The modern Commonwealth of Nations, whose official head is the Queen, has 53 independent sovereign states as members, most of whom were once part of the British Empire.
Today around a third of the world’s population lives in its member countries – 2.2 billion people of varied races, languages and beliefs. They range from the largest, India, with a population of 1.3 billion, to Nauru – an island in the Pacific – with just over 11,000. Each member nation is regarded as equal, no matter their size or wealth.
The Commonwealth champions democracy, economic development and human rights. It is a way of nations keeping in touch informally, through friendship and strong historical links.
During the First World War, Britain turned to the Empire for assistance – including New Zealand, India, the West Indies, Australia, Canada and South Africa. Vast resources, especially manpower, were needed. Tens of thousands sacrificed their lives or were injured while willingly serving Britain. Without them, Britain would have been far weaker. As Allies they contributed to the eventual defeat of Germany.
Here are 7 places in England with little-known or unusual First World War connections to the Commonwealth, both military and civilian…
1. Bere Ferrers Memorial, Bere Ferrers, Devon
Around 100,000 New Zealanders (out of a population of just over one million) served in the First World War. On 24 September 1917, a group of these soldiers were en route by train to Salisbury Plain, having arrived in Britain at Plymouth dock. The solders had not eaten since 6am and had been told they would be given food at the first stopping place – Exeter. There two men from each carriage were to collect rations from the guard’s van.
When their train made an unscheduled stop just before 4pm at Bere Ferrers to wait for the Waterloo to Plymouth express train to pass, the soldiers believed the stop to be Exeter and got off the train. Their train was 18 carriages long, much longer than the train platform and most got out from carriages that were not alongside. As they started to walk down the track to the guard’s van, the express train smashed into them. Nine soldiers were killed instantly and one died of his injuries in hospital.
They were buried in Commonwealth War Grave Commission graves at Efford Cemetery, Plymouth. Their names were inscribed on the Bere Ferrers memorial, joining those of local men who had lost their lives in the war.
2. Barton-on-Sea Memorial, Hampshire
1n 1914, the hotels of Barton Court and, later, the nearby Grand Marine (soon extended with a large temporary hutted camp) were commandeered by the army as healthy seaside convalescent homes for sick and injured British troops. Before long, Indian soldiers who had also been serving on the Western Front – many of whom were suffering from dysentry – were posted there too. The complex became known as the Indian Army Convalescent Home.
More than 1 million servicemen of the Indian Army served overseas during the First World War, of whom around 74,000 died. Some 25,000 sick soldiers were posted to Barton-on-Sea to recover, benefitting not only from the medical treatment and sea air, but also other facilities, including a YMCA theatre where concerts were held.
The medical staff wanted to commemorate the Home and its work. They themselves funded the tall granite obelisk with its English and Urdu inscriptions.
3. Seaford Camp, East Sussex
At the outbreak of the First World War, the West Indies offered to send contingents of their forces to England. In total 16,000 soldiers were recruited, plus around 4,500 volunteers, forming the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR).
Seaford was a vast training camp for West Indian, British and later Canadian troops who were all stationed there in preparation for combat in Europe and elsewhere. The BWIR played a significant role in the war, particularly in Palestine and Jordan fighting Germany’s ally, the Turks. By the end of the war the BWIR had lost 185 soldiers who were killed or died of wounds. A further 1,071 died of illness; 697 were wounded.
4. Upper Hurdcott Farm chalk map of Australia, overlooking the village of Compton Chamberlayne, near Fovant, Wiltshire
Villages in the Fovant locality became military camps to house thousands of British and Australian soldiers leaving for and returning to the battlegrounds of the Western Front. Troops cut enormous chalk regimental badges on the downs that today form a powerful visual memorial to the military importance of the area.
Among them was this outline of a map of Australia, originally cut by troops belonging to the Australian Imperial Force, Australia’s expeditionary force. The Australians underwent training in the area August 1916 to March 1917, but took over many of the camps around Fovant from October 1917 until after the Armistice, when the camps were used as dispersal centres for those awaiting repatriation.
416,809 Australians – from a population of fewer than five million – enlisted during the First World War. More than 60,000 were killed. 156,000 were wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
5. The Fox Goes Free pub, Charlton, West Sussex
The Women’s Institute (WI) movement started in Canada in 1897 and it was a Canadian, Madge Watts, who was appointed by Britain’s Agricultural Organisation Society to establish WI’s here. The first meeting in England was held in a back room of this mainly 17th century inn on 9 December 1915.
There was a pressing need to increase food production during the First World War and the WI encouraged rural women to get involved in growing and preserving food while the men were away at war.
6. HM explosives factory, Gretna, Cumbria
In addition to the thousands who fought for Britain in the First World War, a large number of men also arrived here to work in the munitions industry. One of many chemists from the Commonwealth who came to Britain’s assistance was Kenneth Bingham Quinan, an American-born chemical engineer who had settled in South Africa as general manager of the largest explosives factory in the world.
On 19 December 1915, after receiving a cable asking him to join the war effort, he moved to Britain, making a key contribution by introducing innovative chemical technology and designing and building efficient high explosives factories, such as the colossal Gretna Green complex straddling the England and Scotland border for 9 miles.
Built in response to the 1915 ‘Shell Scandal’ (a critical shortage of artillery shells), Gretna had a workforce of 16,500, of whom 11,000 were women. Its production of the propellant cordite was more than all the other factories across the Empire combined.
7. Imperial Camel Corps Memorial, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London
The Camel Corps was established 19 December 1916 for desert warfare. The first men to enlist were Australians returning from the disasterous Gallipoli campaign (25 April – 9 January 1916). They were joined by British troops, as well as men from across her Empire – New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and India.
At its height, the Camel Corps had more than 4,000 soldiers and nearly 5,000 camels. They ferried troops over long distances across hostile desert terrain, carrying heavy weaponry and supplies. The Corps was comprised of companies that operated as independent units, travelling by camel, but dismounting to confront the enemy as infantrymen. The Corps fought many campaigns in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. 346 of its soldiers lost their lives during the hostilities.
- Find out more about listed places with connections to the Commonwealth in our online leaflet Commonwealth Commemorated: A Selection of Protected Places in England
- Forgotten heroes of the First World War
- 100 Years of the Royal Air Force