant welcome for Irish Soldiers returning to Southern Ireland. They were were largely shunned and met open hostility for supporting Britain during the war.

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