What role did the British Empire play in the war?

The war involved people from all over the world.

Great Britain, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary all ruled empires. Their colonies sent supplies, food and soldiers to help in the war effort.

The British Empire

Britain's colonies sent over two and a half million men to fight for Britain during the war.

India sent the most soldiers. At that time, India included both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Colonies as far away as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) also sent thousands of soldiers.

That meant that Britain had soldiers from five different continents:

Europe, North America, Australasia, Asia and Africa.

Canadian poster appealing for people to join the armed forces in World War One

Which countries sent soldiers to fight with the British Empire?

Indian soldiers serving with the British Army at camp during World War One

India

Indian soldiers serving with the British Army at camp.

1 of 6

Independence

The colonies fought hard to help Britain in the war. But they questioned if they deserved a chance to rule themselves with their own governments.

Britain saw how much these colonies helped during the war and decided that some could be given more freedom once the war ended.

This was a step towards some countries gaining independence.

British South Africa Police with escorts of native troops in Rhodesia in World War One
Commanding officers of the Rhodesian volunteers with escorts of native troops.

The Royal Family

The British Empire was ruled by the Royal Family.

During the war, the Royal Family changed its surname from 'Saxe-Coburg-Gotha' to 'Windsor', which sounded more British.

George V was related to the leaders of Russia, Germany and other European royalty. The name change helped to separate him from them.

Other British royals played a part in the war:

  • Princess Mary worked as a nurse. For Christmas 1914, she helped arrange for a tin containing tobacco or sweets to be sent to every man in the armed forces.

  • Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) served in France as a Staff Officer. He was awarded the Military Cross and in 1918 learned to fly. But he was banned from combat in case he was captured by the German Army.

  • Prince Albert (later King George VI) served in the Navy and Army. He was not heir to the throne at the time so was allowed to take part in combat.

Many people across the Empire looked to the Royal Family, especially King George V, to inspire them and help them to understand why they were fighting.

Portraits of Queen Mary and King George V sent to British Armed Forces Christmas 1914
Official portraits of Queen Mary and King George V in 1914.
Postcard showing King George V offering thanks to the Army and Navy, Christmas 1918
Postcard showing King George V offering thanks to the Army and Navy, Christmas 1918.

How many soldiers from the British Empire served?

From 'The Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914-1920':

  • Britain: 5,000,000
  • India: 1,440,437
  • Canada: 628,964
  • Australia: 412,953
  • South Africa: 136,070
  • New Zealand: 128,825
  • Other colonies: 134,837

Even though most of the fighting happened in Europe, it's clear to see the impact of the war on people all over the world.

World War One soldiers in silhouette loading a weapon
The Canadian Volunteers known as The Moose Jaw Legion of Frontiersmen in 1914

Where next?

How did animals help in World War One?
How were soldiers recruited in World War One?
Quiz: What happened in World War One?
World War One