A European war meant a world war. From the very beginning, the overseas empires of the European powers were drawn into the conflict. As the war spread, so did the suffering.
Germany hoped to divert Britain’s attention away from the Western Front. It struck at Britain’s global empire. Britain struck back. There was fighting in Africa, in Asia and in the Middle East. In these far-flung campaigns, more soldiers and civilians became victims of disease than of shells and bullets.
The seas were also battlegrounds. Both sides tried to starve their enemies. They sank or seized ships carrying vital food and supplies.
The figurine in the showcase ahead of you depicts navy minister Winston Churchill as Britannia, the personification of British naval power.
The failure of Churchill's risky plan for the Royal Navy to knock Turkey out of the war led to troops landings at Gallipoli and his removal from the government.
The souvenir map of the campaign shown here was given away to readers of the Manchester Guardian.
German troops placed the sign in the showcase in front of you above one of their trenches in France to demoralise British soldiers. The ‘Interesting War News’ is of the surrender of ‘English’ troops at Kut, Mesopotamia, in April 1916, after a siege lasting four months.
The surrender to the Turks of the sick, starving garrison, mostly Indian soldiers, was a humiliation for the British Empire.
Lent by Her Majesty The Queen
This pig was rescued by British sailors when the German cruiser Dresden was sunk off Chile. One sailor wrote that it was ‘a great pet. It is bathed every day, and on Sundays wears an iron cross round its neck’. It was named Tirpitz after the head of Germany’s navy. Tirpitz became something of a celebrity and was later auctioned to raise money for the British Red Cross. The pig’s head and trotters were preserved after its death.
Russian Maxim machine gun
The Russian Maxim machine gun beyond the showcase in front of you was captured by the Germans. For Russia, 1915 was the year of the ‘Great Retreat’, with terrible losses of men and vital equipment. Russia’s war industry was not able to replace valuable weapons like this. Converted to take German ammunition and used on the Western Front, this gun was later captured by British troops.
England must at least lose India
…if we are going to shed our blood, England must at least lose India.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, July 1914
From the very beginning of the war, Germany tried to distract and weaken its enemies.
In 1914 a handful of German warships prowled the oceans, sinking British shipping and disrupting the transport of troops and supplies. Only in December did the Royal Navy finally rid the seas of them.
From late 1914 Germany hoped to use its new ally, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), to threaten British India and raise rebellion among fellow Muslims in the Allied empires.
Turkish leaders threw their army into a hopeless campaign in southern Russia, where thousands of their soldiers froze to death.
Germany’s main target for 1915 was Russia. If it could force Russia from the war, Britain and France might also break. German forces won victory after victory. But Russia did not crack.
Ottoman Turkey’s leaders hoped that the support of Germany would restore their failing empire. Although German military experts had described the Turkish Army as ‘a military nonentity’, Germany still hoped to use it to strike at Britain’s links with India.
Turkey’s empire was in a good geographical position to do this, but it did not have a proper railway system to transport troops.
This Turkish officer’s uniform was worn by Second Lieutenant Abedine Houchemi of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, who fought at Gallipoli. His uniform was made in Germany, like much Turkish equipment.
Turkey’s military chief, Enver Pasha, feared that his army was ill-prepared for war. Although short of modern weapons and equipment, its best troops, recruited from the Anatolian countryside, proved tough fighters.
When Turkey entered the war in October 1914, it had 700,000 rifles designed by the German Mauser company. Turkey was unable to produce much of the equipment needed to fight a modern war, so it relied upon German weapons. During the war, Germany and Austria-Hungary would continue to supply Turkey with weapons and aircraft. They also sent small numbers of troops, particularly specialists such as machine gun and artillery units.
Turkish Army flag
This Turkish Army flag was captured during the battle for the Suez Canal in February 1915.Turkey attacked the Canal to try and cut Britain’s vital sea link with India. British and Empire troops fought off the attack, and the Turks were pushed back across the Sinai Desert in Egypt.
The Ottoman Empire stretched from Bulgaria to the borders of Iran, Russia and Arabia. Its soldiers fought in mountain snows and in desert heat. These rawhide shoes were made for walking on soft sand.
Turkish troops often had to rely on their own initiative to find personal equipment for the climates and terrains in which they fought.
This Arabic amulet, inscribed with warlike phrases from the Koran, claims to protect its wearer from the ‘oppression of the English’. In November 1914 Sultan Mehmed V of Turkey, who claimed leadership of the Islamic world, called upon Muslims to rise up against Britain and its allies. The Germans hoped this would have the effect of harming the British Empire, especially in Egypt and India.
Are there not other alternatives to sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?
Winston Churchill, Navy minister, 29 December 1914
Forced to respond to any threats to its empire and trade, Britain also saw opportunities to win the war outside Europe. In 1914 Britain began to seize Germany’s Asian and African colonies. War in Africa saw thousands of Africans die of hunger and disease.
In 1915 British and Empire troops defeated a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal. In Mesopotamia (Iraq), Indian forces protecting oil supplies and the land route to India ended the year besieged by Turkish forces.
Early in 1915 Britain’s leaders hoped a knockout blow against Turkey might even win the war itself.
A naval attack failed and British, Empire and French troops had to be landed at Gallipoli. They became locked in savage trench fighting.
By January 1916 the troops had been evacuated. Gallipoli had proved a disaster.
This fez was worn by an Askari, an African soldier serving with German colonial forces in Cameroon. Thousands of Africans fought for the colonial powers. A million more acted as porters and labourers. Three porters were needed to keep a single soldier supplied.
But, weakened by hunger and overwork and exposed to tropical diseases, one in five porters died.
The failure of British-led attacks on Turkey in 1915 was made even worse by the suffering of the troops who fought in them. British and Empire soldiers had to endure terrible conditions. Alternately baked and frozen by extreme weather, they lived with the constant threat of disease. And they were almost always thirsty. Although there was less artillery to threaten men’s lives than on the Western Front, war in the Middle East had plenty of dangers of its own.
This flag was carried by the 12th Battalion Australian Imperial Force, whose 1,000 soldiers went ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. A British officer wrote of the battalion, ‘The Australians were fine. ... They pulled in singing a song, “Australia will be there!” and I could see them scaling the cliffs’.
Within five days, over half the men of this battalion would be killed or wounded.
This uniform was worn by a private of 1st Battalion Australian Imperial Force, part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). At Gallipoli in April 1915, they had a bloody introduction to modern warfare.
One soldier described the dead as ‘long, sad rows of eternally silent figures, their drenched and blood stained khaki drying in the sun’.
Fly whisk and drinking filter
Thirst and flies tormented soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
This fly whisk was carried by Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Allied land forces at Gallipoli, who could find, ‘no escape...from the swarms of filthy flies’.
Foul water and insects spread diseases such as dysentery and malaria. But the Indian soldier who carried this drinking filter knew it would do little more than keep sand out of his water and tea.
Indian Army uniform
In campaigns outside Europe, Britain relied heavily upon the Indian Army, which with 1.5 million men was the world’s largest volunteer force. This is the uniform of a sepoy (private) of 57th Wilde’s Rifles, which fought on the Western Front before seeing service in Egypt and then East Africa.
The regiment was made up of Dogras, Pathans, Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs.
Conditions at Gallipoli were terrible. Summer heat was followed by autumn storms, then freezing winter. With constant gunfire and exposed, rocky terrain, getting cooked meals to soldiers in the trenches was difficult. So British and Empire troops existed on tinned beef, jam and hard, dry army biscuit. Some thought the tough biscuits made better war souvenirs than food.