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The Empire and the First World War, Episode 82 - 06/06/06


The troops of India in Orleans, in 1914.(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

The troops of India in Orleans, in 1914.
(Getty Images)
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The title, First World War was invented by the Germans. The British, called it the European War or the Great War.

The Germans got it right because that conflict was world wide - a war among the German, French, Italian and British empires, not just the imperial countries themselves.

More than 65 million - that's more than the population of Britain today - fought in the 1914-18 conflict. More than half were casualties: listed wounded, missing in action or killed.

There were about 42 million Allies and 23 million within the Axis of Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria. Among the Allies there were 12 million Russians. The second biggest group were the nearly 9 million from the British Empire: 15 African countries, from Basutoland to Zanzibar. Five British Atlantic islands. More than 20 islands in the Pacific and Australasia - from Borneo to Tonga. Ten islands in the West Indies, 2 in the Mediterranean , 5 in the India Ocean plus Canada, India, Burma, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Singapore.

However, not all members of the Empire rushed to the colours. For example thousands of Irish volunteered. But in the immigrant communities in the Empire, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Canada, there was a reluctance and in some cases, vocal opposition, from Irish who refused to support the British.

Many saw Germany as the answer to the British empire and what they believed to be imperial suppression. This sentiment was famously expressed by Sir Roger Casement. Casement was knighted by the British government for his work exposing the treatment of Africans in the Congo notoriously ruled by the Belgians. But a knighthood did not buy Casement's silence on what he saw as an equivalent injustice - the British rule of Ireland.

Here he is writing from New York: "In this war Ireland has only one enemy, let every Irish heart, let every Irish hand, let every purse be with Germany."

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Historical Figure

Sir Roger Casement (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Sir Roger Casement
(Getty Images)
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Sir Roger Casement, 1864-1916

Irish-born (County Dublin) British consular officer who in Africa produced a report that included a condemnation of treatment of natives in the Belgian Congo. He made a similar report on the conditions for rubber workers in Brazil. In 1911 he was knighted for his work in the consular service. Casement - always an Irish patriot - soon joined the Irish Volunteers and almost immediately attempted to get German help in pushing Britain into giving Ireland independence. For Casement, Home Rule with its limitations, was not sufficient. In April 1916, Casement who had organized a planned Sinn Fein rebellion and a German arms shipment was arrested when he tried to land in Ireland from a German U-boat. He was executed in England for high treason. Part of the British effort to discredit Casement, was the rumour of his diaries suggesting homosexual relations. When they were published in 1959, many critics of the British use of these diaries, claimed that they had not been as damning as made out at the time of his arrest..

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Did You Know...

The first shots in the war were said to have been fired in Togoland

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Contemporary Sources

Despte winning a knighthood from Britain Casement supported the Germans in World War I:

"The war is England's war. The sole object of British foreign policy has been to put Germany in the false position, and to arrange for the blow to be struck by other hands. In this war, Ireland has only one enemy. Let every Irish heart, let every Irish hand, let every Irish purse be with Germany. Let Irishmen in America get ready. The day a German sea victory tolls the death knell of British tyranny at sea, it tolls the death knell of British rule in Ireland. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races. And it is only by the sword that those races can be kept from ownership of their own countries. The Anglo-Saxon alliance means a compact to ensure slavery and beget war. The true alliance to aim at for all who love peace is the friendly union of Germany, America, and Ireland. These are the true United States of the world."

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