- First World War
Use these sources to find out about the different countries that contributed to the British war effort.
For ideas to help you use these sources, take a look at our Suggested Activities.
Rally Round the Flag
In 1914 the British Empire occupied a quarter of the known surface of the globe. The Empire was ruled by King George V and included countries like India, Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as large parts of Africa, the West Indies and the Far East.
West Indian Troops
The outbreak of the First World War saw a great response from the Empire. A total of nearly 8,586,000 men were raised for military and naval service. Twenty per cent of volunteers were from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, with the vast majority coming from India.
Wounded Indian Soldiers
In 1914 the Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world. Four Indian divisions landed in France in 1914 and helped contain the German advance through Flanders during the early stages of the war whilst volunteer units from other countries, including Britain, were still in training. This photograph shows a group of wounded soldiers in a French village.
A Sepoy of the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles in uniform by John Revel
Further recruiting enabled India to send over 800,000 soldiers overseas by 1918 – the largest contingent of any part of the British Empire. This painting shows a Sepoy, which was the name given to an infantry soldier, in the Indian Army.
Pagri (Turban) Indian Army
Some 113,743 Indians were reported dead, wounded or missing at the end of the war, and many were decorated for their efforts. Indian personnel won 12,445 British and 463 Allied medals and decorations for bravery, including 12 Victoria Cross awards, the highest award for bravery.
Empire and Commonwealth Troops
Find out more about the role of Indian soldiers and their connections with other Empire and Commonwealth troops from Dr Santanu Das of King's College London. This video includes archive film footage of Empire and Commonwealth troops during the First World War.
South African soldiers
The South African Brigade was comprised of white soldiers only, Black South African citizens were not allowed to fight and went to France as the South African Native Labour Contingent. These South African soldiers are enjoying a cigarette on the Somme during December 1916.
King’s African Rifles posing with a Maxim Gun
The East and West African campaigns highlight the imperial nature of the First World War. Territories governed by Britain, France, Belgium and later Portugal provided soldiers and supplies to capture Germany’s African colonies. This photograph shows members of the King’s African Rifles from East Africa.
East African Porters
Men also served as carriers and porters, helping to transport ammunition and food. These porters are members of the 2nd Road Corps, from modern day Kenya.
Women grain sellers with food for troops
Although much of the actual fighting on the continent took place in East Africa, British colonies in both East and West Africa contributed money and natural resources to the war effort. Large quantities of food were brought to government stations, usually by women and children, to provide food for the troops and carriers.
R H Broome
In August 1914, Australia had a population of under 5 million, including 200,000 native Australians, known then as Aborigines. From that population, 412,953 Australians, (including 400 Aborigines), volunteered for military service, including R H Broome who joined the Royal Australian Navy.
Cigarette tins like this one were given to Australian forces in Christmas 1915. This one belonged to Able Seaman R H Broome, who served on board HMAS Sydney.
On 9 November 1914 Able Seaman Broome took part in the Battle of Cocos in the Indian Ocean. The battle involved Broome’s own ship, HMAS Sydney, and SMS Emden of the Imperial German Navy. The German ship was run aground by her captain to prevent her from sinking and Broome painted these events inside the lid of his tobacco tin.
Maori soldier at Gallipoli
When war broke out in August 1914 New Zealand’s population was just over 1.1 million, including 50,000 Maoris and 250,000 British-born citizens. 128,525 New Zealanders, including 2,688 Maoris, volunteered or were conscripted during the course of the war, including this soldier who was photographed at Gallipoli.
The Newfoundland Regiment (1917)
Newfoundland was a British colony with a population of 250,000. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered very heavy casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. July 1 is now marked as memorial day in Newfoundland and the regiment is commemorated at the Newfoundland Memorial site near Beaumont-Hamel.