British Empire


The German-British naval arms race drastically intensified after the 1906 launch of the HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary battleship that made all previous battleships obsolete. A major naval arms race in shipbuilding developed, related to the concept of new imperialism, furthering the interest in alliances. Kennedy argues that both nations adopted U.S. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s conclusion that control of the oceans was vital to a great nation. Additionally, this concentration kept related industries active and unemployment down while minimizing internal strife through the focus on a common, patriotic goal. Different scholars have different opinions about the degree to which the arms race was itself a cause of the war. Ferguson points out that Britain easily maintained her advantage. On the other hand, both sides were prepared for war.

Paradoxically, Britain—the staunch advocate of free trade—emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to her long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the “scramble for Africa,” reflecting her advantageous position at its inception. Between 1885 and 1914 Britain took nearly 30 percent of Africa’s population under her control, compared to 15 percent for France, 9 percent for Germany, 7 percent for Belgium and 1 percent for Italy.

british-empire-1Picture 1: Battle of Isandhlwana (1879) Natal, South Africa

Britain’s empire had already begun its transformation into the modern Commonwealth with the extension of dominion status to the already self-governing colonies of Canada (1867), Australia (1901), New Zealand (1907), Newfoundland (1907), and the newly-created Union of South Africa (1910). Leaders of the new states joined with British statesmen in periodic Colonial (from 1907, Imperial) Conferences, the first of which was held in London in 1887.

The foreign relations of the dominions were still conducted through the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom: Canada created a Department of External Affairs in 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to be channeled through the Governors-General, Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880 and by Australia in 1910) and British legations abroad. Britain’s declaration of war in World War I applied to all the dominions.

High anti-German feeling among the people during World War I prompted the Royal Family to abandon all titles held under the German crown and to change German-sounding titles and house names for English-sounding versions. On July 17, 1917, a royal proclamation by George V provided that all agnatic descendants of Queen Victoria would be members of the House of Windsor with the personal surname of Windsor. The name Windsor has a long association with English royalty through the town of Windsor and Windsor Castle.

british-empire-2Picture 2: Royal cousins – Wilhelm II and King George V

After the carnage of the Great War, Britain remained an eminent power, and its empire expanded to its maximum size, gaining the League of Nations mandate over former German and Ottoman colonies after World War I. By 1921, the British Empire held sway over a population of about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world’s population. It covered about 14.2 million square miles, about a quarter of Earth’s total land area. As a result, its legacy is widespread, in legal and governmental systems, economic practice, militarily, educational systems, sports (such as cricket, rugby and football), and in the global spread of the English language and Anglican Christianity. At the peak of its power, it was often said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because its span across the globe ensured that the sun was always shining on at least one of its numerous colonies or subject nations.