What 2 Countries Were French Mandates After Ww1 Essay

French colonial empire
Empire colonial français
Colonial empire

Left: Royal Standard of France (before French Revolution)
Right: Flag of the French Empire

All territories that were ever part of the French colonial empire
  First colonial empire (after 1534)
  Second colonial empire (after 1830)

Political structureColonial empire
 • Cartier claimed Gaspé Bay1534
 • Sale of Louisiana1803
 • Conquest of Algeria1830–1852
 • French Union1946
 • French Community1958
 • Independence of Vanuatu1980[1][2]
 • 1670 (first colonial empire peak)[3]3,400,000 km2 (1,300,000 sq mi)
 • 1920 (second colonial empire peak)[4]11,500,000 km2 (4,400,000 sq mi)
CurrencyFranc and various other currencies
Warning: Value not specified for "continent"

The French colonial empire constituted the overseas colonies, protectorates and mandate territories that came under French rule from the 16th century onward. A distinction is generally made between the "first colonial empire", that existed until 1814, by which time most of it had been lost, and the "second colonial empire", which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830. The second empire came to an end after the loss of bitter wars in Vietnam (1954) and Algeria (1962), and relatively peaceful decolonizations elsewhere after 1960.

Competing with Spain, Portugal, the Dutch United Provinces and later England, France began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India in the 17th century. A series of wars with Great Britain and other European major powers during the 18th century and early 19th century resulted in France losing nearly all of its conquests. France rebuilt a new empire mostly after 1850, concentrating chiefly in Africa as well as Indochina and the South Pacific. Republicans, at first hostile to empire, only became supportive when Germany started to build her own colonial empire. As it developed, the new empire took on roles of trade with France, especially supplying raw materials and purchasing manufactured items as well as lending prestige to the motherland and spreading French civilization and language and the Catholic religion. It also provided manpower in the World Wars.[5]

It became a moral mission to lift the world up to French standards by bringing Christianity and French culture.[citation needed] In 1884, the leading proponent of colonialism, Jules Ferry, declared; "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races." Full citizenship rights – assimilation – were offered, although in reality "assimilation was always receding [and] the colonial populations treated like subjects not citizens."[6] France sent small numbers of settlers to its empire, contrary to Great Britain and previously Spain and Portugal, with the only notable exception of Algeria, where the French settlers nonetheless always remained a small minority.

At its apex, it was one of the largest empires in history. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 11,500,000 km2 (4,400,000 sq mi) in 1920, with a population of 110 million people in 1939. In World War II, Charles de Gaulle and the Free French used the overseas colonies as bases from which they fought to liberate France. Historian Tony Chafer argues: "In an effort to restore its world-power status after the humiliation of defeat and occupation, France was eager to maintain its overseas empire at the end of the Second World War."[7] However, after 1945 anti-colonial movements began to challenge European authority. The French constitution of October 27, 1946 (Fourth Republic), established the French Union which endured until 1958. Newer remnants of the colonial empire were integrated into France as overseas departments and territories within the French Republic. These now total altogether 119,394 km² (46,098 sq. miles), which amounts to only 1% of the pre-1939 French colonial empire's area, with 2.7 million people living in them in 2013. By the 1970s, says Robert Aldrich, the last "vestiges of empire held little interest for the French." He argues, "Except for the traumatic decolonization of Algeria, however, what is remarkable is how few long-lasting effects on France the giving up of empire entailed."[8]

First French colonial empire[edit]

The Americas[edit]

See also: New France

During the 16th century, the French colonization of the Americas began. Excursions of Giovanni da Verrazzano and Jacques Cartier in the early 16th century, as well as the frequent voyages of French boats and fishermen to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland throughout that century, were the precursors to the story of France's colonial expansion.[9] But Spain's jealous protection of its foreign monopoly, and the further distractions caused in France itself in the later 16th century by the French Wars of Religion, prevented any constant efforts by France to settle colonies. Early French attempts to found colonies in Brazil, in 1555 at Rio de Janeiro ("France Antarctique") and in Florida (including Fort Caroline in 1562), and in 1612 at São Luís ("France Équinoxiale"), were not successful, due to a lack of official interest and to Portuguese and Spanish vigilance.[10]

The story of France's colonial empire truly began on 27 July 1605, with the foundation of Port Royal in the colony of Acadia in North America, in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada. A few years later, in 1608, Samuel De Champlain founded Quebec, which was to become the capital of the enormous, but sparsely settled, fur-trading colony of New France (also called Canada).[11]

New France had a rather small population, which resulted from more emphasis being placed on the fur trade rather than agricultural settlements. Due to this emphasis, the French relied heavily on creating friendly contacts with the local First Nations community. Without the appetite of New England for land, and by relying solely on Aboriginals to supply them with fur at the trading posts, the French composed a complex series of military, commercial, and diplomatic connections. These became the most enduring alliances between the French and the First Nation community. The French were, however, under pressure from religious orders to convert them to Catholicism.[12]

Through alliances with various Native American tribes, the French were able to exert a loose control over much of the North American continent. Areas of French settlement were generally limited to the St. Lawrence River Valley. Prior to the establishment of the 1663 Sovereign Council, the territories of New France were developed as mercantile colonies. It is only after the arrival of intendant Jean Talon in 1665 that France gave its American colonies the proper means to develop population colonies comparable to that of the British. Acadia itself was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Back in France there was relatively little interest in colonialism, which concentrated rather on dominance within Europe, and for most of its history, New France was far behind the British North American colonies in both population and economic development.[13][14]

In 1699, French territorial claims in North America expanded still further, with the foundation of Louisiana in the basin of the Mississippi River. The extensive trading network throughout the region connected to Canada through the Great Lakes, was maintained through a vast system of fortifications, many of them centred in the Illinois Country and in present-day Arkansas.[15]

As the French empire in North America grew, the French also began to build a smaller but more profitable empire in the West Indies. Settlement along the South American coast in what is today French Guiana began in 1624, and a colony was founded on Saint Kitts in 1625 (the island had to be shared with the English until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when it was ceded outright). The Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique founded colonies in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635, and a colony was later founded on Saint Lucia by (1650). The food-producing plantations of these colonies were built and sustained through slavery, with the supply of slaves dependent on the African slave trade. Local resistance by the indigenous peoples resulted in the Carib Expulsion of 1660.[16] France's most important Caribbean colonial possession was established in 1664, when the colony of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) was founded on the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola. In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue grew to be the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean. The eastern half of Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic) also came under French rule for a short period, after being given to France by Spain in 1695.[17]

Africa and Asia[edit]

See also: Category:French colonisation in Africa.

See also: Françafrique

French colonial expansion was not limited to the New World. In Senegal in West Africa, the French began to establish trading posts along the coast in 1624. In 1664, the French East India Company was established to compete for trade in the east. With the decay of the Ottoman Empire, in 1830 the French seized Algiers, thus beginning the colonization of French North Africa.

During the First World War, after France had suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front, they began to recruit soldiers from their African empire. By 1917, France had recruited 270,000 African soldiers.[18] Their most decorated regiments came from Morocco, but due to the ongoing Zaian War they were only able to recruit 23,000 Moroccans. African soldiers had success in the Battle of Verdun and failure in the Nivelle Offensive, but in general regardless of their usefulness, French generals did not think highly of their African troops.[18]

After the First World War, France's African war aims were not being decided by her cabinet or the official mind of the colonial ministry, but rather the leaders of the colonial movement in French Africa. The first occasion of this was in 1915–1916, when Francois Georges-Picot (both a diplomat and part of a colonial dynasty) met with the British to discuss the division of Cameroon.[18] Picot proceeded with negotiations with neither the oversight of the French president nor the cabinet. What resulted was Britain giving nine tenths of Cameroon to the French. Picot emphasized the demands of the French colonists over the French cabinet. This policy of French colonial leaders determining France's African war aims can be seen throughout much of France's empire.[19]

Colonies were established in India in Chandernagore (1673) and Pondichéry in the south east (1674), and later at Yanam (1723), Mahe (1725), and Karikal (1739) (see French India). Colonies were also founded in the Indian Ocean, on the Île de Bourbon (Réunion, 1664), Isle de France (Mauritius, 1718), and the Seychelles (1756).

Colonial conflict with Britain[edit]

Further information: France in the Seven Years' War and France in the American Revolutionary War

In the middle of the 18th century, a series of colonial conflicts began between France and Britain, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of most of the first French colonial empire and the near complete expulsion of France from the Americas. These wars were the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the American Revolution (1765–1783), the French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). It may even be seen further back in time to the first of the French and Indian Wars. This cyclic conflict is known as the Second Hundred Years' War.

Although the War of the Austrian Succession was indecisive – despite French successes in India under the French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix and Europe under Marshal Saxe – the Seven Years' War, after early French successes in Menorca and North America, saw a French defeat, with the numerically superior British (over one million to about 50 thousand French settlers) conquering not only New France (excluding the small islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon), but also most of France's West Indian (Caribbean) colonies, and all of the French Indian outposts.

While the peace treaty saw France's Indian outposts, and the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe restored to France, the competition for influence in India had been won by the British, and North America was entirely lost – most of New France was taken by Britain (also referred to as British North America), except Louisiana, which France ceded to Spain as payment for Spain's late entrance into the war (and as compensation for Britain's annexation of Spanish Florida). Also ceded to the British were Grenada and Saint Lucia in the West Indies. Although the loss of Canada would cause much regret in future generations, it excited little unhappiness at the time; colonialism was widely regarded as both unimportant to France, and immoral.[20]

Some recovery of the French colonial empire was made during the French intervention in the American Revolution, with Saint Lucia being returned to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but not nearly as much as had been hoped for at the time of French intervention. True disaster came to what remained of France's colonial empire in 1791 when Saint Domingue (the Western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola), France's richest and most important colony, was riven by a massive slave revolt, caused partly by the divisions among the island's elite, which had resulted from the French Revolution of 1789.

The slaves, led eventually by Toussaint L'Ouverture and then, following his capture by the French in 1801, by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, held their own against French, Spanish, and British opponents, and ultimately achieved independence as Empire of Haiti in 1804 (Haiti became the first black republic in the world, followed by Liberia in 1847).[21]

In the meanwhile, the newly resumed war with Britain by the French, resulted in the British capture of practically all remaining French colonies. These were restored at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, but when war resumed in 1803, the British soon recaptured them. France's repurchase of Louisiana in 1800 came to nothing, as the success of the Haitian Revolution convinced Napoleon that holding Louisiana would not be worth the cost, leading to its sale to the United States in 1803. The French attempt to establish a colony in Egypt in 1798–1801 was not successful.

Second French colonial empire (after 1830)[edit]

At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, most of France's colonies were restored to it by Britain, notably Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, French Guiana on the coast of South America, various trading posts in Senegal, the Île Bourbon (Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, and France's tiny Indian possessions; however, Britain finally annexed Saint Lucia, Tobago, the Seychelles, and the Isle de France (now Mauritius).

In 1825 Charles X sent an expedition to Haïti, resulting in the Haiti indemnity controversy.[22]

The beginnings of the second French colonial empire were laid in 1830 with the French invasion of Algeria, which was conquered over the next 17 years.

Napoleon III: 1852–70[edit]

Napoleon III doubled the area of the French overseas Empire; he established French rule in New Caledonia, and Cochinchina, established a protectorate in Cambodia (1863); and colonized parts of Africa. He joined Britain sending an army to China during Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion (1860), but French ventures to establish influence in Japan (1867) and Korea (1866) were less successful. His attempt to impose a European monarch, Maximilian I of Mexico on the Mexicans ended in a spectacular failure in 1867.

To carry out his new overseas projects, Napoleon III created a new Ministry of the Navy and the Colonies, and appointed an energetic minister, Prosper, Marquis of Chasseloup-Laubat, to head it. A key part of the enterprise was the modernization of the French Navy; he began the construction of fifteen powerful new battle cruisers powered by steam and driven by propellers; and a fleet of steam powered troop transports. The French Navy became the second most powerful in the world, after Britain's. He also created a new force of colonial troops, including elite units of naval infantry, Zouaves, the Chasseurs d'Afrique, and Algerian sharpshooters, and he expanded the Foreign Legion, which had been founded in 1831 and won fame in the Crimea, Italy and Mexico. By the end of Napoleon III's reign the French overseas territories had tripled in area; in 1870 they covered a million square kilometers, with more than five million inhabitants.[23]

New Caledonia becomes a French possession (1853–54)[edit]

On 24 September 1853, Admiral Febvrier Despointes took formal possession of New Caledonia and Port-de-France (Nouméa) was founded 25 June 1854. A few dozen free settlers settled on the west coast in the following years, but New Caledonia became a penal colony and, from the 1860s until the end of the transportations in 1897, about 22,000 criminals and political prisoners were sent to New Caledonia to be killed.[24]

Colonization of Senegal (1854–65)[edit]

Main article: French Senegal

At the beginning of Napoleon III's reign, the presence of France in Senegal was limited to a trading post on the island of Goree, a narrow strip on the coast, the town of Saint-Louis, and a handful of trading posts in the interior. The economy had largely been based on the slave trade, carried out by the rulers of the small kingdoms of the interior, until France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848. In 1854, Napoleon III named an enterprising French officer, Louis Faidherbe, to govern and expand the colony, and to give it the beginning of a modern economy. Faidherbe built a series of forts along the Senegal River, formed alliances with leaders in the interior, and sent expeditions against those who resisted French rule. He built a new port at Dakar, established and protected telegraph lines and roads, followed these with a rail line between Dakar and Saint-Louis and another into the interior. He built schools, bridges, and systems to supply fresh water to the towns. He also introduced the large-scale cultivation of Bambara groundnuts and peanuts as a commercial crop. Reaching into the Niger valley, Senegal became the primary French base in West Africa and a model colony. Dakar became one of the most important cities of the French Empire and of Africa.[25]

Intervention in China (1858–60)[edit]

In 1857, after the murder of a French priest and the arrest by the Chinese police of the crew of a British merchant ship, Napoleon III joined together with Great Britain to form a military expedition to punish the Chinese government. The object of his policy was not to take territory, but to assure that the vast and lucrative Chinese market was open to French commerce, and not the exclusive trading partner of Britain. In January 1858 a combined British and French fleet bombarded and occupied Canton, and landed troops at the mouth of the Hai River in northern China. In June 1858 the Chinese government in Peking was forced to sign the Treaty of Tientsin with Britain, France, Russia and the United States. This treaty opened six additional Chinese ports to European merchant ships, allowed Christian missionary activity, and legalized the import of opium into China.

The Chinese government was reluctant to observe the treaty, so Napoleon III and the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston decided to take more forceful action, in what became known in history as the second phase of the Second Opium War. A joint French-British expeditionary force of 8,000 men was created under a French general, Charles Cousin-Montauban, who had commanded French forces in Algeria. At the beginning of 1860 the French-British fleet sailed from Europe, and in the spring of 1860 landed the army in China. The Anglo-French army force, led by Cousin-Montauban, captured Tientsin, and then marched on the capital. On 21 September 1860 it defeated the army of the Chinese emperor at the Battle of Palikao and seized the capital Beijing. At the orders of the British commander Lord Elgin, the British and French forces burned and pillaged the Old Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperor. On 25 October 1860, the Chinese Emperor was obliged to accept a second treaty of Tientsin, opening an additional eleven new ports to European trade, making westerners immune to prosecution by Chinese courts, and establishing western diplomatic missions in Beijing. Some of the art objects taken from the looted Summer Palace were carried to France, where the Empress used them to decorate a Chinese-themed salon at the Palace of Fontainebleau, where they can be seen today.[26]

France in Korea and Japan (1866–68)[edit]

Main article: French campaign against Korea (1866)

In 1866, French diplomats in China learned that French priests had been arrested and executed in Korea, a country which had had no diplomatic or commercial contact with Europe or America. Twelve Catholic priests at the time were living in Korea, with an estimated 23,000 Korean converts, belonging to churches founded by French missionaries in the 18th century. In January 1866, King Gojong and his father, the regent, ordered the execution of most of the French priests, and ten thousand converts. A squadron of French ships, carrying eight hundred naval infantry, attempted retaliation but made little headway.[27]

In Japan the Meiji Emperor, and his enemies, the Tokugawa shogunate, both sought French military training and technology in their battle for power, known as the Boshin War. In 1867, a military mission to Japan played a key role in modernizing the troops of the shōgunTokugawa Yoshinobu, and even participated on his side against Imperial troops during the Boshin war. The European representative of the Shogunate, Shibata Takenaka, approached both Britain and France, asking assistance to build a modern shipyard and to train the Shogunate army in modern western warfare. The shipyard, which became the naval base of Yokosuka, was designed by the French engineer Leonce Verny. The British, who supported the imperial faction, declined to provide trainers, but Napoleon III agreed, and in 1867 dispatched a delegation of nineteen French military experts in the fields of infantry, cavalry and artillery to Japan. They trained an elite corps, called the Denshutai, to fight on the side of the shōgun.

On the other side, the Emperor purchased from the United States a French-built ironclad warship, renamed the Kotetsu (literally "ironclad"). It played an important role in the first modern naval battle fought in Japan. By 1868, the Imperial forces had won a decisive victory. French influence in the Japanese navy remained strong.[28]

France in Indochina and the Pacific (1858–70)[edit]

Napoleon III also acted to increase the French presence in Indochina. An important factor in his decision was the belief that France risked becoming a second-rate power by not expanding its influence in East Asia. Deeper down was the sense that France owed the world a civilizing mission.[29]

French missionaries had been active in Vietnam since the 17th century, when the Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes opened a mission there. In 1858 the Vietnamese emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty felt threatened by the French influence and tried to expel the missionaries. Napoleon III sent a naval force of fourteen gunships, carrying three thousand French and three thousand Filipino troops provided by Spain, under Charles Rigault de Genouilly, to compel the government to accept the missionaries and to stop the persecution of Catholics. In September 1858 the expeditionary force captured and occupied the port of Da Nang, and then in February 1859 moved south and captured Saigon. The Vietnamese ruler was compelled to cede three provinces to France, and to offer protection to the Catholics. The French troops departed for a time to take part in the expedition to China, but in 1862, when the agreements were not fully followed by the Vietnamese emperor, they returned. The Emperor was forced to open treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin, and all of Cochinchina became a French territory in 1864.

In 1863, the ruler of Cambodia, King Norodom, who had been placed in power by the government of Thailand, rebelled against his sponsors and sought the protection of France. The Thai Emperor granted authority over Cambodia to France, in exchange for two provinces of Laos, which were ceded by Cambodia to Thailand. In 1867, Cambodia formally became a protectorate of France.

Intervention in Syria and Lebanon (1860–61)[edit]

In the spring of 1860, a war broke out in Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire, between the quasi-Muslim Druze population and the Maronite Christians. The Ottoman authorities in Lebanon could not stop the violence, and it spread into neighboring Syria, with the massacre of many Christians. In Damascus, the Emir Abd-el-Kadr protected the Christians there against the Muslim rioters. Napoleon III felt obliged to intervene on behalf of the Christians, despite the opposition of London, which feared it would lead to a wider French presence in the Middle East. After long and difficult negotiations to obtain the approval of the British government, Napoleon III sent a French contingent of seven thousand men for a period of six months. The troops arrived in Beirut in August 1860, and took positions in the mountains between the Christian and Muslim communities. Napoleon III organized an international conference in Paris, where the country was placed under the rule of a Christian governor named by the Ottoman Sultan, which restored a fragile peace. The French troops departed in June 1861, after just under one year. The French intervention alarmed the British, but was highly popular with the powerful Catholic political faction in France, which had been alarmed by Napoleon's dispute with the Pope over his territories in Italy.[30]


Algeria had been formally under French rule since 1830, but only in 1852 was the country entirely conquered. There were about a hundred thousand European settlers in the country, at that time, about half of them French. Under the Second Republic the country was ruled by a civilian government, but Louis Napoleon re-established a military government, much to the annoyance of the colonists. By 1857 the army had conquered Kabyle Province, and pacified the country. By 1860 the European population had grown to two hundred thousand, and the land of the Algerians was being rapidly bought and farmed by the new arrivals.[31]

In the first eight years of his rule Napoleon III paid little attention to Algeria. In September 1860, however, he and the Empress Eugénie visited Algeria, and the trip made a deep impression upon them. Eugénie was invited to attend a traditional Arab wedding, and the Emperor met many of the local leaders. The Emperor gradually conceived the idea that Algeria should be governed differently from other colonies. in February 1863, he wrote a public letter to Pelissier, the Military Governor, saying: "Algeria is not a colony in the traditional sense, but an Arab kingdom; the local people have, like the colonists, a legal right to my protection. I am just as much the Emperor of the Arabs of Algeria as I am of the French." He intended to rule Algeria through a government of Arab aristocrats. Toward this end he invited the chiefs of main Algerian tribal groups to his chateau at Compiegne for hunting and festivities.[32]

Compared to previous administrations, Napoleon III was far more sympathetic to the native Algerians.[33] He halted European migration inland, restricting them to the coastal zone. He also freed the Algerian rebel leader Abd al Qadir (who had been promised freedom on surrender but was imprisoned by the previous administration) and gave him a stipend of 150,000 francs. He allowed Muslims to serve in the military and civil service on theoretically equal terms and allowed them to migrate to France. In addition, he gave the option of citizenship; however, for Muslims to take this option they had to accept all of the French civil code, including parts governing inheritance and marriage which conflicted with Muslim laws, and they had to reject the competence of religious Sharia courts. This was interpreted by some Muslims as requiring them to give up parts of their religion to obtain citizenship and was resented.

More importantly, Napoleon III changed the system of land tenure. While ostensibly well-intentioned, in effect this move destroyed the traditional system of land management and deprived many Algerians of land. While Napoleon did renounce state claims to tribal lands, he also began a process of dismantling tribal land ownership in favour of individual land ownership. This process was corrupted by French officials sympathetic to the French in Algeria who took much of the land they surveyed into public domain. In addition, many tribal leaders, chosen for loyalty to the French rather than influence in their tribe, immediately sold communal land for cash.[34]

His attempted reforms were interrupted in 1864 by an Arab insurrection, which required more than a year and an army of 85,000 soldiers to suppress. Nonetheless, he did not give up his idea of making Algeria a model where French colonists and Arabs could live and work together as equals. He traveled to Algiers for a second time on 3 May 1865, and this time he remained for a month, meeting with tribal leaders and local officials. He offered a wide amnesty to participants of the insurrection, and promised to name Arabs to high positions in his government. He also promised a large public works program of new ports, railroads, and roads. However, once again his plans met a major natural obstacle' in 1866 and 1867, Algeria was struck by an epidemic of cholera, clouds of locusts, draught and famine, and his reforms were hindered by the French colonists, who voted massively against him in the plebiscites of his late reign.[35]

French Intervention in Mexico (1862–67)[edit]

Main articles: French intervention in Mexico and Second Mexican Empire

In December 1862, the conservative Mexican government was overthrown by Benito Juarez, who established a secular state and refused to pay the internal and external debts of the old government. France was the largest owner of the debt, owed 135 million gold francs of the 260 million francs total. The rest of the debt was owed to Britain (85 million francs) and Spain (40 million). Under an 1861 agreement, France, Britain and Spain organized a joint military force to compel the Mexican government to pay. A British-French flotilla of ships arrived at VeraCruz in December 1861 and landed 7500 French soldiers and 700 British soldiers, joined later by 6000 Spanish soldiers from Cuba.

Juarez opened negotiations with the international force, but it soon became evident that the French expedition had a more ambitious objective than debt repayment. Napoleon III and the Empress had been intensively lobbied by Mexican émigrés in Europe, who proposed that France establish a new conservative and Catholic government in Mexico, under a European monarch. Napoleon III was told that the new monarch would be welcomed by the entire Mexican population. He consented to launch the operation if the new monarch would be approved by a national plebiscite, as he had been. The monarch selected for this task was the Archduke Maximilian, the brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph II, and husband of Charlotte, daughter of the King of Belgium.

When the British and Spanish realized the French goals, they withdrew from the expedition, but the French marched on Mexico City. The first attempt by General Lorencez was repulsed by the forces of General Ignacio Zaragoza at Puebla on 5 May 1862, the first defeat of a French Army since Waterloo. Napoleon III appointed a new commander, General Forey, one of the victors of Solferino, and sent 23,000 fresh soldiers. Napoleon III believed that the Mexican people would embrace the new government. He also knew that the government of the United States would be unable to prevent it, even though it was in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, because of the American Civil War then underway, and the implicit support provided by the neighboring Confederate States of America.[36]

The reinforced French army under Forey launched a new offensive from March to June 1863. After bitter resistance, the defenders of Mexico City surrendered on 7 June 1863. Forey, disregarding Napoleon III's instructions not to install a monarch without a popular plebiscite, organized an assembly of Mexican notables who proclaimed the Mexican Empire and invited Maximilian I of Mexico to rule. Ruling President Benito Juárez and his Republican forces retreated to the countryside and fought against the French troops and the Mexican monarchists.

Maximilian was a reluctant Emperor, not arriving in Mexico until June 1864. One of his first acts was to sign an agreement that Mexico would repay France the entire cost of the war. The combined Mexican monarchist and French forces won victories up until 1865, but then the tide began to turn against them, in part because the American Civil War had ended. The U.S. government demanded that France withdraw its soldiers from Mexico. Facing a guerilla war and a financial catastrophe, the Emperor Maximilian became more and more depressed, leaving the capital for long periods and allowing the Empress Carlotta to reign. Not willing to have a war with the United States, Napoleon III decided at the beginning of 1866 to withdraw French troops from Mexico. In 1863 Maximilian had sent Carlotta to Europe to appeal for funds and support. She appealed to Napoleon III, but he refused to provide more troops or money. During her tour of European courts, she lost and never regained her sanity. Maximilian refused pleas that he depart, and fought against the growing partisan army of Juarez. He was captured, judged, and shot on 19 June 1867.

The misadventure in Mexico cost the lives of six thousand French soldiers and 336 million francs, in a campaign originally designed to collect 60 million francs. It also aroused the hostility of both the United States and Austria, which had lost a member of its royal family. It was also a distraction to Napoleon III, on the eve of his coming confrontation with Prussia.[37]

  • The execution of Maximilian I on 19 June 1867, as painted by Edouard Manet. The intervention in Mexico was a disaster for French foreign policy.

French–British relations[edit]

Despite the signing of the 1860 Cobden–Chevalier Treaty, a historic free trade agreement between Britain and France, and the joint operations conducted by France and Britain in the Crimea, China and Mexico, diplomatic relations between Britain and France never became close. Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister from 1846 to 1851 and prime minister from 1855 to 1865, sought to maintain the balance of power in Europe; this rarely involved an alignment with France. In 1859 there were even briefly fears that France might try to invade Britain.[38] Palmerston was suspicious of France's interventions in Lebanon, Southeast Asia and Mexico. Palmerston was also concerned that France might intervene in the American Civil War (1861–65) on the side of the South.[39] The British also felt threatened by the construction of the Suez Canal (1859–1869) by Ferdinand de Lesseps in Egypt. They tried to oppose its completion by diplomatic pressures and by promoting revolts among workers.[40]

The Suez Canal was successfully built by the French, but became a joint British-French project in 1875. Both nations saw it as vital to maintaining their influence and empires in Asia. In 1882, ongoing civil disturbances in Egypt prompted Britain to intervene, extending a hand to France. France's leading expansionist Jules Ferry was out of office, and Paris allowed London to take effective control of Egypt.[41]

French–U.S. relations[edit]

Main article: France in the American Civil War

During 1861 to 1862, at the beginning of the American Civil War, Napoleon III considered recognizing the Confederacy in order to protect his operations in Mexico. Washington repeatedly warned that this meant war but the emperor kept this option open, hoping to get Britain as an ally. The Union blockade of southern ports stopped the supply of cotton to textile mills in France, and caused unemployment. The Confederacy had put their faith in "King Cotton" diplomacy, expecting that the cutoff of cotton supplies would cause Britain and France to declare war to reopen the trade. Through 1862, Napoleon III met unofficially with Confederate diplomats, raising their hopes that he would unilaterally recognize the Confederacy. France was too weak to act without collaboration with the British, who after much wavering finally rejected intervention as not worth the heavy risk of losing American food exports. Napoleon realized that a war with the U.S. without allies "would spell disaster" for France.[42] In 1863 the Confederacy realized there was no longer any chance of intervention, and expelled the French and British consuls, who were advising their citizens not to enlist in the Confederate Army. In 1865, the United States stationed a large combat Army near the Mexican border as a warning sign. Napoleon III pulled the French troops out, and the "emperor" he had imposed on Mexico was captured and shot.[43][44][45]

After 1870[edit]

Most Frenchmen ignored foreign affairs and colonial issues. In 1914 the chief pressure group was the Parti colonial, a coalition of 50 organizations with a combined total of 5000 members.[46]


It was only after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the founding of the Third Republic (1871–1940) that most of France's later colonial possessions were acquired. From their base in Cochinchina, the French took over Tonkin (in modern northern Vietnam) and Annam (in modern central Vietnam) in 1884–1885. These, together with Cambodia and Cochinchina, formed French Indochina in 1887 (to which Laos was added in 1893 and Guangzhouwan[47] in 1900). In 1849, the French concession in Shanghai was established, lasting until 1946.[48] The French also had concessions in Guangzhou and Hankou (now part of Wuhan).[49]


France also extended its influence in North Africa after 1870, establishing a protectorate in Tunisia in 1881 with the Bardo Treaty. Gradually, French control crystallised over much of North, West, and Central Africa by around the start of the 20th century (including the modern states of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Benin, Niger,

Map of the first (green) and second (blue) French colonial empires
French Northern America was known as 'Nouvelle France' or New France
1767 Louis XV Colonies Françoises (West Indies) 12 Diniers copper Sous (w/1793 "RF" counterstamp)
Carte de L'Indoustan. Bellin, 1770
Animated map showing the growth and decline of the first and second French colonial empires
The last photograph of Napoleon III (1872)
The Anglo-French forces pillage China's Summer Palace, October 1860.
Napoleon III tried unsuccessfully to place Maximilian I, brother of the Austrian Emperor, on the throne of Mexico.
French colonies in 1891 (from Le Monde illustré).
1. Panorama of Lac-Kaï, French outpost in China.
2. Yun-nan, in the quay of Hanoi.
3. Flooded street of Hanoi.
4. Landing stage of Hanoi


From a colonial perspective the First World War did not end cleanly. Major combat operations on the Western Front may have ceased on 11 November 1918, but a raft of smaller conflicts, some of which had emerged out of the upheavals of 1914-1918 and others which were only tangentially related to the Great War, lingered on into the immediate post-war years. For example, it was not until spring 1919 that, rather belatedly, German efforts launched at the start of the war to stoke an Afghan challenge to the British Raj actually bore fruit. The Third Anglo-Afghan War was more than just a continuation of the seemingly interminable struggle between British imperial and Afghan forces along India’s north-western frontier. It was, in part, the continuation of Germany’sWeltkrieg, an attempt to globalise the European struggle of 1914-1918 in order to distract the Entente powers from the main theatre of operations.[1] Unfortunately for Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941), the German army was defeated on the Western Front before this globalisation of the war could achieve its aim of forcing the British to choose between a European victory and their empire.

The Third Anglo-Afghan War was not an isolated event in the wake of the First World War. Indeed, the decade following 1918 saw a major inter-state conflict being replaced by myriad smaller ones, often within collapsing states and imperial polities. This was a point not lost on contemporaries. In particular it was noted by, and arguably defined the thinking of, the arch-pessimist of Britain’s post-war situation, General Sir Henry Wilson (1864-1922), the British army’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff. In a letter to Reginald Brett, Lord Esher (1852-1930) on 14 November 1919, Wilson argued that there were between twenty and thirty conflicts taking place around the world.[2] A year after its end, the much fabled "war to end all wars" had not brought peace and stability. Wilson’s sense of resignation with regards to the post-war situation only grew during the following years. By the time he retired he was forthright in expressing the view that the British Empire was far worse off than it had been at the start of the First World War. His farewell address to the Staff College on 21 December 1921 was entitled "The Passing of Empire," which neatly summarised his attitude about his term as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.[3] For Wilson, with Ireland having forced its way to independence, Egypt on the brink of negotiating a new settlement and India racked by mass political upheavals, the British imperial system seemed to be on the verge of collapse. This was a story, as Wilson saw it, not just of the flowering of anti-colonial nationalist movements, which were willing to use popular protest and violence to achieve their aims, but also of the inability of the British colonial state to deal with internal dissent. The loss of Ireland was thus the culmination of a persistent "lack of government," with politicians retreating from the difficult choices that the post-war world posed for the empire.

This tale of imperial woe was not confined to the British. The war left France with at least 1.3 million dead, worsening their demographic-military deficit within Europe. Such a costly victory did not provide France with the opportunity to rule over and develop its colonial territories in peace. Throughout the interwar years, the French Empire suffered numerous uprisings and witnessed the rapid development of anti-colonial nationalist movements. By the mid-1920s, Syria and Morocco had been torn apart by armed revolts. These were only contained through extensive and bloody military campaigns. In 1930-1931 French Indochina experienced a sustained uprising across significant portions of the colony, with much of the unrest led by the Indochinese Communist Party, a political force that would come to shape the region’s post-colonial future. Smaller-scale unrest also rocked France’s African possessions during the 1920s and 1930s. The Kongo Wara (meaning "the war of the hoe handle"), which broke out in June 1928, lasted for three years and demonstrated the limitations of French colonial rule in the African interior.[4]

One way of examining this post-war transition is to focus in on the confusion of the aftermath of the conflict, to highlight the violence and dislocation over attempts at imposing order and cohesion. This is a methodology that has been well-developed for the upheavals experienced between 1917 and 1923 in the European dynastic empires of the Habsburgs, Romanovs, Hohenzollerns and Ottomans.[5] In central and eastern Europe, competing revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces stepped into the power vacuums left by the collapse of these imperial regimes. Within the extra-European colonial world during the Great War and its aftermath, with the exception of the Middle East, comparable power vacuums were relatively infrequent. When they did occur they were rapidly filled by competing imperial powers. In the colonies of Togoland and the Cameroons for instance, German colonial administration was replaced by French and British rule during the first half of the war.[6] In many other parts of the colonial world, the First World War offered little opportunity for a change in the colonial regime. Crucial French possessions, such as Algeria and Indochina, or the key elements in the British world system, India, Egypt and the white settler Dominions, remained unchanged at the end of the war.

Even Portugal and Italy, respectively the weakest and newest extra-European colonial powers before the First World War, were able to retain their tenuous control over territories such as Libya and Mozambique in the conflict’s aftermath. This was despite the fact that maladministration, military incompetence and a complete inability to invest in and economically develop their colonies ensured that the Portuguese and Italian colonial states only had a tentative hold over their subject peoples. Both faced significant colonial uprisings during the course of the war, far worse than those experienced by Britain or France. In Libya, Italy lost control of most of its territory, with its administration pushed back to a small number of coastal towns. At Misrata in April 1915, over 1,000 troops were killed in a clash with Senussi rebels. It was left to the British to contain the jihadist threat along the Libyan-Egyptian border, while the Italians ceded de facto control of much of Cyrenaica to the indigenous population.[7]

For Portugal the war was an imperial disaster. Both Angola and Mozambique experienced numerous anti-colonial rebellions, fuelled in part by German military incursions. The use of local auxiliaries to suppress rebel movements only served to increase the fragility of the Portuguese Empire in Africa and exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions and rivalries.[8] Despite the chaos of the wartime experience for both the Italian and Portuguese Empires, their decision to join the Entente cause ensured that they ultimately emerged from the war with their empires intact. Moreover, numerous colonialist politicians in both states, notably the Italian Foreign Minister Gaspare Colosimo (1859-1944) and Portuguese Prime Minister Afonso Costa (1871-1937), saw the war as an opportunity to promote their respective imperial causes, although with varying degrees of success.

These examples drawn from the varied Allied experience of 1914-1918 suggest that the East and Central European model of imperial collapse as the defining element of the Great War experience cannot survive beyond the boundaries of Europe. In many respects the Middle East offers the greatest insight into how the colonial empires of the victorious powers, principally France and Britain, experienced the aftermath of the First World War. Here Ottoman imperial authority had been progressively eroded over four years of bitter fighting and witnessed the strenuous mobilisation of local populations and economies across the empire.[9] The five years following Ottoman collapse in October 1918 saw Britain and France jockeying for power across the Middle Eastern world, attempting to fill the post-Ottoman imperial power vacuum with new colonial states. European powers were not the only contestants in this process, coming up against nascent Arab nationalist movements and a flourishing Zionist cause. The Middle East fits neatly into the conception of an imperial "shatter zone" in the wake of the First World War, with states and sub-state actors vying for power. Moreover, this was a region of imperial experimentation, where ideas for a new form of imperial rule – the League of Nations’ mandate system – were put into practice. Mandates were applied to multiple colonial territories around the world but it was in the Middle East that they proved most contentious and where this attempt at international oversight of colonial rule often failed.

European colonial empires in the first half of the 20th century were vast polities, encompassing a bewildering range of landscapes, peoples, religions and cultures. Inevitably, given the limitations of space, this article will only touch on a small selection from this diverse mix. As an imperial "shatter zone" that witnessed nationalist revolt, the imposition of new colonial regimes, and attempts at high-minded international control, the Middle East provides the contextual backbone to the argument which follows on the colonial empires after the First World War. Space also precludes a wide-ranging survey across all of the European colonial empires. The Dutch, Belgian, Italian and Portuguese experiences, although significant for the colonial administrations and subject populations involved, did not play a defining part in global power relations after the Great War. The focus here is on Britain and France, the principal extra-European colonial powers in 1914 which remained dominant, if not even more so, on the imperial stage at the war’s end. It was, after all, the division of the war’s spoils between these two imperial powers which would govern the discussions at the peace conferences for the five years following the war and continue to shape international relations into the late 1930s. France and Britain were great powers when they went to war in 1914, in part, because of their status as colonial powers. This picture was not altered by the events of the First World War. In some respects, their great power status was only enhanced by the conflict, as former rivals, namely the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, disappeared in its wake.

At the heart of the story of the French and British colonial empires in the aftermath of the First World War is the question of whether the conflict marked a shift towards decolonisation. 1914-1918 can be seen as paralleling, or anticipating, the events that would follow thirty years later when the Second World War invigorated a series of anti-colonial nationalist movements that would ultimately pull down the imperial edifice by the mid-1960s.[10] The changes in sovereignty inherent in decolonisation, as well as the related alterations in social, cultural and economic norms associated with the collapse of colonial regimes, had their roots in the events of 1917-1918. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 seemingly heralded a new age in which imperial rule could no longer survive as oppressed subject populations mobilised politically. Woodrow Wilson’s (1856-1924)Fourteen Points Speech in January 1918 pushed the idea of an altered international framework even further.[11] He was clear that America would not accept an annexationist peace at the end of hostilities, one in which the colonial powers would merely reshuffle the imperial deck. Instead, national self-determination became the guiding principle. By November 1918, the dominance of Wilsonian and Bolshevik thinking on an end to imperial aggrandisement had even resulted in an Anglo-French declaration that self-determination should be applied to the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire. The world of autumn 1918 was one which felt very unsafe, particularly in ideological respects, for the colonial empires, both victorious and defeated.

This imperial insecurity was only enhanced by Wilson and Vladimir Lenin’s (1870-1924) ideas which were tearing up the old imperial regimes of central and eastern Europe. Revolutionary upheaval had become the norm across Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary by the end of 1918. In this bloody world of revolution and counter-revolution the European dynastic empires did not survive: Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on 9 November 1918, Charles I, Emperor of Austria (1887-1922) went into exile on 12 November and Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868-1918), forced out in 1917, was executed a year later. From this perspective, the First World War had unleashed a wave of decolonisation within Europe.

This was nowhere better illustrated than in the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, which before the war had dominated vast swathes of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus and helped to define Russia’s great power status. As Joshua Sanborn has illustrated, the upheavals involved in mobilising the imperial state and its disparate peoples to fight the First World War proved far too great a challenge.[12] In particular, the imposition of martial law along the Eastern Front battle zone and deep into its rear areas, served primarily to undermine the legitimacy of the centralised imperial administration as local officials and military commanders competed for control. Much more worryingly, it unleashed an ethno-political dynamic, often brutally violent in nature, which tore at the already tenuous unity of the empire. When the Tsarist imperial regime fell in 1917 followed by the collapse of the Provisional Government, events precipitated as much by battlefield defeat as internal economic and political mismanagement, a raft of ethno-nationalist polities emerged in the Russian Empire’s borderlands. It was here that local officials, nationalist politicians, warlords and "White" opponents stepped into the power vacuum provided by the collapse of the state to forge new local and regional regimes. By the close of the civil war in 1921 the Bolsheviks had succeeded in quelling the vast majority of these challengers. Finland, the Baltic states and Poland had, however, broken free of Moscow; for these new nations the First World War and its aftermath represented a clear decolonising moment. For the peoples of Ukraine, the Caucasus and central Asia the reverse was true. Although having briefly tasted freedom from Russian control, by the early 1920s the Bolsheviks had succeeded in re-colonising these borderland areas, the only difference being that imperial authority was now replaced by the centralised control of the party machine.

The concept of re-colonisation was also evident in the manner in which the German Empire viewed aspects of its war on the Eastern Front.[13] Military success against the Russian Army produced a new imperial domain, formerly on the fringe of the Russian Empire, which now came under German control. For expansionist-minded sections of the German military, as well as right-wing radicals and state bureaucrats, this new colonial space offered a chance to build a buffer zone against future Russian aggression. Moreover, it provided a new region of settlement and colonisation at exactly the moment when Germany’s extra-European empire was being dismantled by Allied military campaigns. By 1918, Germany’s colonies in South-West Africa had been overrun and in east Africa Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s (1870-1964) forces were increasingly harried, although largely undefeated, and in the Pacific and China Germany’s holdings had been eviscerated in acts of sub-imperial aggrandisement by Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Eastern Europe, in particular the unrealised opportunities provided by Ukraine to sustain the German war effort through its grain supplies, offered a chance to turn the tide of the conflict through imperial expansion. German defeat on the Western Front ensured that such dreams of a continental empire, with all its ethnic complexities, were destroyed by the end of 1918. The challenge of Bolshevism – both an internal and an external one in the wake of the war – and the emasculation of Germany’s extra-European empire at Versailles ensured, however, that dreams of colonising Eastern Europe would not be forgotten in the interwar years. These would emerge, reinvigorated and based around a destructive ethno-political ideology, as central to the Nazi "imperial" project of the 1930s and 1940s.

The idea of the First World War as a decolonising moment influenced the victorious colonial powers as well. For much of the interwar period, the spectre of imperial collapse, not least that instigated by the Bolshevik Revolution, would haunt colonial administrators in London, Paris and peripheral territories, as well as inspire many anti-colonial nationalists.[14] The British and French colonial empires, however, survived this moment of decolonisation intact, and even enhanced. As A.S. Kanya-Forstner has suggested, the First World War had little import as a decolonising moment for Britain and France, although it did suggest the inherent vulnerabilities of their imperial systems.[15] In this light it is possible to read into Henry Wilson’s fears in 1921 a prescient, rather than paranoid, sense that the European colonial regimes – his assessment of Britain could easily be applied to France – were already fundamentally weakened and that their end was only a matter of time. This is the supposition this article will tackle: to what extent were the British and French colonial regimes teetering on the brink of their demise in the wake of the First World War?

Mobilising and Demobilising the Colonial Empires↑

In order to grasp the shifts in the nature of colonial rule in the wake of the Great War, it is first necessary to consider how the colonial empires mobilised and adapted to fight the conflict. For France and Britain their colonial territories were a vast reservoir of vital raw materials which could fuel their industrial war efforts. More importantly, their empires provided manpower on such a scale as to offset their quantitative disadvantages on European battlefields. During 1914-1918 the Entente deployed over 650,000 soldiers from its colonies in Europe. France, in particular, was heavily reliant on the men it enlisted from its African possessions which contributed 172,800 Algerians, 134,300 West Africans, 60,000 Tunisians, 37,300 Moroccans and 34,400 Madagascans to the defence of the metropole.[16] This reliance on imperial troops was remarkable given the fact that no Third Republic government had previously given serious consideration to drawing on its African manpower reserves. The idea of reinforcing France’s military potential within Europe through the deployment of African soldiers had previously been floated by the powerful colonialist lobby. Adolphe Messimy (1869-1935) had argued for an Algerian army of 100,000 men and Colonel Charles Mangin (1866-1925) advocated for an even larger force noire with which to repel European opponents. These schemes met with little success prior to 1914. As a consequence, France only had 35,000 Algerians and 30,000 tirailleurs sénégalais under arms when it went to war.[17]

The appalling losses endured by the French Army on the Western Front meant that colonial manpower would increasingly take on a greater share of the fighting. By the time Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) had become premier in November 1917, French Africa had provided an additional 270,000 troops. Recruiting in the colonial empire relied both on volunteers and conscription, with the balance shifting increasingly towards the latter as the war dragged on and tales of the horrors of the front line were disseminated by returning injured veterans.[18] Casualty rates in front line colonial units were high, particularly among tirailleurs sénégalais who came to be used as shock troops in the latter years of the war. 31,000 French African troops were killed during the war with an overall loss rate of 22 percent, comparable to that of French infantry.[19] The perils of military service and the growing exactions placed on French colonies to meet recruiting targets led to resistance from subject populations. In Algeria, a rebellion around Batna in late 1916 acted as a break on the colonial administration’s attempts to extract men. Armed protest was not the only way to resist the colonial state’s need for manpower. On reaching villages, recruiters in West Africa increasingly found that young men suitable for military service had fled into the bush or were malingering with self-inflicted wounds. However, uprisings in Western Volta in 1915-16 and Dahomey in 1916-17 were only partly attributable to the demand for wartime military manpower. Bringing the mobilisation methods of "total war" to the periphery of empire was often the final step that exacerbated longer-term problems of limited local legitimacy facing colonial administrations.

British imperial recruiters experienced many of the same obstacles when trying to extract manpower from colonies in Africa and South Asia. Indeed, colonial recruiting mechanisms themselves were often far from perfect, heightening the difficulties faced when trying to get recalcitrant colonial subjects to sign up for military service often far from home and in defence of a remote imperial regime. In November 1914, a colonel carrying out a recruiting tour of local villages near Amritsar in northern India found himself to be one of forty-two competing regimental recruiting parties in the neighbourhood. Despite such obstacles Britain was able to raise a considerable imperial army during the course of the First World War. In particular, India proved a fertile recruiting ground, providing nearly 1.5 million combatants and non-combatants.[20] As with France, Britain recruited extensively in Africa and the King’s African Rifles grew to be 30,000-men strong by the end of the war.[21] More staggering was the enlistment of even larger numbers of Africans to serve as porters and labourers along the tenuous lines of communication necessitated by campaigns in Africa where road links were often non-existent and horse-borne transport was impossible due to disease. British West African colonies raised 57,500 carriers, East Africa and Nyasaland provided 200,000 each and Uganda 19,000. The East African campaign was fought on the backs of African labour.[22]

It was not only colonial soldiers who contributed to the French and British imperial war efforts. As important were the large numbers of civilian labourers recruited to work in French factories, maintain the lines of communication and run the array of support services that modern armies required to wage a "total war" on the Western Front. Nearly 50,000 Indochinese workers served alongside 35,000 Moroccans, 18,500 Tunisians and 76,000 Algerians. Britain deployed 215,000 labourers from the colonial world to Europe, including over 31,000 black South Africans and 92,000 Chinese workers.[23] The First World War was not only a moment of military upheaval but one of mass migration, with labouring populations flowing around the world to meet wartime demand. This was a process highly disruptive to colonial economies, particularly those based on manpower-intensive agrarian production.

The mobilisation of the British and French colonial empires during the First World War offers striking contrasts in attitudes to the use of colonial soldiers which would greatly shape post-war political agitation in colonial territories. In the British case voluntarism remained the guiding principle. With the exception of New Zealand and Canada, Britain’s imperial army was made up of volunteers. In India and Africa, by the later stages of the war, the nature of this voluntarism was open to question. Inducements from recruiting parties, pressure on local community elders and what amounted to press gangs all became common. In contrast, French recruitment made use of conscription, fundamentally altering the relationship between the imperial combatant and colonial state; this opened up a dangerous route to claims of citizenship derived from collective blood sacrifice in defence of the metropole.

The different uses to which these colonial armies were put is also striking. In the French case, West and North African troops were primarily recruited to defend France from German aggression, a task which required their deployment on European battlefields. For Britain, non-white colonial troops, with the exception of the Indian Corps on the Western Front in 1914-1915, were used for combat outside Europe, primarily in the Middle East and Africa. France mobilised its colonies to defend the metropole, whereas Britain’s colonies were mobilised at first to defend the empire, then to expand it.

Britain’s decision to use colonial resources to wage a principally imperial war in 1914-18 would come to shape the post-war peace settlements, particularly as they were applied to the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. In a very basic sense, by November 1918 Britain possessed a clear strategic advantage in the Middle East. Indian Army formations occupied much of the territory from Egypt to Mesopotamia. On the other hand, French ambitions, as evinced by the colonialist lobby and selected ministers rather than the government, to rule over a Greater Syrian colony were in many respects a fantasy that ignored very basic realities on the ground.[24] French troops in 1918-1919 lacked the manpower to impose any form of French rule in Syria. Instead the British and their Hashemite allies in the form of Faysal I, King of Iraq’s (1885-1933) nascent Arab administration in Damascus were able to dictate the pace of events. Despite the wartime division of the Middle East between the two powers in the Sykes-Picot agreement of February 1916, it was not until September 1919 that France was able to begin its expansion into Syria. Mounting imperial commitments and crises had by this stage forced the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) to relinquish Britain’s military occupation temporarily.

For France, the ability to continue to mobilise colonial subject populations was a key requirement of any post-war peace settlement. The war persuaded Clemenceau that the empire could provide a viable substitute for French manpower which was in increasingly short supply given the losses of the conflict and a declining birth rate. During the negotiations at Versailles, the Colonial Minister, Henri Simon (1874-1926), remained intransigent on France’s ability to raise troops from any former German territories in Africa now acquired as mandates under the League of Nations. Colonel Edward M. House (1858-1938), Woodrow Wilson’s principal advisor, warned Simon that such a position would likely drive the US Senate to reject the peace treaty and any attempts to construct Anglo-American guarantees of French security. Nonetheless, Simon stuck to the demand and acquired British and American acceptance over the course of the winter of 1919-1920.[25] The experience of wartime had only entrenched within the French political establishment the need to see its colonial empire as a source of resources with which to defend the metropole.

In the wake of the First World War the pressing question for Britain and France was less one of future mobilisations and more of how to demobilise their vast imperial armies. Returning soldiers proved not just a logistical nightmare, particularly given the post-war shortage of merchant shipping, but were also a potential source of domestic unrest. Many of the veterans returning to the French colony of Guinea resented the local chiefs who had helped force them into military service and, during 1919-1920, were at the forefront of industrial disputes, assaulting chiefs and settler plantation managers, symbols of the unequal colonial system of economic and political rule.[26] Many colonial territories were particularly unsuited or ill-prepared for the sudden injection of a large number of young male workers back into the economy. In the case of Jamaica, returning soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment were frequently disappointed by the lack of job opportunities within the restrictive plantation economy. The colonial administration was not willing to meet the veterans’ main demand for land, something they saw as a basic recognition of their military service and which would give them a symbolic stake in Jamaica’s colonial society. In the desperately poor economic conditions after 1918 Britain’s favoured employment scheme for these Caribbean ex-soldiers was to relocate them to Cuba’s sugar cane fields, thereby ensuring that the discontented were removed from the colony.[27]

In Senegal, the problems facing returning soldiers were not just economic. The colony was in crisis due to outbreaks of bubonic plague in most major urban centres during 1919 which killed at least 700 in Dakar and over 430 in Rufisque. Attempts by the colonial authorities to contain the problem were sluggish. Urban clearance and the isolation of infected individuals in quarantine hostels caused widespread local anger. In rural areas, vaccination schemes and the disposal of the dead ignored local customs, traditional medicine, religious practices and funeral rites. The colonial state appeared to be destroying indigenous society while at the same time professing to save it.

For many colonial soldiers, however, demobilisation could not come fast enough. Large numbers of troops from both the British and French Empires were retained after the end of hostilities to serve in occupation roles. Much of Britain’s newly acquired Middle Eastern empire was garrisoned by Indian sepoys and, more notoriously, France made prominent use of West African soldiers in the Rhineland, a tactic designed in part to demonstrate the absolute defeat of German militarism at the hands of France. It was, above all, a pragmatic solution to the pressing needs of wartime states which were adapting to the necessities of the post-war peace. It allowed the French and British Armies to demobilise their metropolitan soldiers first, assuaging demands at home and from the men themselves, while colonial troops were used as substitutes until the peace settlements were clarified.[28]

Colonial Reform↑

Wartime colonial mobilisation and the service of large numbers of colonial soldiers and labourers in Europe or in defence and expansion of empire impressed upon London and Paris the need for colonial reform. In some respects, this was portrayed as a reward for the wartime service of these colonial peoples, demonstrating that imperial rule was a reciprocal and benevolent practice. More pertinently, it was a way to assuage the demands of politically awakened veterans who would now claim greater rights and freedoms. From early in the war, for example, the Indian government worried about potential political upheaval from any number of anti-colonial opponents, whether armed Sikh militants, Bengali terrorists, or, following the Ottoman entry into the war, an increasingly active pan-Islamic movement. The viceroy, Frederic Chelmsford, Lord Chelmsford (1868-1933), was eager to pre-empt any potential challenges to the Raj and to respond to calls to reward Indian military service for the King-Emperor. Edwin Montagu (1879-1924), the new Liberal Secretary of State for India from 1917, was also critical of the bureaucratic mentality of the Raj’s civil administration and shared a desire to instigate reform. The war gave him the mandate required to shake up India’s government and to head off any political unrest at the same time. In August 1917 the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were announced, promising the gradual development of self-governing institutions and the progressive realisation of responsible government with the proviso that India remained an integral part of the empire. These reforms (although rejected by the Indian National Congress, the principal nationalist organisation, which considered the measures to be too little, too slowly delivered) nonetheless set the pattern for British attempts at containing political opposition throughout the interwar years.[29] A focus on reform that emphasised local devolution of power to Indian politicians through the system of diarchy, in part motivated by a desperate attempt to avert Indian political attention from control of central government would dominate much of the political debate in the 1930s.

In the French Empire similar promises of reform were made to colonial populations as a reward for their wartime service. The efforts of Blaise Diagne (1872-1934), the first black African member of the Chamber of Deputies, had secured in early 1918 rights of French citizenship for the originaires, the assimilated inhabitants of Senegal’s four original centres of French colonisation. Once the war ended, Diagne integrated his campaign for ex-servicemen’s rights into a broader strategy designed to boost the prominence of representative institutions in West Africa. In 1919 his supporters were swept to victory in local and mayoral elections in the four communes, marginalising the settler interests that had previously dominated.[30] In Algeria, the need to boost recruitment in 1918 had led to the appointment of a new governor-general and a promise by Clemenceau to reform the indigénat, the system of native jurisdiction. Despite vociferous settler opposition, these wartime promises were eventually enshrined in the Jonnart Law of February 1919 which gave the vote in municipal elections to 400,000 Muslims and increased the Muslim electorate for the conseils généraux to over 100,000. French imperial rule seemed, on the face of it, to be subject to moderating forces and to be responding to the wartime sacrifices of its colonial subjects.

The reality was somewhat different. Compared to the steps being taken in India, which tied the nationalist movement into a constitutional settlement rather than radical activism, the French reforms in West and North Africa made little difference to the nature of colonial rule and the daily experience of racial subjugation. In West Africa, the General Council of which Diagne’s supporters had gained control in 1919 was quickly transformed into a Colonial Council. Twenty chiefs chosen by the governor-general were inserted to represent people from outside the four communes, men who could be relied upon to support the administration against the demands of the elected members. Elsewhere in French West Africa urban centres given the status of communes-mixtes where city councils were elected on limited franchises found that these bodies were merely advisory to their French mayors. Despite the wartime promises of French citizenship by 1936 there were only 2,000 African "citizens" outside the four communes. The mass of the population remained subjects, governed by summary administrative justice and collective fines and were often employed as forced labour.

The same story of restricted rights and limited reforms was evident in North Africa. Muslim voters in Algeria formed a separate electoral college and could only vote for their representatives. The settler community retained its political dominance despite its numerical inferiority. Although new electors were exempt from the provisions of the indigénat, they remained subject to the jurisdiction of special criminal courts. The fundamental iniquity of colonial rule remained: Muslim Algerians were still denied any representation in Paris. Again, the opportunities for gaining French citizenship appeared to be illusory as access to such status was conditional on Algerians revoking their Muslim identity. This served to deter all but 1,700 Algerians from seeking to become citizens between 1919 and 1936.[31]

The comparison of French West and North Africa with British India implied above is somewhat unfair, suggesting that the best traditions of the British Empire as a liberal reforming force were applied universally after the First World War.[32] In many respects, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were an aberration born of British weakness in the face of the growing mass political strength of the Indian National Congress. Such reforms were not applied more widely across the British Empire, with territories in Africa run with as little regard for the local population as those of the French. Colonial reform was thus a chimerical notion for many subjects of the British and French Empires.

Remodelling the Colonial World↑

Reform of the colonial system after the Great War was not solely a product of the "benevolence" of imperial rulers. It was, in some respects, forced upon Britain and France by the shifting nature of international relations, most notably the rise of Wilsonian ideals of internationalism embodied most prominently in the League of Nations. One of the key areas of the peace settlements that pertained to the colonial world was the question of how to deal with the former German and Ottoman imperial territories. Wilson led the charge for a peace that was without annexations and which would see colonial claims dealt with in a transparent manner. This was a direct challenge to the great power division of the colonial world that had dominated for much of the nineteenth century. Britain and France were equally clear that the newly occupied colonies would not be returned to their defeated former colonial masters. In presentations at the peace conference both argued that the insertion of some form of international regime as a colonial steward would be certain to fail.[33] The solution was the creation of the mandate system by which these colonial territories and populations were to be administered by the colonial powers on the principle that "the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilization." This bond of trusteeship would be monitored by the League of Nations to whom the mandatory powers were required to make annual reports and which instituted the Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) as an oversight body.

Three types of mandate were proposed based upon the supposed stage of development of the subject population. "A" mandates were applied to the former Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire where the expectation was that the mandatory powers would provide administrative guidance and advice to peoples who were, in theory, a short step away from self-government. "B" mandates were administered under a list of conditions including that the territory be opened up to commerce and the inhabitants provided with security. These mandates included the former German colonies of Togoland and Cameroon, both of which were partitioned between Britain and France; Rwanda and Burundi passed to Belgian control and the rest of German East Africa went to Britain as Tanganyika. The final category of "C" mandates was reserved for remote territories about which the European colonial powers cared little, but which were of interest to Japan and the British Dominions, states beginning to forge their own, smaller imperial realms to ensure their regional dominance. For example, German South-West Africa was awarded to South Africa, German New Guinea to Australia and Germany’s Pacific Islands north of the equator to Japan. The "C" mandates had a particularly ambiguous status and were perceived as being a long way from ever achieving self-government. Mandatory powers were allowed to administer them effectively as integral parts of their territory, a position which the South African representative at Versailles, Jan Smuts (1870-1950), declared as amounting to "annexation in all but name."[34]

The establishment of the mandate system as a functioning element within the colonial division of the world, the enshrining of the principle of trusteeship in the League of Nations charter, and the role of the PMC as a check on the actions of the mandatory powers appeared to indicate a clear shift in international relations. Supporters of the League saw the mandates as a progression from discredited 19th century forms of imperial rule, benevolent in intent and, crucially, intended to be of limited duration. Critics, in the interwar years and since, often labelled the mandatory system as little more than a façade for imperial rule, providing it with a degree of international acceptability but in reality changing little for subject peoples. Yet as Susan Pedersen has argued, it is very difficult to generalise about the administration of the mandates, as there was a great deal of variation in the manner in which individual territories, even those supposedly of the same category, were administered.

For example, in Tanganyika and Transjordan Britain introduced land reforms but Australia devoted few resources to New Guinea because it saw the territory merely as a buffer state. In South-West Africa, the South African government simply shipped in white settlers and accelerated the process of dispossessing the indigenous population of its land. It was also evident that the principle of trusteeship as envisaged by the League was not necessarily the reality on the ground. In France’s "B" mandates in Africa steps were taken to moderate elements of French colonial rule, primarily to ward off international criticism. Yet such moderation was not applied universally, with Britain and France both resorting to repressive colonial policing methods to ensure internal security within their Middle Eastern mandates. Revolt in Syria in 1925-1926, which began among the Druze population and soon spread across much of the country, was only contained by the use of the Levant Army and irregular forces. Notoriously the bombardment of Damascus in October 1925 resulted in over 1,000 residents being killed. In Iraq, Britain instituted a novel system of imperial policing based on air power in part because it offered the ability to deploy the state’s coercive arms across the country’s scattered rural and nomadic communities but primarily because the Royal Air Force could secure the territory for a fraction of the cost of maintaining a permanent army garrison.[35] Administering territories as mandates seemed to have done little to constrain the coercive and frequently violent nature of colonial rule.

Nevertheless, the mandatory system did impose a new framework for the international oversight of the actions of the colonial powers. On the face of it, the PMC had little actual power: it was confined to Geneva, lacked personnel in the mandates themselves, and its reports were only advisory as the actual responsibility for overseeing the mandates lay with the League’s Council. However, its oversight was not meaningless. Although all but one of the members of the PMC were Europeans and four were drawn from the mandatory powers themselves, they turned out to be much more critical and less tractable than expected, in particular the British appointee, Sir Frederick Lugard (1858-1945), former governor-general of Nigeria, and the Spanish and Belgian representatives. Most importantly, the PMC acted as a forum for petitioners from within the mandates to raise problems with the activities of the mandatory powers. This was an opportunity that nationalist activists chose to exploit and which caused such concern for the colonial powers that they persuaded the Council in 1922 to curtail the rights of petitioners.

For all its deficiencies, the PMC and mandatory system should, as Pedersen suggests, be seen as a discursive arena rather than an engine for socio-economic development or progress for supposedly backwards peoples towards self-government. It provided an opportunity for nationalists in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific to appeal to international opinion and to publicise their critiques of the mandatory powers. Colonial rule for much of the interwar period was now scrutinised through a new lens with the emergence of a mechanism capable of highlighting its failings and misdemeanours on the global stage. The internationalist rhetoric that originated with Wilson had thus given birth to what some contemporaries saw as a new colonial era, at least at an ideological level, even if the realities of colonial rule remained hierarchical and oppressive for the subject populations concerned.

The Middle Eastern Colonial Settlement↑

If the PMC can be conceived as a product of new diplomacy in the wake of the First World War, then the Treaty of Sèvres, signed on 10 August 1920, can only be seen as a product of old diplomacy.[36] Its slicing up of the Ottoman Empire proved to be among the most complex, severe and short-lived of all the Paris peace treaties. Sèvres marked the end of Ottoman rule across the Middle East, leaving only Anatolia and a European rump to be administered from Constantinople. As with the Treaty of Versailles – which aimed to eviscerate Germany as a European power – so Sèvres strove to prevent Turkey from ever again posing a threat to Anglo-French colonial ambitions in the Middle East. This was achieved by drastically scaling back the Turkish military, requiring Turkish recognition of minority rights and internationalizing the Straits.

Sèvres also confirmed the division of the Ottoman’s Arab lands between France and Britain, making relatively limited alterations to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Britain was given the mandates of Palestine and Mesopotamia, with Transjordan as an off-shoot of the former. France was awarded the mandates of Lebanon and Syria. The mandate system was here being used to simply validate the realities of European colonial power within the Middle East. Neither the Turks nor the Hashemite Arab regimes of Prince Faysal and Husayn ibn Ali, King of Hejaz (c.1853-1931) and Sharif of Mecca were represented at the talks in San Remo that produced the Sèvres settlement. The treaty was, therefore, a codification of the often fraught discussions between Britain and France during 1919. Wartime promises made by Britain to the Arabs in 1915-1916 were ignored because they were no longer compatible with the settlement London and Paris wished to impose. They were also contradicted by the Balfour Declaration’s promise to create a national home for the Jewish people. These conflicting obligations were overridden by the outcome of the war in the Middle East which left British forces in occupation of vast swathes of the former Ottoman Empire. The Arab regime of Faysal established in Damascus after the war only survived with the protection and financial support of Britain. When the British withdrew from Syria in late 1919, the French were left to build freely their colonial state through force, overwhelming Faysal’s small army in July 1920 and driving him into exile.[37]

Sèvres embodied the great power division of the Middle East through the traditional tool of military force and conquest. Wilson’s high minded claim in the Fourteen Points that the nationalities under Ottoman rule would be given "an absolutely unmolested opportunity to autonomous development" could not compete with the realities of Anglo-French predominance on the ground. Despite the loss of Syria, Faysal and his supporters were not written out of Middle Eastern politics. In August 1921 he was crowned king of Iraq, part of a British attempt to impose order on its new mandate and legitimise its role of guiding the territory towards self-government. Faysal’s brother, Abdullah, King of Jordan (1882-1951), fulfilled a similar function in Transjordan, helping the mandatory administration to negotiate the complex web of local tribal politics.[38]

Sèvres and the neglect of Arab demands gives the impression that the colonial powers were dominant, able to divide up large portions of conquered territory between themselves as in the 19th century. Old diplomacy had seemingly triumphed over the ideas of Wilsonian internationalism and the war had served only to entrench the colonial system of rule across much of the extra-European world. Such an interpretation does not hold true when considering the attempt to impose a peace settlement on Turkey, where imperialist ambitions were thwarted in their attempt to partition Anatolia. Sèvres demonstrated a myopic attitude to the realities of power in Turkey by 1921 as it ignored the effective, broad-based and aggressive nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938) which had emerged out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat. Kemal was a strong advocate of Turkish independence and gathered a group of like-minded nationalists who became the rallying point for those opposed to the ineffectual government in Constantinople and the Greek occupation of Smyrna and its hinterland. Turkish nationalists formulated a set of demands (the National Covenant) which abandoned Ottoman imperial and pan-Turkish designs and concentrated instead on the limited and realistic goal of securing a sovereign and independent state based on areas with a Muslim majority. Kemal envisaged a future state that would be secured around the Anatolian heartlands, retained Smyrna and Constantinople and had a European frontier in Thrace.

British attempts to use Greece as a proxy for its imperial ambitions in Turkey, in part driven by the philhellenism of Lloyd George, proved an abysmal disaster. By late summer 1922 Greek forces had been defeated and then expelled from their enclave around Smyrna in an orgy of inter-communal violence. In the ensuing Chanak crisis in September Britain was left to face Turkish military aggression alone as France had secured a deal with Kemal in order to safeguard its position in Syria.[39] Rather than risk war to keep the Straits internationalised and Kemal from power, Britain backed down, accepting the reality of its regional military and political weakness against the resurgent might of Turkish nationalism.

By the end of 1922, Kemal had achieved everything he set out to do, crucially securing the Turkish state from external aggressors. The treaty negotiated at Lausanne in 1923 revised the settlement imposed upon Turkey at Sèvres. This was a victor’s peace but in this instance the victor was Kemal. Lausanne demonstrates the somewhat confused legacy of the First World War for the colonial powers. It left Britain and France still in possession of vast swathes of the Middle East and recognised their imperial conquests but, at the same time, demonstrated that new, ethnically-defined nationalist forces were at play and were perfectly capable of re-negotiating the terms of colonial settlements through force and diplomacy.

The Post-War Crisis of Empire↑

Discussion of the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne suggests, even despite the activities of Kemalist forces, a certain neatness to the transition from war to peace for the colonial powers. Most of the imperial wartime gains were recognised and sustained, enlarging both the French and British Empires to their greatest territorial extent by the 1920s. As John Gallagher argued, "once the British Empire became world-wide, the sun never set upon its crises;" 1919-22 was a period of imperial crisis for Britain, witnessing the accretion of a number of serious nationalist challenges to imperial rule.[40] During the spring of 1919 alone Egypt flared up in revolutionary unrest, the Punjab was racked by rioting and Ireland began its descent into over three years of bloody and internecine insurgency. By 1920 the scale of crisis had become even greater, with a tribal rebellion in Mesopotamia so extensive that over 60,000 troops were required to contain it. The British Army gradually faced increasing overstretch with its commitments, both imperial and domestic, multiplying at an impossible rate. It was the Foreign Secretary George Curzon’s (1859-1925) focus on a policy to protect India and its communication routes that drove much of the expansion of the imperial remit, particularly the interventions in Central Asia and the Caucasus.[41] As Henry Wilson made clear in the early 1920s, a sense of imperial paralysis and paranoia appeared to be gripping the British "official mind." Although Britain had emerged victorious from the First World War, its empire was far from secure. Indeed, given the nationalist forces the war had unleashed, especially those in Ireland and Turkey, it appeared to be facing well-armed and popular opponents whom it was unable to defeat. By 1923 Britain had been forced to pull back from most of its military commitments around the fringes of the former Tsarist Empire, withdraw from Turkey, concede the creation of the Irish Free State and agree to a new constitutional settlement in Egypt which reduced its political control. Where imperial dominance had been restored, repressive force often underwrote British rule, most notoriously in April 1919 at Amritsar. It seemed that Britain could now only hold onto its empire by resorting to terror, undermining any liberal arguments promoting the legitimacy or progressive nature of colonial rule.

The post-war "crisis of empire" was not solely a British imperial phenomenon. If the broader interwar period is considered, then France also experienced a series of uprisings that challenged its colonial hegemony.[42] By the mid-1920s, France faced the dual challenge of suppressing revolt in Syria and containing the Rif campaign of Abd el-Krim (1882-1963) in Morocco. The latter saw forces of over 20,000 Berber tribesmen inflicting heavy casualties on the Foreign Legion and West African units sent to pacify them. Only through the sustained commitment of military resources and extensive efforts by specialist tribal affairs officers to win over clans loyal to French rule was the revolt brought to heel by the spring of 1926. Colonial unrest remained a defining element of the imperial experience throughout the interwar years for both France and Britain. In 1930-1931 Indochina was rocked by the Yen Bay mutiny and rural unrest in Annam and Tonkin. Similarly, Palestine experienced continual challenges to British mandatory authority with rioting in Jerusalem linked to disputes over competing religious rights at the Wailing Wall in 1929. This was followed by an intense three-year Arab insurgency that began in 1936.[43] Although the colonial worlds of Britain and France appeared to have been secured, even enhanced, by the First World War it was clear that the interwar years represented a period of intense struggle over the legitimacy of colonial rule. The frequent resort to force to sustain that rule only demonstrated the fragile position of the colonial powers.

The Great War had witnessed not just the mobilisation of colonial societies and resources, but also the mobilisation of new ideas on the nature of imperial rule and international relations. As Erez Manela has argued, the rhetoric of Wilson resonated with nationalist movements and subject peoples around the world in the immediate wake of the conflict, creating an expectation that the League of Nations and a peace without annexations signalled the end of the tyranny of the great powers.[44] The evident bankruptcy of these Wilsonian dreams by the spring of 1919, in the face of resurgent great power diplomacy based around the personal relations of a few men, served to spark much of the wave of anti-colonial nationalist protest that arose around the world. Calls for colonial subjects to be represented at Versailles and mass popular protests swept not just the British territories of India and Egypt. In Korea and China people took to the streets as part of the 1 March and 4 May movements respectively, challenging the local colonial settlements that seemed to be superseding the promises of Wilsonian internationalism. Although only for a fleeting moment, Wilson’s ideas helped to shape much nationalist discourse throughout the interwar period. The opportunities provided by Versailles for anti-colonial nationalists to petition the great powers opened up a transnational network of ideas shared among activists, allowing for the flourishing of an internationalist critique of empire.


The colonial empires of France and Britain emerged from the First World War as battered but victorious. By July 1920 the French Empire had, for example, reached its largest extent, ruling over territories amounting to 12.5 million square kilometres and including four percent of the world’s population. The settlements imposed upon the defeated powers enshrined a new form of colonial regime, one that was mediated through the oversight of the League of Nations and which injected the concept of trusteeship into imperial discourse. This, however, made little difference to the ways in which the British and French chose to manage their empires. Repressive force, often in excess of what could be applied in the metropole to recalcitrant workers or political opponents, remained the defining element of the colonial state.[45] Rather than a world made safe for democracy, the First World War appeared to have created a world safe for the colonial powers to continue on as before.

Colonial strength after 1918 was, however, illusory. This reflects a central paradox of the imperial history of the inter-war years: colonial regimes which had weathered the storms of "total war" during 1914-1918 would collapse within a matter of decades. The readiness to resort to violent militarised policing methods in order to deal with the crises that followed the war only demonstrated the limits to the legitimacy of colonial rule. This was, perhaps, an inherent weakness of colonial systems, particularly those which were inflected with a liberal strain or the desire to spread ideas of "European civilisation," as were those of Britain and France.

Although anti-colonial nationalist movements, with the exceptions of Ireland and Turkey, had been contained by the early 1920s, they had begun a slow process of dismantling the foundations of imperial administrations. Decolonisation should not be seen as starting with the Wilsonian moment after the First World War. Its roots in many territories were sunk much deeper into the very nature of the colonial conquests and systems that developed in the nineteenth century; these were systems of rule that slowly unravelled over generations. Nonetheless, the colonial empires had reached a tipping point in the early 1920s. Mass nationalist movements, spurred by the failure of internationalist dreams (of both Lenin and Wilson) in the wake of the Paris peace treaties, now stood as the main opponents to colonial rule across numerous territories.

The mobilisation of the colonial empires to fight a "total war" in 1914-1918, especially the recruitment of combatants and labourers, was the crucial dynamic that drove the development of this anti-colonial upsurge. The First World War unleashed internationalist and ethno-nationalist ideas alongside demands from subject populations which could not be met without significant concessions over sovereignty and political control. Tentative steps were made to address these calls for reform with measures such as those of Edwin Montagu and Chelmsford in India and Charles Jonnart (1857-1927) in Algeria, but they merely underlined the increasingly contested nature of imperial legitimacy. It would take the defeats of 1940-42, with France crushed in Europe by Germany and Britain humiliated by Japan in South-East Asia, to finally seal the fate of the colonial empires and accelerate moves towards decolonisation.

Defeat and victory in the "total wars" of the 20th century were of great significance. Battlefield defeat for the Ottomans, Russians and Germans in 1917-18, as well as ensuing revolutions and internal political collapse, ensured that their pre-war imperial territories would undergo a form of decolonisation in the conflict’s aftermath. Victory for the Allies produced a contrasting experience, with the Belgian, French, Italian, British, Portuguese and Japanese Empires all secured or enhanced by the war. Indeed, Britain provides an exceptional case, with the loss of Ireland by 1921 being the only example of a victorious power experiencing decolonisation in the immediate wake of the war. More importantly, defeated powers in both world wars found it impossible to justify repressive rule and the racial hierarchies that excluded most colonial subjects from local political systems. After 1945, Britain and France, therefore, faced an irreversible deficit of legitimacy, having asked their subjects to once again bear the burdens of fighting a "total war" in defence of a colonial system that offered them few rewards. Victory in 1918 for Britain and France had, in some respects, only served to obscure the weaknesses of their empires when placed under the strains of mass mobilisation. Henry Wilson was correct to see the First World War and its confused aftermath as a transformational moment. Imperial overstretch and the stimulation of anti-colonial nationalist movements set the tone for the colonial relationships of the interwar years in which imperial rule was scrutinised as never before. The colonial empires, as Henry Wilson realised, would be unable to survive a second experience of "total war."

James E. Kitchen, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Section Editor: Robert Gerwarth


  1. ↑Johnson, Rob: The Afghan Way of War. Culture and Pragmatism: A Critical History, London 2011, pp. 175-193; Strachan, Hew: The First World War. Volume I: To Arms, Oxford 2001, pp. 694-814; Gatrell, Peter: War After the War: Conflicts, 1919-23, in: Horne, John (ed.): A Companion to World War I, Chichester 2010, pp. 558-575.
  2. ↑Strachan, Hew: The First World War as a Global Conflict, in: First World War Studies 1 (2010), p. 11.
  3. ↑Jeffery, Keith: Sir Henry Wilson and the Defence of the British Empire, 1918-22, in: The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 5 (1977), p. 289.
  4. ↑Thomas, Martin: The French Empire Between the Wars: Imperialism, Politics and Society, Manchester 2005, pp. 211-238.
  5. ↑A crucial model for examining European imperial collapse which is of value to historians of the extra-European colonial world is provided in Eichenberg, Julia / Newman, John Paul: Aftershocks: Violence in Dissolving Empires After the First World War, in: Contemporary European History 19 (2010), pp. 183-194.
  6. ↑Killingray, David: The War in Africa, in: Strachan, Hew (ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, Oxford 1998, pp. 92-95.
  7. ↑Bosworth, Richard / Finaldi, Giuseppe: The Italian Empire, in: Gerwarth, Robert / Manela, Erez (eds.): Empires at War, 1911-1923, Oxford 2014, pp. 34-51.
  8. ↑de Meneses, Filipe Ribeiro: The Portuguese Empire, in: Gerwarth / Manela, Empires at War, pp. 179-196.
  9. ↑For the impact of wartime mobilisation on Ottoman subject peoples during the First World War see Pappe, Ilan: A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, Cambridge 2004, pp. 61-71.
  10. ↑A solid overview of the European colonial empires during the twentieth century is provided in Thomas, Martin/Moore, Bob/Butler, L.J.: Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States, 1918-1975, London 2008.
  11. ↑The impact of Wilsonian rhetoric during and immediately after the First World War is covered in Manela, Erez: The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford 2007.
  12. ↑Sanborn, Joshua: The Genesis of Russian Warlordism: Violence and Governance During the First World War and the Civil War, Contemporary European History 19 (2010), pp. 195-213; Sanborn, Joshua: The Russian Empire, in: Gerwarth/Manela, Empires at War, pp. 91-108. I am very grateful to Professors Gerwarth and Manela for allowing me to read a draft of this edited volume.
  13. ↑Jones, Heather: The German Empire, in: Gerwarth / Manela, Empires at War, pp. 52-72; Dornik, Wolfram/Lieb, Peter: Misconceived Realpolitik in a Failing State: The Political and Economical Fiasco of the Central Powers in the Ukraine, 1918, First World War Studies 4 (2013), pp. 111-124.
  14. ↑Ferris, John: The British Empire vs. the Hidden Hand: British Intelligence and Strategy and “the CUP-Jew-German-Bolshevik Combination”, 1918-1924, in: Neilson, Keith/Kennedy, Greg (eds.): The British Way in Warfare: Power and the International System, 1856-1956, Farnham 2010, pp. 325-346.
  15. ↑Kanya-Forstner, A.S.: The War, Imperialism, and Decolonisation, in: Winter, Jay/Parker, Geoffrey/Habeck (eds.): The Great War and the Twentieth Century, New Haven 2000, pp. 253-254.
  16. ↑Koller, Christian: The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe During the First World War, Immigrants and Minorities 26 (2008), p. 114.
  17. ↑Andrew, Christopher M. / Kanya-Forstner, A.S.: France, Africa, and the First World War, Journal of African History 19 (1978), p. 14.
  18. ↑Thomas, French Empire 2005, p. 22.
  19. ↑Lunn, Joe: “Les Races Guerrières”: Racial Perceptions in the French Military About West African Soldiers During the First World War, Journal of Contemporary History 34 (1999), pp. 531-532.
  20. ↑Pradhan, S.D.: Indian Army and the First World War, in: Ellinwood, D.C./Pradhan, S.D. (eds.): India and World War I, New Delhi 1978, p. 55.
  21. ↑Darwin, John: The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970, Cambridge 2009, p. 333; Parsons, Timothy H.: The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964, Oxford 1999, p. 64.
  22. ↑Strachan, To Arms 2001, p. 499.
  23. ↑Koller, Recruitment of Colonial Troops 2008, p. 113.
  24. ↑For Anglo-French machinations over the Middle East settlements see Andrew, Christopher M./Kanya-Forstner, A.S.: France Overseas: The Great War and the Climax of French Imperial Expansion, London 1981, pp. 164-236.
  25. ↑Andrew / Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas 1981, p. 191.
  26. ↑Thomas, French Empire 2005, p. 25; Mann, Gregory: Native Sons: West African Veterans in the Twentieth Century, London 2006, pp. 72-107.
  27. ↑Smith, Richard: Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of National Consciousness, Manchester 2004, pp. 153-155.
  28. ↑For the problems involved in demobilising the British Army see Gill, Douglas/Dallas, Gloden: The Unknown Army, London 1985, pp. 89-140.
  29. ↑Darwin, Empire Project 2009, pp. 347-350.
  30. ↑Thomas, French Empire 2005, p. 26.
  31. ↑Andrew/Kanya-Forstner, First World War 1978, pp. 16-17; Andrew/Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas 1981, pp. 243-245.
  32. ↑The liberal tradition in British political attitudes to empire is succinctly illustrated in Whiting, Richard: The Empire and British Politics, in: Thompson, Andrew (ed.): Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century, Oxford 2012, pp. 161-210.
  33. ↑Andrew/Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas 1981, p. 182.
  34. ↑Pedersen, Susan: The Meaning of the Mandates System: An Argument, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32 (2006), pp. 560-582.
  35. ↑Thomas, Martin: Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder After 1914, Berkeley 2008, pp. 145-172; Omissi, David: Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, Manchester 1990; Satia, Priya: Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, Oxford 2008.
  36. ↑For a succinct and insightful assessment of the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausane see Steiner, Zara: The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933, Oxford 2005, pp. 100-125.
  37. ↑For the general intentions of Britain and France towards their Middle Eastern mandates see Sluglett, Peter: Les Mandats/The Mandates: Some Reflections on the Nature of the British Presence in Iraq (1914-1932) and the French Presence in Syria (1918-1946), in: Méouchy, Nadine/Sluglett, Peter (eds.): The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspective, Leiden 2004, pp. 103-127.
  38. ↑Dodge, Toby: International Obligation, Domestic Pressure and Colonial Nationalism: The Birth of the Iraqi State Under the Mandate System, in: Méouchy, Nadine / Sluglett, Peter (eds.): The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspective, Leiden 2004, pp. 144-164; Alon, Yoav: Tribal Shaykhs and the Limits of British Imperial Rule in Transjordan, 1920-46, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 32 (2004), pp. 69-92.
  39. ↑Andrew/Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas 1981, pp. 231-232.
  40. ↑Gallagher, John: Nationalisms and the Crisis of Empire, 1919-1922, Modern Asian Studies 15 (1981), p. 355; Gallagher, John: The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire, in: Seal, Anil (ed.): The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: The Ford Lectures and Other Essays, pp. 731-153.
  41. ↑Fisher, John: Curzon and British Imperialism in the Middle East, 1916-19, London 1999, pp. 195-293. The wider aims and constraints upon Britain’s post-war Middle Eastern strategy are discussed in Darwin, John: Britain, Egypt and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-1922, London 1981.
  42. ↑Thomas, French Empire 2005, pp. 211-238.
  43. ↑Townshend, Charles: Going to the Wall: The Failure of British Rule in Palestine, 1928-1931, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 30 (2002), pp. 25-52; Townshend, Charles: The Defence of Palestine: Insurrection and Public Security, 1936-1939, The English Historical Review 103 (1988), pp. 917-949; Hughes, Matthew: The Banality of Brutality: British Armed Forces and the Repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-39, The English Historical Review 124 (2009), pp. 313-354.
  44. ↑Manela, Wilsonian Moment 2007, p. 12.
  45. ↑Thomas, Martin: Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers and Protest in the European Colonial Empires, 1918-1940, Cambridge 2012. It should be noted that, for some colonial territories, the post-war period was calmer and less violent than the wartime years. This was particularly the case in sub-Saharan Africa where military campaigns and the associated mobilisation of combatants and non-combatant labourers, as well as the displacement of civilian refugees, had ravaged the region. The post-war period instead saw a new emphasis on colonial development in areas such as education, agriculture and administration although the racial hierarchies and exploitative economic relationships of imperial rule generally remained consistent.

Selected Bibliography

  1. Andrew, Christopher M. / Kanya-Forstner, Alexander S.: France overseas. The Great War and the climax of French imperial expansion, London 1981: Thames and Hudson.
  2. Darwin, John: The Empire project. The rise and fall of the British world-system, 1830-1970, Cambridge; New York 2009: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Gallagher, John: Nationalism and the crisis of empire, 1919-1922, in: Modern Asian Studies 15, 1981, pp. 355-368.
  4. Gerwarth, Robert / Manela, Erez (eds.): Empires at war. 1911-1923, Oxford 2014: Oxford University Press.

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