The Great War: an imperial history by John R Morrow

How the race for empire tore Europe apart
Click to follow

The first World War began and ended with empire. The conflict was caused partly by German resentment at the extent of the British empire. At the Paris peace conference, the German, Austrian and Ottoman empires were broken up as the victorious allies supported the nationalism of new states in Poland and Czechoslovakia. But, outside Europe, they opposed nationalism and refused a Japanese request that racism be condemned.

Between these two dates, however, empire figured little in the conflict. The great battles were all fought in Europe. If the average British person knows anything about the First World War outside Europe, their knowledge probably comes from William Boyd's novel The Ice Cream War.

John Morrow seeks to remedy this with an explicitly imperial history of the war. His work is lively, informative and based on a lifetime of reading. He describes the campaigns in Africa, and the role of non-European (and African-American) troops in the armies of the Western allies. The Americans often assumed that black units would be unfit for combat; the French believed their Senegalese soldiers were particularly effective warriors (rather confirmed in 1940, when these soldiers were almost the only men in France to hold out against the Wehrmacht). Left-wing Englishmen sometimes believed that the use of black troops against Germans was an atrocity.

At times the multiple ambitions of this book conflict. An emphasis on cultural history often takes Morrow back into a conventional Eurocentric view. We get little sense of how African and Indian soldiers understood the cataclysm into which they were thrown.

His analysis is also sometimes rooted in simple notions of exploitation and racism. There is not much allowance for differences. America was more racist than France: Woodrow Wilson's wife refused to bring her black maid to the Paris peace conference, to prevent her getting ideas above her station. The British empire became more racist as a result of the First World War, giving new prominence to white populations in parts of the empire (such as Australia and South Africa) which were very racist. Jan Smuts, a leader of the defeated Boers, became an architect of the Paris settlement.

Nor is there much sense that non-European inhabitants of the empire might have participated in the Great War out of rational self-interest. Did not the Indian princes subsidise the British war effort because it suited them for the empire to survive? Yet Morrow's history will give readers reason to think about a wide range of issues: not least the possibility that, during and after the First World War, Europeans began to apply to one another the brutality they had formerly reserved for their African subjects.

Richard Vinen's 'A History in Fragments: Europe in the 20th century' is published by Abacus