Encountering the ‘Mother Country’: A Land of Four Nations?

Encountering the ‘Mother Country’: A Land of Four Nations?

This week, PhD student Anna Maguire (King’s College London/Imperial War Museum) discusses colonial perceptions of Britain during the First World War. Tweet her at @AnnaMaguire24 with your thoughts.

The First World War involved encounters across the globe, across divides of race, class, gender and nationality. Over four and a half million non-white men were mobilised from across the British, French and German Empires to serve alongside their white imperial counterparts.[1] The war would spread throughout East and West Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia as well as Belgium and France. The potential for cultural encounters, contact and interaction made between people and places, was vast.

My PhD thesis is exploring these colonial encounters for men mobilised from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, men of diverse racial backgrounds who had different places and status within the Empire. As well as the encounters that reinforce the image of the global war – visiting the pyramids in Egypt, befriending peasant children on tiny Greek islands, swimming in the Suez canal – one of the most significant moments across the various nationalities and ethnicities is the men’s arrival in Britain, the ‘Mother Country’, a base for training and for leave. At the heart of this world war was the metropolis that mobilised its Empire.

For the white men of New Zealand and South Africa, Britain was familiar; it was ‘home’. Many would have been born in Britain, still have family living there who they could go and visit, maybe for a ‘proper Christmas dinner’.[2] For the men of the British West Indies Regiment, however, the ‘Mother Country’ was a concept, the centre of the British Empire. What I’ve been beginning to explore is their perceptions of England and Britain in locating themselves within the Empire. Despite being the British West Indies Regiment [BWIR] and fighting for the British Empire, the way they would conceive the Mother Land in reality seems very much dependent on England.

The first regiments of the BWIR arrived into Plymouth at the end of 1915 before travelling to camp at Seaford in East Sussex. A. E. Horner, a white English padre who served with the BWIR, wrote of his men’s arrival into port.

They were almost silent…it was the awe-inspiring thought, almost incapable of being understood by the non-colonial, that here at last was England, that this was their first view of that wonderful “Mother-land” of which they had heard and read ever since they had been children, that great mother, whose children they were, whose flag they served under, and whose quarrel they had in loyalty made their own.[3]

It was arriving in England that was a symbolic moment for the men. England and Britain as the centre of the Empire were interchangeable. As they travelled by train from Plymouth to Seaford, the ‘the glorious green fields of the home-land were unfolding a panorama…which to our men must have been little short of enchanting.’[4] The green green grass was symbolic of their arrival into a spiritual homeland. Private O. M. Brown wrote, ‘Here I am in Good Old England, leading a life of Paradise. I am perfectly happy and enjoying the best of health…you should see how nicely Britain treats her men.’[5] Once again, England and Britain are symbolically equated.

Even when discussing the other nationalities present at camp, a divide is made between the English and the Scots and Irish [the Welsh are rarely a distinguished group when categorised]. Private Alexander King stated: ‘One thing that strikes me is the manner in which we are appreciated and respected by the English people. You can just imagine how it makes us darkies feel at ease in our minds.’[6] To not be rejected on racial terms by the English but to be treated with respect was of utmost importance. To be dismissed by them would put into question the West Indians’ constructed identity within the Empire. 

The conflation of England and Britain by the men of the British West Indies Regiment that comes to light in their writings retains cultural relevance. How often have the terms been interchanged in contemporary writing as Daryl Leeworthy reflected on this blog. It is also interesting in considering how Britain was taught within the Empire, as the West Indian men draw upon their textbooks. Did the Mother Country simply mean England? When coming ‘home’ meant so much to the men of West Indies and to men throughout the Empire, using a four nations framework might enable us to identify how the centre of the British Empire was really conceived.

[1] Santanu Das, ‘Experiences of Colonial Troops’, http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops

[2] Felicity Barnes, New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis [Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012]

[3] A. E. Horner, From the Islands of the Sea, pp. 11-2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Daily Gleaner, 5 January 1916.

[6] The Jamaica Times, 8 January 1916.

Anna Maguire is a PhD student at the end of her first year, undertaking an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award with King’s College London and Imperial War Museums. Her research focuses on colonial encounters during the First World War, looking specifically at the experience of troops from the West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand, using an interdisciplinary approach that crosses history and literature. She blogs about her research at http://storiesofempireandwar.wordpress.com

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