Blogs > Liberty and Power > Armed Forces & Empire: Some Interesting Figures

Aug 14, 2006 10:00 am

Armed Forces & Empire: Some Interesting Figures

1. It was said ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’. ‘Because’ -- as one wag put it -- ‘God didn’t trust the British’. Be that as it may, it is obvious that the British armed forces during the Imperial period must have been far, far larger than in the late 20th century -- correct? Since they had that far-flung, global Empire to ‘defend’. Well, have a look (the figures cover the British Army, the Royal Navy, & the Royal Marines):

1861, British armed forces, total: 281,611
As % of labour force: 2.64 %
Numbers at home (= 41.53 % of total)116,953
As % of labour force: 1.10 %

1891, British armed forces, total: 270,644
As % of labour force: 1.85 %
Numbers at home (= 50.42 % of total)
As % of labour force: 0.93 %

In sum: as the British Empire expanded to its fullest extent, & at its very peak: the total numbers in the armed forces _fell_ (fell) by some 4 %; the numbers stationed throughout the Empire _fell_ (fell) by some 18.5%; the numbers stationed _at home_ rose (rose) by about 16 %. As a proportion of the labour force, the total armed forces _fell_ (fell) from 2.64 to 1.85 %. Some ‘Empire’.

2. By contrast, in the late 20th century, when Empire had long since disappeared -- (the numbers now include the Royal Air Force):

1990, British armed forces, total: 305, 750.

(a) This figure is some 2.24 times _higher_ than the numbers stationed at home in 1891, & some 11.5 % _higher_ than the _total_ for that year, _including_ the forces guarding the world’s greatest Empire.
(b) In 1891, the armed forces at home came to 0.93% of the labour force. In 1990, this proportion was 1.06 %.

Clearly, in terms of the size of the armed forces, Britons were far better off in the days of Empire, since the armed forces were so much _smaller_ then.

3. What about the ratio of Imperial forces to colonised populations? We may contrast the British & the so-called American ‘Empire’:

1891, British armed forces stationed in (undivided) India: 90,666
Population of undivided India: 287, 223, 431
Number of Indians per British soldier: 3,168

2006, American troops stationed in Iraq: c. 150,000
Population of Iraq: 26,074,906
Number of Iraqis per American soldier: 174

In other words: Comparing Iraq in 2006 with undivided India in 1891: the American Empire (so-called) has _more than 18 times_ the military personnel, for _one-eleventh_ of the population colonised. It is true, of course, that in 1891 the British Empire was maintaining a garrison only, in undivided India, whereas Iraq in 2006 is in a state of civil war. But: Throughout 2002 & 2003, from the very highest level downwards, _no_ American official wanted to think _seriously_ about what course to follow in Iraq, post-Hussein. Australian officials (for one) tried hard. But no American wanted to know. Official American thinking stopped with the war.

This is the outlook of the _military adventurer_: short-term & short-sighted. It is the _opposite_ of the Imperial administrator -- who _must_ look to the long-term. It is ironic that _Australian_ officials were the long-sighted ones. That is because even Australian officials have experience of administering ‘colonies’ -- Papua New Guinea & Nauru were under Australian administration until 1975 & 1968, respectively. And Australians were themselves subjects of the now-vanished British Empire. Therefore Australian officials thought in administrative, not military terms. But the Americans’ only experience is with military adventures. So their officials could not conceive of anything beyond the immediate, military outcome.

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Ian G - 8/24/2006

The comparison seems to ring true, although with caveats.

a. It is more of a timing thing than the thinking of one group versus another. E.g., at the end of WWII, Montgomery went to great trouble to create ceremony in accepting the German surrender in the British area -- he had the formal surrender read and accepted over the radio at excrutiating length. Likewise, the American forces under MacArthur insisted that the Japanese Emperor announce and broadcast the surrender. Both of these actions were to create the legitimacy of the incoming administration.

b. In contrast, after WWII, the trend was to not administer, and Britain went through decades of divesting territories, by one means or another. The commentary and actions of the post-WWII times look and sound ill-thought-out, as does the comment above:

"The * Coalition's * strategy throughout has been to provide adequate conditions – security, basic services and economic development – to allow the Iraqis to determine their future."

Leaving the unenviable impression that they are just blathering.

c. They don't declare wars like they used to, formal war having fallen out of favour since WWII. So, with no war declared, there is no formal surrender required, and thus no legitimacy established by the ruling state. As the Coalition has no particular desire for long-term administration and its concommitant legitimacy, this is seemingly not at odds.

d. The notion that one would need to rely on *classified* strategy and planning documents for *administration* simply rings false.

e. It's hard to imagine a world where the coalition would take another course (by e.g. deciding to administer). In GW1, the elder Bush stated a fairly simple mission of ejecting Iraq from Kuwait. When they had pushed the Iraqis back far enough, they deliberately withdrew. (Thus creating legitimacy by confirming the mission.) In contrase, the strategic mission for GW2 is still challenging us to determine, thus creating no foundation on which to decide whether administration is appropriate to mission or not, let alone whether the coalition is ready or desires it.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/19/2006

1. ???? But that is precisely the point. To paraphrase what I wrote: the military adventurer's outlook is myopic. This is what one finds in US politicians & officials. The Imperial administrator _has_ to take the long-term view. This is what characterises the Roman, British, even the French & German empires.

2. B G Tilak makes no reference to the Russo-Japanese war. Mainstream Indian politicians then & now, are echo chambers of the British left.

William Marina - 8/19/2006

The Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 raised anti-imperialist consciousness all over Asia. Chiang, for example, went to Japan to study.
You have not, however, addressed my main point, that comparisons are not very apt because the US, unlike GB, was not into extended colonial adm., but had very high kill-ratios, nonetheless.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/18/2006

1. Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1914. In 1916 he was still establishing himself in Indian politics (the Jones Act was passed that year.)Gandhi remained in the moderate wing of the Indian National Congress throughout the 1920s & 1930s. He only called for dominion status for undivided India in 1928, & only _threatened_ to ask for independence in 1931, at the time of the Round Table Conference.

2. The first demand for Indian independence came in 1905, from the radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He said famously, "Swaraj is my birthright & I shall have it." This was when Bengal was partitioned, i.e., Tilak was reacting to purely indian developments. He led the radical wing of Congress. 1905 is some 11 years _before _ the Jones Act.

It would be interesting to see a study of the profound influence of the Jones Act on the Indian politicians of the time. Also the reactions of the Foreign Office, in the midst of the carnage of WWI, with the first conscription ever in British history, etc. etc.

3. British India in 1947 consisted of the various territories the East India Company had acquired, by conquest & otherwise, from 1765 to c. 1854. In 1765, the _Mughal Emperor appointed the Company_ to be his revenue-collector in Bengal, Bihar & Orissa (the Company acquired the 'diwani' in the famous phrase.)But, to paraphrase P J Marshall:'No one then could have envisaged the possibility of British supremacy over the subcontinent...The Company had become a regional Indian power...through Indian political processes...There was much continuity between early British rule & the Indian regimes they displaced...'

Haileybury College was established only in 1805, to give some education to cadets coming out to train for administering the Company's territories. After 1858, when the Crown took over, all administrators sat the same exams in London. Those at the top joined the Indian Civil Service, the second tier went into the Colonial Service. The third tier joined the Home Civil Service. -- In short, the civil administration was on top, & administrators directly headed the administration of districts, in undivided India & elsewhere.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/17/2006

1. Senior Oz politicians & officials spoke directly to Greg Sheridan. That is why he could say what he did. They are quoted in his book. To repeat: these officials & politicians were recounting their own interactions with their American counterparts.

2. In political history one always distinguishes between exculpatory documents, whitewash, from real policy thinking & real policy aims. The latter appears in (inter alia) private papers of all sorts. See any standard policy history.

Col Steve J - 8/17/2006

Dr. Shenoy - You claim "what actually transpired" is accurately captured by a newspaper editor. Unless he has read and can cite classified US and Coalition strategy and planning documents, has attended or can cite the record of senior policy decision meetings, and has specific people "on the record" who have done so, then how does his claim merit much consideration? Yes, we've been generalizing here - but your "what government officials put out in the public is false" claim is a whopper!

Or does your sentence only apply to Australian's conservative party leaders?

William Marina - 8/17/2006

I think this comparison a bit tedious!
Having written extensively on the American opponents of Empire, I would be among the last to argue that the US interventions have not involved the enormous loss of life, even before Bombing became a major instrument of same.
The Anti-Imperialist analysis in 1902 suggested closer to 600,000 Filipinos killed, for example, rather than the 200-220 thousand mentioned in some textbooks today, clearly based on "official" figures. Our "Benevolent Pacifications" have actually improved as in Iraq, although they remain incredible destructions of human life.
The US in the PI did not solely use the old Spanish Adm. as you said earlier. Unlike the Brits., our so-called Civilian Adm. at the top was actually run by the Military, the BIA, (Bur. of Insular Affairs, not the other one, the Bur. of Indian Aff., although some officers might have earlier been involved in that one also).
The most important point is that while the Brits & other European powers aimed at extended in time Colonial Empires needing Adm., the US, despite its killing ratio, did not, always wishing to establish native regimes, but, of course, friendly to the US.
If you want to explore the BIA records in the Nat. Archives, or the 92 reels of film in the Phil. Insurgent Records (for which I did the Index in use there) you will find among others, the following information.
When the US began to promise independence to the Filipinos, pushed by the Antis, this news spread all over Asia, including India & Indo-China.
Gandhi was among the first to ask, if this could be done in the PI, why not with India, with a much longer and deeper cultural history?
The British gov't was furious, and protested loudly to those shaping policy in the BIA and elsewhere. Sun Yat-sen was in Denver raising funds for China when the Revolution broke out there, and he hurried back to lead it.
American Imperial anti-colonialism has always reminded me a bit of the Inquisition; it might be necessary to incinerate a number, in order to save the souls of others, for "Democracy," of course!

Sudha Shenoy - 8/16/2006

1. Of course in material for public consumption the usual soothing pap will be put out. What _actually_ transpires is another story altogether. What senior Oz officials & politicians actually experienced over the space of _two years_, in _interaction with_ their US opposite numbers, is a clear indicator of what the latter were _actually_ thinking about.

2. Brig. Aylwin-Foster emphasises that the US military thought always in 'technical' terms -- i.e., firepower & the use of weapons. See also what he says on 'institutionalised racism' in US military thinking. This is the _opposite_ of long-term civil administration.

3. Of course once the war ended post-war civil problems appeared & were handled, somehow. See Nir Rosen's account of US troops dealing with Iraqi people, for the depths of ignorance of local conditions displayed by these troops.

The point remains: for US officials & politicians, this is a _military_ exercise, in line with all others in US history. This is in stark contrast with past empires, which involved long-term civil administration.

Col Steve J - 8/16/2006

Speech by Australian Foreign Minister in June 04.

The Coalition has removed once and for all the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his brutal regime.

It is now supporting Iraqi efforts to bring stable representative government to a country ruined by three decades of tyranny.

Australia is proud of its continuing role in the * Coalition's * strategy for Iraq's rehabilitation.

The * Coalition's * strategy throughout has been to provide adequate conditions – security, basic services and economic development – to allow the Iraqis to determine their future.

Read the US Strategy for Victory in Iraq or US State Dept Strategic Plan for 2004-09 (unclassified).

You cite Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster's article out of context. His discussion was more focused on the US Army's approach to Phase IV (stability) operations in Iraq as the context. His comments do not generalize to some larger comparison of firepower. In fact, the same article, he mentions the stability and reconstruction operations and methods successfully employed by 2 Army commanders - examples of beyond just "kinetic" thinking (which is what I think you mean, but wrongly use, with the word military).

Again, the context is so vastly different between the time periods that any narrative you're trying to tell has little substantive value.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/16/2006

1. I paraphrase Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, from his well-known article: 'In Nov 2004, in a _single_ night, US forces fired in excess of forty 155mm. artillery rounds into a small part of Fallujah. By general standards, this was a formidable barrage. But the local US commander considered it to be very minor.' In other words, US firepower remains overwhelmingly greater than that of any other force in the field, including the other DC forces.

2. I did say that a civil war raged in Iraq in 2006, while in undivided India in 1891, only a garrison was posted. The point was to underline the distinction between an irresponsible, myopic, military adventure (the US); & settled, long-term, civil administration -- the Roman, British, & even the French & German empires.

To repeat: Australian officials _& politicians_ all thought in terms of the civil situation _after_ the war. What they found, throughout 2002 & 2003, was that American thinking was purely military -- it stopped dead with the war itself. No amount of Oz urging had any impact.

3. After Saddam was deposed, the other contenders for power were all now able to fight openly for power. Iraq is still in an interregnum. The current govt is a Shi'ite majority govt, therefore not supported by Sunni would-be rulers, who want more power. Internal power disputes are continuing amongst the various Shi'i ruling groups, as are regional power disputes (eg the rulers of Basra want more.)

The Americans are allied to the current govt. Therefore they are also attacked by the Sunnis, as the latter attack the current govt, & the various Shi'i groups. Not all the Shi'i rulers are happy with the power they hold currently, hence they dispute violently with the govt & its American ally, & of course with the other Shi'i & Sunni contenders for power. And so on.

4. The Marathas [later 18th century] weren't that far behind the contemporaneous British: see Randolf G. S. Cooper, 'The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns & the Contest for India' CUP 2005.

William Marina - 8/15/2006

Dear Sudha,
It does not appear to me that any useful comparison of British Empire forces, both military and adm., in various places, with that of the American, in say, The Philippines and Iraq, can be made without taking into account the weaponry available to the Insurgents opposing imperial rule in those nations.

Most Insurgents lacked the weapons so that there are accounts of the Brit soldiers shame in cutting down Zulus with their Gatling guns.

It does not take many personnel to rule under such circumstances. The East African tribes using guerrilla tactics fought much better and were not subdued until the weapons source, Belgium, could be co-opted into stopping the support.

The Filipinos lacked weapons and the Americans were able to halt those promised by the Japanese.

In Iraq, the Insurgents do not lack weapons, and post Lebanon, those are likely to increase. If they
acquire anti-aircraft missiles, it will really change things.

Bill Marikna

Sudha Shenoy - 8/14/2006

1. Yes but military occupation is _not_ civil administration. As I understand it, the old Spanish civil service simply continued in the Philippines. There was an American 'Governor-General'(not the correct title) but no real, basic change. Nor any _long-term_ American _administrators_. Also internal 'self-rule' was implemented & extended from early on. And in any case, the whole was for only about ? 47 years or so.

Similarly for other medium-term _military_ occupations. By definition, they must always be considered 'temporary'. So previous _civil_ administrations continued. It was just that the military happened to be American. For the 'colonised', the experience of _military overlordship_ is _not_ the same as _civil rule_. There is a fundamental difference.

2. When the term 'empire' is used, it is the picture of the Roman or British Empires which is conjured up -- _not_ the various short-term, myopic military interventions, occupations, etc found in US history.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/14/2006

1. The material on US official thinking stopping with the war came from top Australian officials & politicians who were in close contact with their US counterparts throughout. See Greg Sheridan, 'The Partnership', Univ of New South Wales Press, forthcoming (31 Aug 2006.) Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of _The Australian_ newspaper, the leading paper here in Oz. He is a highly respected writer.

2. The comparison shows the difference between military adventurism & long-term imperial thinking -- in terms of the long-term _administration_ of the 'colonised' territories. This is historical reality. Where does US official thinking belong?

3. The Civil War, military occupation of various territories at various times, etc -- that is precisely the point. These are all _military_ experiences, _not_ experience of colonial _administration_. Military interventions are _not_ long-term civil administration.

Col Steve J - 8/14/2006

A comparison of the type of military capabilities available to the British empire to garrison India in 1891 in relation to US (and Coalition)capabilities for Iraq is rather useless. As Eliot Cohen wrote, "the historical mind views them (analogies) with grave suspicion because it is exceptionally sensitive to context; it looks for uniqueness much more than commonality. And it flinches - appropriately so - when someone says "this is like that," because usually "this" is actually nothing like "that."

Would you compare ratios of US forces in West Germany at the height of the Cold War?

Your assertions that nobody was thinking beyond the war is simply wrong. Some of the thinking and execution was flawed, but those problems are a different animal than thinking the US military had a short-term outlook. What proof do you have to claim - Official American thinking stopped with the war?

Have you read any US military history? Besides the Philippines, there is the Civil War, experiences in several Latin American countries, and post-War Europe to cite only a few examples.

Robert Higgs - 8/14/2006

We might credit the U.S. forces with having had a pretty fair spell of colonial administration in the Philippines, not to mention various other de facto colonies.