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Distant Drums

The Role of Colonies in British Imperial Warfare

Ashley Jackson is forging a reputation as a leading historian of the British Empire and World War II. After eight years at Mansfield College, Oxford he moved to King's College London in 2004, where he is now Professor of Imperial and Military History. His third book, The British Empire and the Second World War, appeared to critical acclaim in 2006. He is currently writing Ocean Victory: Britain's Eastern War, 1939–1945 and a biography of Winston Churchill. His latest book, Mad Dogs and Englishmen: A Grand Tour of the British Empire at its Height, is published by Quercus.

Distant Drums reveals how colonies were central to the defence of the British Empire and the command of the oceans that underpinned it. It blends sweeping overviews of the nature of imperial defence with grass-roots explanations of how individual colonies were mobilized for war, drawing on the author's specialist knowledge of the Indian Ocean and colonies such as Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Mauritius, and Swaziland. This permits the full and dramatic range of action involved in imperial warfare – from policy-makers and military planners in Whitehall to chiefs recruiting soldiers in African villages – to be viewed as part of an interconnected whole.

After examining the martial reasons for acquiring colonies, Distant Drums considers the colonial role in the First World War. It then turns to the Second World War, documenting the recruitment of colonial soldiers, their manifold roles in British military formations, and the impact of war upon colonial home fronts. It reveals the problems associated with the use of colonial troops far from home, and the networks used to achieve the mobilization of a global empire, such as those formed by colonial governors and regional naval commanders.

Distant Drums is an important contribution to our understanding of the role of British colonies in twentieth-century warfare. The defence of empire has traditionally been associated with the military endeavours of Britain and the 'white' Dominions, with the Indian Army sometimes in the background. This book champions the crucial role played by the other parts of the British Empire – the sixty or so colonies spread across the globe – in delivering victory during the world wars of the twentieth century.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-349-2
Hardback Price: £49.95 / $74.95
Release Date: February 2010
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-438-3
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: November 2010
Page Extent / Format: 368 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes



1. The British colonial empire and imperial warfare

2. The role of colonies in imperial defence

3. The evolution of a martial colony: Ceylon, 1760 to 1960

4. The First World War in the Indian Ocean region

5. The First World War in a colonial backwater: The Bechuanaland Protectorate and the Caprivi Strip

6. Recruiting colonial soldiers: Mauritius and the High Commission Territories

7. The military contribution of High Commission Territories soldiers during the Second World War

8. Unrest among African soldiers in the British Army during the Second World War

9. The 1st Battalion The Mauritius Regiment, Madagascar, 1943: The archaeology of a colonial mutiny

10. Ceylon, Mauritius, and the Indian Ocean during the Second World War

11. ‘A prodigy of skill and organization’: British imperial networks and the Second World War

12. Colonial governors and the Second World War



Distant Drums is Ashley Jackson’s latest attempt to integrate twentieth century conflict into the history of the British Empire . . . Jackson argues that the colonial empire was at the very heart of imperial defence during two world wars and through its engagement . . . we are left with a richer and more vital understanding of military history, of the relationship of the periphery to the metropole bound by imperial command, and of a variety of national histories of former colonies . . . In Distant Drums, Jackson presents an excellent preface, a clearly articulated thesis, and some wonderful chapters of important research.
Journal of Military History, reviewed by Professor Stephen Millerp

The crucial role that India and the ‘white’ Dominions – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada – played in Britain’s system of imperial defence is well known. Jackson’s aim is to underline the vital contribution of those 50 or so other imperial territories ruled through the Colonial Office. ‘Colonies were woven into the tapestry of British warfare and Britain’s presence on the world state as the foremost power,’ writes Jackson. ‘Yet the military history of the colonial empire has been overlooked’. Why was this so? Partly, explains Jackson, because the Dominions and India provided the empire with its ‘main non-British defence assets that could be utilised for imperial purposes’. The colonies, on the other hand, had no warships or air forces, and their armies were relatively small during peacetime and intended ‘primarily for internal policing’. And when they did make significant military contributions – in both world wars, for example – it was often by the less glamorous provision of essential military labour to support fighting fronts, rather than front-line soldiers.
... Yet, according to Jackson, colonies have always been central to imperial defence. Many were acquired precisely because of this utility, and ‘small’ wars on the colonial frontier were the ‘meat and drink of the British military for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The ‘base infrastructure’ of colonies – from fortresses to aerodromes – was essential to the functioning of the British military system, as was their provision of human resources. During the Second World War, the colonies supplied more troops to the imperial cause than all of the ‘white’ Dominions combined, including the 100,000-strong logistical support force that enabled Montgomery’s victorious 8th Army to sweep all before it in north Africa. After Indian independence in 1947, colonies became even more important to Britain’s imperial defence planning, though large garrison forces were gradually replaced by carrier battle groups, strategic air lift and jet fighters.
... Nor has the empire entirely disappeared. Today Britain has overseas territories in the Caribbean, Antarctica, Mediterranean, the South Atlantic, the Indian and Pacific oceans, and one of its core defence missions is still protection of these possessions and the retention of overseas military bases. ‘The fact,’ writes Jackson, “of Britain’s continuing commitment to a global military presence, irrespective of the Cold War and the downsizing of the armed forces, should come as no surprise”. This important and long-overdue book confirms Jackson’s growing reputation as a leading historian of British imperial warfare.
Saul David, professor of war studies, University of Buckingham, writing in BBC History Magazine

Jackson examines the role of imperial colonies in the history of British imperial warfare, arguing that there has been undue focus on the military deliberations and capabilities of Britain, the Dominions, and India to the neglect of the rest of the colonies. He first discusses the major contours of imperial warfare and the place of the colonies within it and then focuses on the history of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as military base, strategic asset, and contributor of resources to Britain’s wars. He then examines World War I in terms of the significance of the Indian Ocean, the ‘east of Suez’ region (those areas of the world to which the British military had sea lanes of communication through the Suez Canal), and the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). The focus then shifts to World War II and the mobilization of colonial manpower in Southern Africa and their tasks in the war, levels of imperial authority and the management of colonial personnel assets, the importance of the Indian Ocean, the role of the Indian Ocean colonies of Ceylon and Mauritius, and networks of imperial authority and the role of colonial governors in the War.
Reference & Research Book News

Jackson argues that historians’ attention to the dominions and India has overshadowed the contribution of British colonies to imperial warfare. Given the empire’s demographics, this is unsurprising; yet, as Jackson demonstrates, the colonial world was a significant chain of imperial defense itself, providing troops, fortifications, supply lines, and resources. Jackson supports his argument through a series of case studies covering the two world wars, taking readers from southern Africa across the Indian Ocean. This is in some ways an odd book. It is not quite an abridgement of the colonial sections of Jackson’s more expansive The British Empire and the Second World War (2006), as it includes two chapters on WW I and one each on imperial networks and colonial governors in WW II. The book stands as a volume of collected essays (which in part it is – 8 of the 13 chapters are revised versions of Jackson’s previously published work) rather than a cohesive monograph. This is no bad thing; indeed, the book’s episodic nature, supplemented by a fine glossary and bibliography, suggests its best use is as a reference work on what Jackson has persuasively argued is a yet understudied aspect of Britain’s imperial martial history. Recommended.

Reading this collection of previously published chapters and articles augmented by revised or newly written material, it is not difficult to see why he is held in such growing acclaim or why this latest study has received such universally noteworthy reviews. The book’s focus is on imperial defense and the argument that the British colonial empire was central to a system of collective security that permeated strategic planning emanating from Whitehall throughout the twentieth century. In order to examine this thesis, the author explores how “imperial networks were employed to connect imperial resources to Britain’s strategic needs” (x), and, in the process, he seeks to correct a significant omission from much of the established literature in which the former “white” Dominions and India receive the lion’s share of the attention . . . A particularly vivid and fascinating chapter about Ceylon, a “martial colony” whose close connection with Britain spans over two hundred years, confirms not only the author’s eye for detail but the often delightful prose he employs when constructing his narrative. Another stand-alone, and indeed in this instance standout, chapter succinctly describes how the wider network operated during what would prove to be its greatest challenge, the Second World War . . . It is difficult to fault the production of this volume. It benefits from the inclusion of some lovely illustrations drawn from, among other locations, the Sri Lanka National Archives in Colombo. A vast, wide-ranging bibliography merely confirms the many years that have been spent in researching this subject. A real strength, previously alluded to, is the manner in which this study has been written. The task of threading together his previously published material with the newly revised additions is accomplished with great skill to produce a highly informative and well-written monograph that flows extremely well and draws the reader along to great effect. It will appeal to a great many readers, whether they are students of the British Empire or military historians.
Andrew Stewart in the Journal of British Studies, 50, 3 (2011)

The distant drums are not those vaguely heard from Britain; they are those heard from the perspective of African, Indian Ocean and Asian peoples. Jackson’s contention is that military historians have too often considered the great European wars of the 20th century in essentially Eurocentric ways. The role of empire and of colonial peoples has too often been played down and should be reconsidered. After two chapters considering the wider aspects of the significance of imperial defence as a whole, the author examines the emergence of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a martial colony between the 18th and 20th centuries, then the role of the colonies in the First World War, followed by the main body of the book, seven chapters on the contribution of the colonies to the Second World War. In one chapter, there is a consideration of the ways in which war played out in the Indian Ocean in much more significant ways than historians have previously acknowledged. Jackson’s major new approach has been to conduct original research in Botswana, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, as well as considering at some length recruitment in the southern African High Commission territories generally (that is, Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland). In many respects the book offers an antidote to the fierce moral critiques of empire of some recent historiography. For Jackson, these wars constituted genuinely progressivist campaigns against autocratic and evil states, wars in which the participation and sacrifices of colonial troops should be recognised and even celebrated. None the less, as Jackson himself acknowledges, these troops were often subject to racist attitudes and demeaning utilisation of their martial abilities. For example, they were often used in highly menial tasks, and that together with reactions to racist treatment could at times lead to ‘mutinies’. This book certainly acts as a fascinating revision in all sorts of ways, though – as Jackson would acknowledge – much remains to be written about the sweeping up of empire into the fiercely destructive wars of the 20th century, as well as the continuing operations of the colonial dimension in modern warfare. The Round Table, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs

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