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Short Rounds

Britain's Colonies at War, 1939-1945

The role of the self-governing or autonomous members of the British Commonwealth -- Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Newfoundland, South Africa, India, and Rhodesia -- in the "British" war effort during the Second World War is well known.  Less well known is that of the non-self-governing members of the British Empire, the 50-some crown colonies, protectorates, high commission territories, mandates, and so forth.  These were places like Kenya, Bermuda, Ceylon, Bechuanaland, Mauritius, Malta, Tonga, Tanganyika, the Falklands, Fiji, the Seychelles, Ascension, and many others.  Some colonies were backwater outposts of empire, while others were major economic or manpower players that provided support for British power, and a few were strategic bastions that protected imperial communications or from which that power could be projected.

Long before the outbreak of World War II many of these places had their own military establishments, such as the King's African Rifles, recruited in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda, so that when war came there were already over 40,000 men in colonial military formations, nearly half in Africa, another 10,000 or so in Malaya and associated territories, and small numbers elsewhere.  Naturally, the war led to a considerable expansion of such forces.  In some places, local troops were raised to replace departing British garrisons, in others existing forces were enlarged, and enlarged again.  Many of the empire's warrior peoples quite willingly came forward to offer their services, so that, for example, the southern African protectorates of Swaziland, Bechuanaland, and Basutoland contributed some 36,000 men.

While the "Native" leaders of many of the these colonies were quite aware of their inferior status within the imperial system, they were nevertheless willing to cooperate in the British war effort for a variety of reasons.  Some recognized that the evils of British imperialism were preferable to the potential horrors of Axis domination.  And the more farsighted among them, looking to the future, realized that by supporting the war effort they would accumulate political capital for future use.

By 1945 there were more than 500,000 colonial troops were under arms, despite the loss of extensive territories in the Far East to the Japanese.  

Colonial Contingents, 1945

Aden

1,800

Africa, East

146,000

Africa, West

228,000

African High Commission Territories

36,000

American Dependencies

10,000

Ceylon

26,000

Cyprus

9,000

Falkland Is.

 200

Fiji

7,000

Gibraltar

700

Gilbert/Ellice/Ocean Is.

2,000

Malta

8,200

Mauritius

3,500

New Hebrides

100

Palestine & Transjordan

25,000

Seychelle Is.

 1,500

Solomon Is.

 2,000

Somaliland

2,500

St. Helena

200

Tonga

2,000

Note: Africa, East includes Uganda, Tanganyika, & Kenya; Africa, West, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Togoland, Nigeria, & Cameroon; the African High Commission Territories were Swaziland, Bechuanaland, & Basutoland; American Dependencies includes the various West Indian colonies, Guiana, British Honduras, & Bermuda.

In addition to these forces, many men, and some women, from these colonies also served in regular British or Dominion forces, so that the total colonial contribution to the Commonwealth war effort was actually greater than that of the Dominions. 

Many of these troops served in garrison, relieving British, Indian, or Dominion forces to be deployed elsewhere, or, as was the case for most of the personnel from Swaziland, Bechuanaland, and Basutoland, served primarily in combat service and support formations, often under fire.  But many more, notably those recruited in West Africa and East Africa, were combat troops, who served in combat fire in East Africa in 1940-1941, and later in northeastern India and Burma in 1943-1945.

BookNotes: Ashley Jackson, of King's College, London, has written an excellent study of the role of the 60 or so entities of the British Commonwealth and Empire in the Second World War, British Empire and the Second World War and a more focused treatment of Britain's colonies in imperial defense, Distant Drums: The Role of Colonies in British Imperial Warfare .

 

"The Faithful Wives of Weinsberg"/a>

In 1140, Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III (r. 1138-1152), the first Hohenstaufen, invested Weinsberg, a small town in what is now Württemberg, which was being held in the name of the rival Welf family.  

The townspeople resisted stoutly, and with notable courage, but eventually they were forced to ask for terms.   

The Emperor imposed stern conditions.  The women and, presumably, the children, were to be free to go, taking with them only what they could carry.  The men and the town itself were to be surrendered to Conrad, who planned to put the defenders to the sword for defying him and then, after thoroughly looting the place, raze it to the ground.

But when the town gates opened on the appointed day, December 21, 1140, Conrad found, to his amazement that, led by the local duke's wife, the women of the town were each carrying on her back her husband or other male kinsman.

Tradition has it that so impressed was Conrad by this demonstration of uxorial devotion, he pardoned the men and spared the town.

And " Weibertreu -- The Faithful Wives of Weinsberg" were afterwards celebrated in poetry, children's literature, and paintings, not to mention the local castle, which was renamed Weibertreu.

Afterwards: Conrad prevailed in his struggle with the Welfs, and the Hohenstaufen ruled the Holy Roman Empire, and a good deal else besides, for more than a century, though the struggle between the two families (also known as the Guelfs and Ghibellines), dragged on even longer, being passed on to their descendants. 

 


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