Forthcoming lecture: Democracy or empire? Reflections on the British imperial experience of the First World War

Wednesday 3 September 2014

When Britain entered the First World War a century ago, was it fighting for British values and the rights of small nations? Or its right to run an empire? These are two of the questions eminent historian Sir Hew Strachan will address in his keynote lecture ‘Democracy or empire? Reflections on the British imperial experience of the First World War’, on Thursday 16 October at Senate House.

The one-day NZ-UK Link Foundation Inaugural Annual Lecture is being run in association with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), one of the institutes of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and is part of the Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Programme Partnership.

It will examine the imperial dynamics of a war that went beyond the Western Front and also explore the fact that, although before the Great War Britain possessed vast colonies with millions of subjects, it was not a democracy. In 1914 approximately forty per cent of British men did not have the right to vote and, overseas, Britain controlled an empire which circumscribed the rights of many small nations.

‘There is a paradox at the heart of Britain’s rationalisation of the war’, said Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, and formerly director of its Changing Character of War programme. His most recent book is The Direction of War.

‘When George V addressed the empire on its outbreak, he called on its members as subjects, but asked them to defend democracy. At the time this paradox seemed barely worthy of comment; today it looks distinctly odd, if not self-contradictory.’

First World War centenary commemorations are set to last for four years. ‘Democracy or empire? Reflections on the British imperial experience of the First World War’ will provide fresh impetus for our understanding of this global conflict and help sustain the relevance of these commemorations to the modern world.

‘Sir Hew is one of the world's leading historians of the First World War and is noted for his many books and articles and his ground-breaking 2003 television series,’ said Sir Graeme Davies, chairman of the NZ-UK Link Foundation. ‘To hear his account of the British experience of the war will be both rewarding and informative.’

Journalists interested in attending the keynote lecture, should contact Events Manager, Olga Jimenez on +44 (0)20 7862 8871 /

Find out more about the lecture

Notes for editors:
1. For further information please contact Dee Burn at the School of Advanced Study, University of London at / 020 7862 8670. Images available on request.

2. The NZ-UK Link Foundation is a registered charity whose primary objective is to make ‘an ongoing substantial contribution to the intellectual, educational, vocational and academic underpinning of the bilateral relationship in a changing world’.

3. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) is the only postgraduate academic institution in the UK devoted to the study of the Commonwealth. Founded in 1949, its purpose is to promote interdisciplinary and inter-regional research on the Commonwealth and its member nations in the fields of history, politics and other social sciences.  Its areas of specialism include international development, governance, human rights, north-south relations and conflict and security.  The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is a member institute of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

4. The School of Advanced Study, University of London (SAS) is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2012-13, SAS welcomed 833 research fellows and associates; held 2,231 research dissemination events; received 21.7 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,529 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

5. Professor Sir Hew Strachan is the Chichele Professor of the History of War and a Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is a member of the National Committee for the Centenary of the First World War, a Commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the author of numerous highly regarded books on war, including The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (new edition 2014) and The Direction of War.

6. IWM is a family of five museums: IWM London; IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester; IWM Duxford near Cambridge; the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, London; and the historic ship HMS Belfast. The First World War Centenary Partnership led by IWM is a growing network of over 3,000 not-for-profit organisations from 50 countries planning to mark the First World War Centenary with a vibrant programme of events, activities and resources which will enable millions of people to engage with the centenary.