The British Empire and the First World War

As we commemorate the passing of 100 years since the First World War, it is important to remember the significant role played by the British Empire. Around 1.5 million troops from Britain’s colonial territories in India, Africa and the Caribbean were involved in all theatres of the war from the early battles in West and East Africa,  through the Western Front, Gallipoli and the campaigns in Mesopotamia and other territories of the Middle East. Huge numbers of troops from Britain’s dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) were also present – indeed “Proportionally, New Zealand made the largest contribution: 19.35 per cent of the male population; or to put it another way, one in every five men – a higher proportion than in Britain itself (where one in seven men served).”  (British Council Report: Remember the world as well as the war,  2014) We have created a pack of online teaching materials containing two PowerPoint presentations and a set of PDFs to help teachers communicate some aspects of this global dimension to the First World War. These have grown out of the background research to our Heritage Lottery project ‘The Curious Incident of the Gurkha Knife’.

An article in the Manchester Evening News, March 10th 1915, reported a court case in which two shop-owners in a fashionable Manchester shopping parade were prosecuted under the Defense of the Realm Act for defamation of His Majesty’s forces.  They had displayed a Kukri and throwing knife in their window with a caption describing them as “Genuine War trophies” and saying the Gurkhas used poison on the throwing knife. Testimony was presented by a Mr Ashworth who said this was a gross libel against the Gurkha code of honour.  The shop-owners were found guilty and fined.The item is a curiosity, but suggests there was public awareness of the important role of Colonial soldiers on the Western Front very early in the First World War.

Gurkha Knife project First World War

Our project worked with a Pakistani Muslim women’s group in Rochdale to research the archives of the case, also exploring the history of Britain’s relations with the Gurkhas.  Created by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, the project  commissioned poet and scriptwriter Anjum Malik to work with the Rochdale women to create a dramatic monologue based on their research.

Anjum Malik First World War Gurkha Knife Project There have been several performances of the monologue and Anjum can be booked for further performances.



The leaflet (containing the original article and a guide to further teaching materials) and other downloadable resources on the First World War can be found here.