The British Empire Library


A Fighting Retreat: British Empire, 1947-1997

by Robin Neillands

Winds of Change: The End of Empire in Africa

by Trevor Royle


Courtesy of OSPA


Review by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-1966 Now Emeritus Fellow, Oxford University)
Back in 1997 when these books were published, imperial retrospection was all the rage. It had been fifty years since India achieved independence, and the following year saw the same anniversary for Burma, Ceylon and Palestine; it was the fortieth anniversary of independence for the African continent's pace-setting Gold Coast, just as the previous year had marked that of the Sudan; it had been a century since the dazzling display of imperial pomp and circumstance marking Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee; and, just to emphasize the point to some Empire-sceptics that it was not just a flash-in-the-pan, 1997 celebrated the 500th year of John Cabot's landfall in Newfoundland (some now claim it was Labrador or Nova Scotia) and the first British Dominion. The Empire's reappraisal palpably began to turn away from the doctrinaire and one-sided anti-colonialism of the Marxist revisionism of the 1960s towards a more balanced and objective reassessment of not only what the men and women of Empire did and why they did it, but also, in the light of the headlined chaos and collapse of so many former colonial possessions, of how they did it.

Robin Neillands' A Fighting Retreat leaves the reader in no doubt that, for the author as for the hundreds of people who he interviewed, the answer to the conventional 1066- And-All-That kind of question is "Yes, the British Empire was A Good Thing''. This unambiguous conclusion is advanced despite the fact that Neillands concentrates his enquiry on those territories from which Britain's withdrawal was accompanied by violence and conflict. Though mercifully not on a par with France's military retreat from Indo- China and Algeria or Portugal's years of festering war in lusophone Africa, Britain too had its grave moments of armed conflict during decolonization: Palestine during the Mandate, the officially termed Emergencies in Malaya and Kenya, the heavy military involvement in the final stages of withdrawal from Cyprus and Aden, and the confrontation in Borneo and Brunei. These and other 'fighting retreats' are scrupulously examined here, with the background to each conflict carefully set out and a substantial part of the evidence taken from the testimony of people who were on the spot at the time. Our Association's Secretary is rightly thanked for his help in putting Neillands in touch with so many former Colonial Service officers. This is oral history at its most contemporary and convincing, whether the participants are Paras, Commandos or Gurkhas, planters, settlers or colonial officials. The text, enhanced by clear maps and excellent photographs, shares with those interviewed (listed in eight pages of acknowledgements) a clarity and fluency of unpretentious prose that makes A Fighting Retreat a pre-eminently readable book.

Three of the author's selection of trouble spots of empire are, however, awkward to justify under the chosen rubric of 'Retreat from Empire', however admirably analysed they are. First, by bringing in the massacres that accompanied the partition of India in 1947, the post-imperial younger reader (today meaning anyone under fifty!) may, given the focus and the argument of the book, assume that the British had to fight their way out of India in the face of a nationalist military campaign (an eventuality admittedly considered by Waved when he was Viceroy), whereas the truth is the British military involvement was a peace-keeping operation between the nationalist groups and in no way a fighting retreat like Dunkirk seven years earlier. The splendid Escort to the Colours performed by the Somerset Light Infantry as they marched through the Gate of India in Bombay on 28 February 1948, described in detail at pp.103-105, could never have taken place had the British army left India fighting a desperate rearguard action to the dockside. Secondly, the inclusion of Northern Ireland and the Falklands Campaign - again without prejudice to the quality of their chapters - strikes one as problematic. The Falklands War is unique in the fifty years of empire history encompassed in this study because it was the sole occasion when British troops fought not against a military-style insurgency (as in Malaya and Kenya) nor in aid of the civil power in controlling anti-British political protest culminating in serious rioting and terrorism (as in Palestine, Cyprus and Aden), but to defend the colony against external aggression - a colony which, to boot, preferred colonial government to independence and even more so to the alternative foreign rule on offer. As for Ulster (and Neillands himself is aware of the odd-man-out Chapter 17), while it stands out as a critical and, over twenty-five years, a defining case-study in military operations under a civilian administration, it is hard to justify its inclusion and to attribute to N. Ireland the status of a colonial possession within the British Empire, which is the very title and topic of the book. Unlike every other territory examined in this oral history of the last fifty years of the British Empire, Ulster was never the responsibility of the India Office, Colonial Office or Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Like Scotland or Wales, Northern Ireland is part of the 'Britain' in the equation rather than part of the British Empire.

In terms of imperial history, A Fighting Retreat is no pushover. Neillands does not flinch from criticism or controversy in handling what can still be a matter of passionate debate and will remain so for some time to come, namely the British Empire and its ending. For him, a prolific and popular military historian with a dozen major studies to his credit, it is the role of the British army in the transfer of power that is his principal interest. Yet his text and his conclusion rightly reach beyond the politico-military aspect. At the end of his five hundred page investigation, Neillands concludes that for the British people as well as for the British army, the end of empire is a story of which they all have reason to be proud.

Trevor Royle's Winds of Change is also focused on the end of empire, though his scene is but one continent - albeit the largest of them all in terms of Colonial Service manpower - Africa. For some of us Royle has already written his way happily onto our bookshelves, whether in his admirable The Last Days of the Raj or his entertaining study of National Service, The Best Years of Their Lives. In Winds of Change he allocates the first third of his fine narrative to the pre-war scene, using chapter headings like "Scrambling for Africa" and "The Lives They Always Led". For him "The Beginning of the End" was, as for much of Britain's social as well as political history, the Second World War and, as harbinger of what was to come, the implications of the Government of India Act 1935. Appositely, he quotes Curzon's prophesy of 1901 that the loss of India would presage the end of the whole British Empire: "If we lose it, we shall drop straight away to a third-rate power . . . your Crown Colonies and Protectorates will go too". Starting with the Sudan and Suez as part of what Royle calls "Keeping the Flags Flying", he proceeds to engage with the end of empire in Africa, devoting individual chapters to the Gold Coast ("First to Go"), Nigeria ("The Centre Cannot Hold"), East Africa, the Central African Federation, and Southern Rhodesia ("Last to Go"). The influential role of Sir Andrew Cohen, the greatest decolonizer of them all, when Creech Jones requested him to "Chart a new approach to Africa", is rightly writ large. Royle's short aftermath says it all, opening with the foreboding undertones of "For a brief interlude, independence seemed to work" and closing with the fortissimo judgement that "Britain's colonial rule was generally decent and fair and invariably even-handed. At its best, those ideals inspired the many men and women who enriched their own lives and the lives of the people they served... "

Once again, as in the Neillands book, it is Royle's skilful blend of historical narrative with the voices of those who were eye-witnesses which enhances the presentation and brings the text alive. Once more, too, many of those whose memories are tapped are paid-up readers of this magazine, whether their oral testimony is in the Oxford, Bristol or National Library of Scotland colonial archives. Royle, too, comes to the same conclusion and uses almost the same vocabulary as Neillands: the ending of empire is an episode of which Britain can be proud. In both books, while individual Colonial Service readers may here and there spot a misprint (like Kenyetta for Kenyatta at p.l75 in Neillands and Acuparius for Aucuparius at p.285 in Royle) or a statement which they will not want to agree with, few will wish to question the authenticity or deny the lively readability of the whole.

The full story of neither the brief moment of Britain's withdrawal from empire (in Africa every major British colony became independent within the remarkably short space of seven years) nor of the long span of its imperial history has yet been told and evaluated. Maybe we shall have to wait for the ultimate interpretation - by all parties, external observers and retrospective scholars as well as by both the mlers and the ruled - till the whole episode is as far removed from us and our interest as the Roman Empire is today. By then, Oxbridge's Contemporary Historians will have exchanged their discipline for that of Ancient Historians. In the meantime, while the packed imperial calendar of 1997 lead to a tidal wave of anniversary books and articles on the British Empire, for me Robin Neillands' A Fighting Retreat and Trevor Royle's Winds of Change represented two of the best narrative popular texts on Britain's modem imperial experience to come my way, doing for the final fifty years of British Empire history what Lawrence James' The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994) had done for four hundred years of its record and Jan Morris' classic Pax Britannica trilogy (1978) had done for its last hundred and fifty years.

British Empire Book
Author
Robin Neillands
Published
1997
Pages
588
Publisher
Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN
0340635207
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
Trevor Royle
Published
1997
Pages
288
Publisher
John Murray Ltd.
ISBN
0719553520
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon


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