The World at War

Global Conflict

Since the war was started by European empires, so it involved people from all over the world.

Soldiers were sent from Britain’s Empire which included:

  • The self-governing white ‘Dominions’ of Australia (330,000), New Zealand (100,400), Canada (418,000) and South Africa (74,000)

  • India (1 million)

  • Colonies in the West Indies (16,000) and Africa (55,000)

  • At this time, the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and 134,200 men were recruited during the war.

In addition, Britain employed 100,000 Chinese labourers and 100,000 Egyptians who were used to build roads, railways and trenches, a contribution which has almost been completely forgotten.

Fighting eventually involved Russia, the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Middle-East, the Balkans, Japan, the United States, most of Africa, much of Asia and parts of the Americas.

Indian troops on the Western Front

For local men, the war provided a unique opportunity for travel.

Britain’s overseas empire had resulted in mass emigration for several hundred years but the war led to thousands of British men experiencing life abroad for the first time.

As well as western Europe, British troops fought in Russia, Italy, the Balkans, India and different parts of Africa. It is perhaps hard to comprehend the effect this must have had on ordinary men.

To a certain extent, the daily routine and organisation of the armed services often prevented soldiers from experiencing the full range of local cultures at first-hand. Food, customs and language was more or less the same in the army wherever it was based. There was also a widespread imperial mind-set in which the British way of life was generally thought to be superior.

However, many local men would undoubtedly have become aware of the wider world and their place in it. This would result in a series of vivid memories that would ensure that their lives were never quite the same again.

Find out more about local resident Christopher Wakeman who served in India during the First World War.

Find out more about local resident Edward Savereux who served in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) during the First World War.

Edward Savereux of Ilford (centre) while serving in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq)
The Indian Army

At the time of writing, around 35% of the population of the London Borough of Redbridge can trace their family heritage to the Indian subcontinent.

The experiences of the Indian army, often overlooked in traditional histories of the war, therefore now have a particular resonance as a ‘local’ Redbridge story. In addition, the experiences of Christopher Wakeman, who was living in Goodmayes when he volunteered in 1915 and who served in India, shows the long, two-way relationship between the countries.

During the war, India was a single country and included what is present-day India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The country was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire, providing vast resources, wealth and labour as well as a large market for British goods.

To reinforce notions of patriotism and the connections between Britain and its wider Empire, school children in Ilford, Wanstead and Woodford celebrated ‘Empire Day’ right up until the Second World War. It usually consisted of songs, stories, poems and theatrical productions in which children dressed up as natives from the different imperial countries or recounted ‘glorious episodes’ from Britain’s past.

In the early days of August 1914, the small British army found itself severely stretched against the massive German conscript army. The Indian army was the only other trained and experienced body of troops available at short notice, so infantry, cavalry and labour corps were sent to France. In total, India sent one million troops overseas, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded.

Sailing from either Bombay or Karachi, on a long sea voyage lasting a month across the ‘Kala Pani’ (the ‘black waters’ of the oceans), the first contingent of around 140,000 Indian troops arrived in Belgium in October 1914. Despite very difficult circumstances, such as the lack of adequate equipment for European weather, the troops made a significant contribution in halting the German advance.

At the end of 1915, Indian army units were sent to Egypt and then into Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) to protect British oil interests against the Ottoman Empire. Several thousand Bengalis, known as lascars, also served as British merchant seaman throughout the war.

As well as paying for its own troops, Indian princes and ordinary people also raised the extraordinary sum of £100 million as ‘a gift’ to Britain in 1917. In addition, India sent 3.7 million tons of supplies and stores, including one billion sandbags (used in trenches) made from jute, a tough vegetable fibre.

Can you help? Redbridge Museum would like to hear from local residents whose ancestors were in the Indian army.

Indian troops on the Western FrontAdvertisement for T. Liddle & Sons, Woodford, 12 May 1916. © Redbridge Information & Heritage. This advertisement from the Woodford Times newspaper shows how local people were made aware of the Indian contribution to the war as well as the importance of Indian products, like tea.
Jewish Londoners

From the 1950s, many Jewish people moved from the East End of London to live in Redbridge.

Their families had often left the Russian Empire around 1900 to escape persecution or for economic reasons and had settled in the over-crowded conditions of the East End.

When war broke out in 1914 many were still Russian citizens. Some were reluctant to support the Allied war effort as it meant supporting Russia, the very country that had persecuted them. After conscription was introduced in January 1916 many Jewish people were enlisted into the British army. Some Jews found this easier when the Tsar was overthrown in March 1917.

Read some family stories of today’s Redbridge residents who contacted Redbridge Museum during 2014 in response to its First World War research project.

Samuel Fisher © Courtesy of Samuel Fisher’s grand-daughter, Beryl Kline

Several of today’s Redbridge residents have German ancestors who fought in the war.

Read about some family stories of today’s Redbridge residents who contacted Redbridge Museum during 2014 in response to its First World War research project.

Ursula MacKenzie lives in Wanstead © Courtesy of Ursula MacKenzie, with thanks to Maggie Brown, Wanstead United Reformed Church