8 August, 2022


World War I And Ceylon

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

Consequences of conflict

August 2014 marked a very sombre anniversary for most of Europe and the world. It was in this month that the Great War, or First World War as it was later known, broke out among the world’s great powers.

Sadly, this is a conflict that is totally neglected in our schools. In this writer’s time, no mention was made of it in any textbook or classroom and it was only through personal interest in history that my interest in the subject has been sated.

Many readers of this column must be asking themselves “How is this relevant to Sri Lanka in general and a financial newspaper in particular?” The answer to these two very appropriate questions is that Ceylon (as it was then) actually was represented in the Great War and the unprecedented human and capital cost of the conflagration played a very important role in the subsequent history of the British Empire.


In the summer of 1914 Europe had enjoyed 99 years of peace from a major continental war. There had been some significant conflicts, most notably the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, but nothing of the scale that was the norm of the 17th and 18th centuries. A wider war similar to that waged against Napoleon was a distant memory.

Huge and old empires dominated the landscape. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had Europe’s largest railway system, considerable industrial capacity and a huge population led by Emperor Franz-Joseph. The borders of the Dual Monarchy straddled what we know as Eastern Europe stretching from Austria all the way to Turkey.

There it met the Ottoman Empire, a 500-year-old Caliphate that was old, tired, corrupt and antiquated, but still capable of holding its own. In the throes of change, ruled by the “young Turks” rather than the Emperor, Turkey’s borders stretched from the Bosporus to North Africa, much of the Middle East all the way to Persia.

To the east was the Czarist Russian Empire. Also old, corrupt, weak and beset by internal strife, but huge and tremendously patriotic. Russia could field a gigantic army. Though it would be poorly trained; led by amateurs and woefully equipped, it was well capable of striking an aggressor a mighty blow.

Bordering the Czar’s sprawling kingdom was Imperial Germany. This was an amalgamation of the German-speaking people, united by the brilliant Chancellor Bismarck and covering much of what is known to us as Poland and the Baltic States. Germany was the world’s pre-eminent industrialised country, the world’s second largest economy and possessed the world’s largest and possibly best-trained land army as well as the second largest fleet of warships.

The pre-eminent nation (or Empire) in the world at the time was, of course, Britain. With an empire on which “the sun never set”, possessor of the greatest navy in the world, the richest country in the world with the globe’s premier economy, overseeing almost a third of the world’s population, Imperial Britain was at the height of her power.

Britain’s primary ally was France. Never having recovered from the turmoil following Napoleon’s defeat, humiliated by Prussia in the 1870 conflict, France was jealously guarding what remained of her previous glory.
Ironically, three of the main players in the tragedy that was to follow, King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia were cousins. They were all direct descendants of Britain’s Queen Victoria and had known each other their whole lives.

The story of the war itself has been covered exhaustively elsewhere and there is no need to repeat it here. It truly was a Great War and it changed the world forever. In 1918 when the Armistice was agreed on, the Allies (or Entente Powers) were declared the victors. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey were the vanquished.

Ceylon’s involvement

The British Empire was fully involved in the war. Casualties were unprecedented and the Empire divisions suffered over 300,000 deaths, with ‘colonial’ troops from India alone having more than 65,000 dead.

Ceylon’s involvement was minimal. The Ceylon Light Infantry (a purely British regiment) saw some action. A handful of young Ceylonese men (including four boys from Trinity College Kandy) volunteered to fight for “King and Country”. The TCK lads saw action in the battle of the Somme, where one was tragically killed and another wounded. But this is another story previously told in these Columns.

A German warship, the Emden, attacked shipping in the vicinity of Ceylon and there were accusations that the famous Boer prisoner of war Engelbretch who was stationed at Yala assisted them, but this again, is another story. A German Naval officer, who served on the Emden, in his memoirs, dismissed allegations of Engelbretch assisting the warship.

The Sinhala slang word ‘Amden’, describing a shrewd, clever double dealer, evolved from the reputation of this elusive battleship which operated with impunity in the Indian Ocean, outwitting the Royal Navy, until finally trapped and sunk.

Dead and wounded

The human cost of this conflict was unprecedented and almost unimaginable, even to those of us who lived through Sri Lanka’s long war. The most relevant outcome of the Great War though, was the ruin of the Empires who fought in it and the unparalleled destruction of capital that it caused.

An estimated 65 million soldiers fought in the war. Of these nearly a third were killed or wounded. Around eight million were killed in battle, two million more lost to illness and disease; 21 million of the survivors were wounded.

The defeated suffered the worst casualties. Germany lost an estimated two million people, Austria-Hungary 1.5 million and Turks had 770,000 dead. Allied figures were just as appalling, with Russia suffering 1.7-2.2 million deaths, Britain 880,000 (plus the 300,000 Empire losses) France 1.3 million. Even Italy, a bit player at best, had over 600,000 killed. Romania and Serbia who fought for the Allies suffered over 350,000 casualties each. Even China contributed a Labour Corps, which was active n Europe, of which some did not return.

An additional 50 million to 100 million people died as a result of the extremely contagious Spanish Flu pandemic that started among soldiers in 1918 and spread to their home countries as they returned after the war.

The capital cost

The human cost of this conflict is essentially incalculable. Some areas lost almost their entire young male populations, with particular emphasis on skilled tradesmen. Carpenters, mechanics, plumbers and blacksmiths were some of the trades that suffered disproportionate casualties. Without this sort of workmen to help with reconstruction, entire regions were denuded of a skilled work force and never really recovered.

What can be estimated fairly accurately though, was the capital cost of the war. The two strongest economies at the start of the war remember, were Britain and Germany. By its end, they were both practically bankrupt.

Estimates vary, but in 1918 US Dollar terms, the Great War cost Britain $35.3 billion, Germany $37.7 billion, France $24.3 billion, Russia $22.3 billion, the USA $22.6 billion, Turkey $1.5 billion, and British colonies (India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) another $3.5-4 billion.

These were sums that were unimaginable even then. If we were to correct for inflation, the totals in today’s currency would be so large as to defy our imagination.

On top of this, the terms of the Armistice forced Germany to pay “war reparations” of $ 33 billion, which ultimately led to the collapse of the German economy, the rise of Hitler and another devastating World War.

At the end of the war, Britain’s national debt has risen to 136% of the country’s Gross National product (GNP) and most of the money was owed to her ally, the United States of America. By the end of the war, the USA had also overtaken Britain to be the world’s largest economy, a position it has held ever since.

The aftermath of the war

As the Armistice took hold, both the victors and the vanquished assessed the damage. All the participants, except the USA, were essentially bankrupt.

Germany lost much of her Eastern territories, the former Prussian Junker estates to, among others, a newly reconstituted Poland. Austria-Hungary was dismembered, with a host of countries being created out of the wreckage amidst much internal strife. Both the German and Austro-Hungarian Emperors were deposed, with democratic governments being installed by the Allies.

Turkey lost huge swathes of territory, some of which had been under Ottoman rule for up to 500 years. Britain and France engaged in a shameless land-grab, the notorious Sykes-Picot treaty. This was kept a secret until after the War and divided up the Arabian provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them.

Democracy or self-rule was never offered as an option to the inhabitants of these lands. Italy took the opportunity to add possessions in North Africa, seizing Libya, in addition to ‘owning’ Somalia and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Much of current strife in the Middle East can be traced to these badly drawn boundaries, but again, that is another story.

Russia was possibly the worst off. Bolshevik revolutionaries murdered the Czar and all his family. The country wracked by a civil war that was to last for almost a decade longer.

France, which as a nation lost the highest proportion of her population, (approximately 1.4 million out of a total of 40m) emerged with much of her farmland and industry devastated, hugely in debt and having put-down an Army mutiny in

Verdun. The acquisition of African colonies did little to assuage the pain she had suffered.

Britain, as mentioned earlier, took massive casualties and incurred huge debts too. But unlike France, her industrial capabilities were intact and even enhanced. The British Isles were hardly attacked and never occupied. Her colonies showed tremendous loyalty and support with over 300,000 young men from far-flung territories fighting a war that hardly affected them.

Britain’s Empire expanded after the war and the acquisition of many territories awash in crude oil, led to a surfeit of riches. The Royal Navy did not suffer greatly in the war, retaining its position of the world’s greatest navy once the German High Seas fleet was destroyed. The easy availability of petroleum, allowed for the fleet to switch rapidly from coal to oil, thereby enhancing its capabilities and reach.

Hidden cost to the British Empire

On the surface, it would appear that Britain was in many ways, one of the few winners of the “war to end all wars”. With hindsight though, we realise that this was only an illusion.

The wealth and resources of the Colonies, is what allowed Britain to fund the war effort and to emerge the victor. The Germans had the world’s best trained army and most efficient industrial sector, but Britain’s seemingly limitless resources, the Royal Navy’s blockade which strangled German supply routes and finally the entry of the USA on the Allied side, made defeat inevitable.

Much has been written and discussed about the British Empire. It has many detractors and opponents. This is not the forum to discuss the rights and wrongs of what was the greatest Empire the world will ever see.

By the time Europe ‘stumbled into war’, the British Empire was long past the “loot and pillage” stage of economic development. While fairly lucrative for a while, merely bleeding overseas territories dry is not a long-term strategy. To maintain an Empire of this magnitude, it is necessary to create wealth.

The British showed a genius for accomplishing this seemingly impossible task. From mining and other forms of resource extraction, to the huge plantations of rubber, coffee and tea, the sprawling sheep and cattle farms of the Antipodes, the British Empire was one huge integrated yet diversified economic engine.

Pax Britannica and the Royal Navy maintained the sea routes for trade. A huge professional colonial army kept the peace on land. And most crucially, though often overlooked, an expansive, very competent and extremely professional administrative Civil Service, kept the whole enormous machine functioning efficiently.

This last feature was the greatest and most lamented casualty of the First World War. Practically an entire generation of Britain’s finest young men were dead or wounded. The legions of educated and competent university graduates, not especially clever but capable, who could not find employment in the British Isles and so gravitated to the Colonies, were the “secret sauce” that allowed the Empire to function so efficiently.

These were the likes of Leonard Woolf and his peers; young men who were the overlords of vast swathes of territory, often the only white man for hundreds of square miles. By some mysterious alchemy, these isolated and lonely youths administered many thousands of His Majesty’s subjects, on the whole fairly and well.

After the Great War, these young men were no longer available. The Empire had no choice but to (reluctantly, one would assume) begin the process of recruiting “natives” to the Civil Service and even the hallowed Indian Army’s Officer Corps. Once the process was begun, it could not be reversed and withdrawal from the Colonies became inevitable.

It would take a second, even more devastating World War, much agitation by indigenous activists and another couple of generations before this became reality. But the start of it all could well be traced to those countless young men “who lie in Flanders fields”, in what will be ‘Forever a part of England”.

The cost of conflict

Any post-conflict country, will face such a situation. Especially one such as Sri Lanka today, in which casualties of internal conflict, falling birth rates and accelerated ageing due to increased life expectancy, massive out migration for employment and a one-time refugee exodus, combined with factors such as huge expansion in public service employment, has the potential to cause crippling shortages in other sectors for skilled manpower.

It is essential that policymakers factor in these issues if labour intensive agriculture, industry and service sectors are to be sustained.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    While only about 50% accurate the author nevertheless has managed to weave something readable out of the events of the Great War. However, he has only spend a fraction of his time, only the last passage, discussing the most important thing to consider: the future of Lanka. The current dynamics in the country do not bode well for a happy future. Many dangers are around the corner for the Lankans, particularly as the current 40-60+ generation ages and becomes irrelevant. The spectacular rise of the Jihadist, Wahabi fanatics, which for some reason most Lankans seem to ignore will decide the future for the country. The current Rajakasan leadership, in spite of many major shortcomings, is still a strong one, that deters socialists and others of the left from emerging to create chaos. But Islamic fanaticism is given a pass and that will be the turning point for Lanka when the buck Moslem fanatics, uneducated, drunk with the relative economic strength and advantages they have over the rest of the population, adhering to ISIS, ALqaeda, and other barbarians, start asking for their pound of Sharia flesh, trying to harm the innocent, economically disadvantaged Sinhala and Tamil youth. The time to act is now!! Tomorrow will be too late.

  • 1

    The article covers a big area and gives a wide idea in a nutshell, it’s like lecture from History Professor. The First World War did not end all wars as expected as the author had described it open the doors for many wars including the present Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is fair to think the Second World War would have not happened if not for this war. Soon after this war Bolshevik revolution took place and begin a era that lasted for over seven decades of communism in Russia and later eastern part of Europe. It is correct to think best part of the World History is made and written in Europe, and Europe lost many lives and if counted the total lost of humans in both the World Wars may run into tens of millions. If not for the two World wars today European population would have increased by another 200 million.

  • 0

    Great Britain which had entered the war as such, became indebted to and subservient to the interests of the US at the end of it. The US was the clear winner in a war that was fought in Europe, and ever since then all military effort had been to keep it that way, away from the US soil, and to increase it’s sphere of ‘influence’ over the globe.

    The “Young Turks” ran the Ottoman Empire which lost, but another group of “Young Turks” took over the vast Russian empire in the guise of the Bolsheviks. Today they are far less in evidence in Russia though they effectively run quite a few countries in the West including the USA.

  • 2

    Ironic is it not, that Great Britain which enslaved and divided so many nations around the world is now breaking up itself. Even if Scotland does not vote for independence the momentum created will lead to further votes for separation in the future.

  • 1

    An interesting summary of World War I, but it doesn’t mention the role of Japan, which foreshadowed its role in World War II. From Wikipedia:

    “Japan participated in World War I from 1914 to 1918 in an alliance with the Entente Powers and played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the German Kaiserliche Marine. Politically, Japan seized the opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in China, and to gain recognition as a great power in postwar geopolitics.

    Japan’s military seized German possessions in the Pacific and East Asia, but there was no large-scale mobilization of the economy.[1] Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki and Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu wanted to use the opportunity to expand Japanese influence in China. They enlisted Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), then in exile in Japan, but they had little success.[2] The Imperial Japanese Navy, a nearly autonomous bureaucratic institution, made its own decision to undertake expansion in the Pacific. It captured Germany’s Micronesian territories north of the equator, and ruled the islands until 1921. The operation gave the Navy a rationale for enlarging its budget to double the Army budget and expanding the fleet. The Navy thus gained significant political influence over national and international affairs.[3]”

    As for the “greatest Empire the world will ever see” (rather debatable), wasn’t the British Empire built on the blood, sweat and tears of slaves – initially transported from Africa and later from Asia?

  • 0

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