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The Imperial Army Project

Britain and the Land Forces of the Dominions and India, 1902-1945


Douglas E. Delaney


Oxford: University Press, 2018

Hardcover. xvii+355 p. ISBN 978-0198704461. £85


Reviewed by Timothy Nicholson

State University of New York, Farmingdale






Douglas Delaney’s The Imperial Army Project : Britain and the Land Forces of the Dominions and India, 1902-1945 provides an incredibly well researched and thorough overview of the military issues facing the British Empire from the end of the South African War to the end of World War Two. With four other books on various military subjects of the British Empire already to his credit, The Imperial Army Project is clearly the culmination of a lifetime of studying and researching the topic, and Delaney’s mastery of the subject is evident throughout the text. As a result of this expertise, Delaney effortlessly situates his work in the larger military historiography of the British Empire and draws upon an impressive range of primary and secondary sources. Due to the significance of imperial forces fighting for and defending the metropole and empire, Delaney fills an important gap in the historiography of both the military and the British Empire.

Highlighting the diverse range of issues emanating from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada and putting them in the same framework as India is an impressive feat of scholarship. In this examination, Delaney joins the recent (if unacknowledged) trend of highlighting factors that unified the British Empire rather than disintegrating issues. While the limitations of this unity are a major focus of the book, establishing factors that worked to maintain a sense of military unity and provide for the defense of the empire, including the United Kingdom itself, is an important historiographical contribution.

Delaney begins the book by addressing the military chaos and systemic failures of the South African War, which works to situate the monograph and highlight the challenges in forging a common imperial army. The book then proceeds chronologically to examine the immediate pre-World War One era, World War One itself, the interwar era, and the prelude to World War Two, culminating with an examination of World War Two. Each chapter chronicles the chronic problems in creating an effective imperial fighting force, as well as the debates about and local responses to such an initiative. Although mostly pushed by the metropole, imperial military conferences, officer exchanges, and joint planning all worked to foster a pan-imperial army.

Delaney's research is the most impressive aspect of the book. Primary sources are drawn from twenty different archives in the five countries—India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—involved in his study, which, combined with an array of secondary material, produce a comprehensive overview of the subject. Specifically, the author engages with a large volume of military documents and correspondence, the bulk of his research. Military reports are closely and expertly analyzed to show detailed responses, concerns and debates over contemporaneous issues-—all issues associated with developing and maintaining an imperial army.

The other major strength of the book is Delaney’s ability to highlight the range of local issues that worked to complicate the formation and maintenance of such an imperial fighting force, especially the objections raised by politicians in the dominions, constantly concerned over funding. He also demonstrates how common local considerations, such as more localized threats, were set against British concerns and increasingly pronounced Eurocentric issues, and how minority populations contested and contradicted demands from the metropole. Here, Delaney demonstrates that South Africa was somewhat unique in that its own domestic threats against an internal uprising were the most severe, while other dominions, such as Canada, needed to deal with vocally anti-British minority groups. Other problems that occurred with regularity and can be traced through each era the book details include an overall lack of interest in imperial or British security issues and a sense of protection through isolation (embedded in the dominions) from European affairs. Furthermore, the problems of standardization and officer training are acute issues throughout this fifty-year period. Despite fleeting pushes towards unity, each colony asserted its own sovereignty as much as possible, to the consternation and worry of the British.

Throughout much of this period, officer training programs in the metropole created a larger local officer corps for each of the dominions and furthered a sense of pan-imperial unity. Although Delaney does not highlight the campaigns of World War One, he uses the progress of the war to demonstrate the tangible effects of this new cooperation and highlights a new sense of cohesion in military formations and command structure that the South African War lacked. He then shows how this cooperation disintegrated again in the postwar era, with imperial unity faltering and local funding decreasing. Some degree of cooperation continued, but the process was far from a linear progression and, again, reflected local concerns and economic issues as much as responses to imperial agendas. However, the imperial forces were better able, if only slightly, to work together in 1939 compared to earlier wars, and quickly scaled upward numerically as the leaders drew upon “decades worth of coordination, uniform military education and training, periodical correspondence between military chiefs and personnel exchanges” [229]. Thus, as World War Two became the ultimate fight for empire, the unity of the imperial forces made it possible to fight and win.

After reading this book, one gets a sense that those in the dominions were using the British state for subsidized officer training that their developing armed forces needed. Furthermore, the colonized were able to demand key positions of leadership unequal to their share of manpower or expenditure. However, this concept could be further developed, in order to give the book more of a theoretical focus. In this regard, the personal motivations need more exploration. Additionally, Delaney emphasizes the need for consent from the dominions, the competing agendas, and the fusion of local and imperial issues, all of which demonstrate that the imperial military relationships were more complex than the metropole simply imposing its will on the dominions. Thus, in most aspects the book is a traditional imperial history book, with Delaney highlighting the movement of ideas, people and military knowledge between the metropole and the colonies. However, the book lacks an examination of the circulation of ideas, knowledge and people outside of the metropole, along with an engagement with more recent scholarship on imperial studies that de-emphasize the role of the metropole. For example, does military knowledge travel directly from Canada to South Africa or Australia without going through the metropole? Furthermore, as Delaney works to maintain a cleaner narrative focus, this examination works to further privilege the role and contribution of the white dominions at the expense of other non-white colonies, the members of whom made large contributions to both world wars. The extensive archival sources and military reports leave out the voices of the soldiers, not to mention those outside of the military itself. The author is more concerned with the idea of how the dominions were able to work together rather than what it was like to work together. This leaves the reader to wonder whether the experiences of World War One or World War Two pushed the isolation associated with the postwar eras.

A final fundamental theme—if underdeveloped—is how local issues, nationalism and a sense of imperial identity intersected; however, these answers probably cannot be found in the source material consulted. Did the participants buy into the need for this imperial project? Did a sense of being part of the British world, which the author shows was already complicated by local nationalist sentiment among the French Canadians and South African Boers, really exist? Reading this book, designed to appeal more to military specialists, alongside John C. Mitcham’s recently released Race and Imperial Defence in the British World, 1870-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) is particularly useful. Mitcham’s work takes a wider definition of the word military to cover more diverse topics that went into the formation of the British military, in terms of social and cultural contributions, and highlights more popular responses, the role of race and ideas of masculinity. The combination of these two books allows for a more complete picture of issues associated with the imperial military throughout the British world to emerge.

Despite these minor conceptual limitations, the book provides an expert overview on a traditional but still important and apparently underdeveloped topic, and no scholar is likely to provide the same level of research and expertise in a readable narrative. The author needs to develop a sequel to demonstrate the continuation of an imperial military mindset in the era of decolonization and the Cold War.


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