Calling Up the Empire: The British Military Use of Non-White Labor in France, 1916-1920

TitleCalling Up the Empire: The British Military Use of Non-White Labor in France, 1916-1920
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication1990
AuthorsKilson, Robin
Date Published1990

This dissertation examines how Britain sought to use a key resource of empire--namely, labor supply--in the First World War, the contradictions of racism and ideology this entailed, and the impulses towards transformation of her rule abroad that were generated. Britain's labor requirements in support of the trench warfare in France between 1914 and 1918 were enormous, and satisfied largely by the importation of some 230,000 non-white contract laborers from her colonies and dependencies, and from China, as well as by extensive exploitation of German POW labor. I approach the question from four distinct perspectives: (1) the development of official policy concerning the use of imported labor in France; (2) the experience of the workers there; (3) the economic and political impact of their importation on their home countries during and after the war; and (4) the overall implications of the wartime labor expedient on general imperial policy. To understand the development of official policy means examining British imperial ideology and assumptions about race relations. What tasks were colonial laborers deemed suited for? This issue was the theme of continued policy debate in London and in the colonial areas. These policy debates allow a first level of study. The actual economic organization of colonial labor comprises a second. The reservoirs of labor included South Africa, India, Egypt, the West Indies, and China. For three of these areas--Egypt, India and the West Indies--I study recruitment, contract details, training, utilization, and the reintegration of labor forces into their home economies after the war. This research task involves in turn a study of logistics and labor. Given that the war was the largest sustained military effort Britain had ever undertaken, that fighting was spread along an almost 500-mile front, and Britain's own male population had to be used for fighting itself, the needs were huge. How did colonial labor, with its multiplicity of skills and its different levels of integration into Western national societies and the British industrial economy, meet these requirements? This study contributes to our understanding of wartime economic organization and of an important interval in the history of Britain's dependencies.

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