Period when the British Empire reigned supreme

Harry Patch
Harry Patch

by Dr Jack Binns

Harry Patch celebrated his 111th birthday on June 17, 2009. When he died the following August not only was he the oldest man in Britain but also the last survivor of the fighting trenches of the Great War, as his generation called it until another one even greater began in 1939.

He was the last infantryman of the five million British and Dominion troops who had fought in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918, the last veteran of Ypres, and the last who had gone “over the top” on to the killing ground of no-man’s land. His death therefore served the final direct human link between the past and the present.

The First World War had become history.

When Harry Patch was born in 1898 in a small village near Bath in Somerset, Britain was then almost unrecognisable from the country we know today. Queen Victoria still had nearly three years to live and reign; Gladstone had just passed away; and the Conservative Prime Minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, sat in the House of Lords.

By 1898 the British Empire had reached its zenith: the sun never set on the Union Jack somewhere in the world. An empire of free trade won by force and maintained by force ruled over much of the land as well as the waves. In 1898, at the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, General Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army killed 10,000 dervish (Islamic zealots) with their Maxim machine guns and river-borne artillery. Kitchener lost four dozen soldiers. Cecil Rhodes’s dream of a British African hegemony stretching from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope was being achieved by the military and industrial might of two off-shore European islands.

No wonder the British public and press were delighted that the murder of General Gordon had been mercilessly avenged and once again in the European “scramble for Africa” their rivals there, the French and the Germans, had been seen off.

Elsewhere, the British had already taken the lion’s share of colonial spoils. Their migrant settlers populated and controlled Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the South African Cape. In Africa, India, the West Indies and south-east Asia, 350 million indigenous people were imperial subjects. British naval and mercantile bases such as Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong underpinned the world-wide superiority of the Royal Navy.

Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and most recently Germany had overseas possessions, but none of them compared in extent, wealth, population and commerce with Britain’s. As one contemporary historian has written: “The British had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered India. Now they reigned supreme.”

Not surprisingly, Harry Patch’s people thought of themselves as innately superior to the rest of mankind and the rest of mankind regarded them as arrogant bullies and envied their dominance.

Yet in the same year as Harry’s birth, events indicated that the British Empire was now subject to a growing number of international challenges. The Americans were on the move: they had conquered their continental space with railways and subdued the “inferior” native population; in 1897 they took over Hawaii; and the following year, after a war with Spain, they acquired Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Formerly, one of the victims of Western dictation, Japan was now flexing its muscles: in 1895 it had annexed Formosa (Taiwan) from decrepit China and gained a free hand in Korea.

If the scramble for Africa was largely settled, the scramble for China was intensifying. The Germans had just taken Tsingtao as a Far Eastern naval base and the Russians were building the Trans-Siberian railway to the Pacific coast and encroaching on Manchuria.

But the event which perforated British self-confidence came when Harry was only one-year-old. In 1899 British statesmen provoked a war with the Boers of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The whole might of the empire was thrown at “30,000 farmers”. However, during the first few weeks the Boers inflicted three bloody and humiliating reverses on their enemies. In the end they were beaten into submission, but it took nearly three years, 45,000 British deaths, and Kitchener’s ruthless use of scorched earth. Worst of all, in the world’s first concentration camps thousands of innocent Boer women and children died of epidemic and malnutrition.

The leader of the Liberal opposition condemned what he called “methods of barbarism” and David Lloyd George, darling of the Radical reformers, said that the reputation of the nation had been “stained”. After two decades in the political wilderness, the Liberals won a landslide victory in the election of 1906. On the Left, “imperialism” became a term of abuse. Most alarmingly, every major European government, except Russia’s and the USA, condemned Britain and sympathised with the Boers.

The Boer war undermined British self-satisfied complacency in another way. As many as half of the young men who volunteered for military service were rejected as mentally or physically unfit. Stunted, underweight, diseased, deformed and illiterate, they were victims of slum homes and endemic poverty. The main killer of the young in 1901 was tuberculosis. Expectation of life for men was 46 and for women 50. Seebohm Rowntree’s social survey of York provided factual proof that a third of the city’s population existed in extreme need, not because of drunkenness or idleness but because of low wages, unemployment and old age. And yet the richest nation on earth did nothing to help the elderly, to provide work, to feed the starving or to educate teenage children. The school-leaving age was 12. The only state “welfare” provided was the dreaded workhouse. For many years, income tax of the rich had been fixed at three per cent!

During the next decade, as Harry Patch grew up in rural Somerset, the Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and then Herbert Asquith faced a number of urgent, vital questions. If they raised much more money in taxation and duties, which should take priority, battleships for the Royal Navy or old age pensions for the elderly poor?