The British empire grew after the war, despite US president Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination principle. This was intended to break empires up. Needless to relate the only empires broken up were those of the losers: Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottomans and Russia. The British and French had no intention of losing territories after victory. Britain military activities activities grew post-1919. Three examples are Ireland, India and Russia. Britain, as a warrior nation, routinely used military might in global trouble spots.
Ireland: the War of Independence, 1919-21
Sinn Fein favoured direct action to achieve independence rather than the parliamentary tactics of the Irish Home Rule MPs. In 1916 Sinn Fein led a rebellion against British rule in the Easter Rising. This was promptly crushed. They learned from this failure and changed tactics. Instead of full-on confrontation they introduced guerrilla warfare.
Guerrilla warfare and targeted assassinations gave the IRA a decisive advantage during the War of Independence. Prime Minister Lloyd George strengthened the police with an ‘anything goes’ mandate. The police recruited brutalised ex-soldiers fresh from the trenches and prepared to ‘shoot-to-kill’. The 8,000 Black and Tan police committed atrocities trying to impose their will on the civilian population.
The Black and Tan policemen were ill-prepared for guerrilla warfare. They were out-manoeuvred by the IRA and suffered horrendous losses. As one recruit said, “we were mercenary soldiers fighting for our pay, not patriots willing and anxious to die for our country…”* By 1921 the IRA had won and Britain’s second colonial war ended in defeat. The peace treaty was botched with the creation of Northern Ireland. This brought a 100 years of civil unrest.
India: civil unrest in Amristsar, 1919
All three leaders* of India’s independence movement were British trained lawyers. They’d imbibed British attitudes in terms of political philosophy. India’s case for Dominion status was irrefutable because a million Indians loyally served in the British army during the war.
India’s representative at Versailles, Maharajah of Bikaner, said,“Our aspiration is to see our country attaining… self- government and autonomy which you in this country secured long ago and which our more fortunate sister Dominions (the so-called White Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) have enjoyed for some time past.”**
Amritsar was the scene of peaceful protest following civil unrest involving a few European deaths. General Dyer, the commandant, had had a career suppressing ‘natives’, which favoured an ‘iron fist’ response. He orchestrated a massacre murdering 379 unarmed men, women and children.
Winston Churchill condemned ‘an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’.***
Regardless of British protestations about India, the reality was it remained a colony without the status of ‘White’ Dominions. The Amritsar massacre is a vivid example of British rule. Dyer was sacked but returned to Britain as a hero to the right-wing press who applauded his stance, “The Morning Post started a Dyer fund which gave him £26,000 (£1.15m in today’s money). By contrast, each dependent of an Indian killed by Dyer received 500 rupees (£176 today) per body. When he died in 1927, Dyer was given an unofficial state funeral with his coffin borne on a gun carriage through Admiralty Arch.”****
* Gandhi trained at Inner Temple, London; Jinnah was at Lincoln’s Inn; Nehru went to Trinity College, Cambridge and Inner Temple.
The Bolsheviks undermined the Tsarist armies on the eastern front war, which led to Russia’s defeat. The triumphant Germans imposed a draconian peace treaty. Tsarist White armies attempted to continue the war but couldn’t because the Bolsheviks offered an aspirational future: Peace, Bread, Land. The Tsarists’ message was an unappetising return to the status quo ante.
The 1918 assassination of Tsar Nicholas by the Bolsheviks enraged western governments. The Russian civil war raged through 1917 to the end of 1919 with the allies supporting the incompetent Tsarist generals. They refused to cooperate with each other and eventually lost western support.
The Royal Navy supported Allied forces in Russia’s Murmansk and Estonia and Latvia territories. The general consensus was the White armies were useless but some anti-communist politicians still wanted direct involvement, “the Allies were not particularly interested in intervention. While there were some loud voices in favour, such as Winston Churchill, these were very much in the minority.”*
Britain’s involvement ended in late 1919. The principal reason was that Tsarist generals alienated them due to an incoherent campaign. Nonetheless Britain was a participant even after four horrendous years on the western front.
Summary: British militarism continued after the first world war
Britain’s experiences in the first world war were terrible. Industrialised slaughter over four years left hundreds of thousands dead and many more casualties. Senior officers and politicians didn’t change their entrenched attitudes. Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination principle was derided as naive by Lloyd George who’d learned nothing. He pursued policies as though Britain had won a great victory in 1918. Versailles was ignored and Britain continued as they’d done throughout the Victorian era.
For a very quick summary of the Easter Rising see https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/easter-rising 1916 also saw the battles of the Somme and Jutland and the continuing debilitating trench warfare attritional skirmishes. In context Dublin was a side show.
For the ‘Black and Tan’ ex-servicemen see https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/black-and-tans-half-drunk-whole-mad-and-one-fifth-irish-1.4113220
For a good summary of the Amritsar massacre see https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/amritsar-massacre
For post 1858 Indian education see SUNDARAM, M. S. “A CENTURY OF BRITISH EDUCATION IN INDIA 1857-1957.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 107, no. 5035, 1959, pp. 491–507. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41368746. Accessed 2 June 2020.
For the post Versailles status of India see Sundaram, Lanka. “The International Status of India.” Transactions of the Grotius Society, vol. 17, 1931, pp. 35–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/743028. Accessed 2 June 2020.
For the White Russian coalition in the civil war see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Civil_War
For the Bolsheviks slogan and attractiveness see https://russianlife.com/stories/online/peace-land-bread/
For the Murmansk landings see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_intervention_in_the_Russian_Civil_War
For the Murmansk intervention see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/allies.htm