Imperial Identities and the British Empire
: The Remarkable Case of Self-Identified Irish Officers in the British and Indian Armies, 1900-1945

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis argues that there was an imperial history that should be understood not within the confines of British or Irish national historiographies but within an imperial historiography. It challenges what it takes to be the pervasive methodological nationalism of British and Irish historiography by examining identities in the imperial officer corps. The thesis demonstrates that part of the British elite identified not with the British nation, or a ‘British world’ that linked communities of Britons found in the British Isles with the colonies of settlement, but with the British Empire, understood as a single imperial polity inclusive of the United Kingdom. This polity was understood as possessing imperial institutions, especially military institutions, and, in times of world war, something called an ‘Imperial Army’, consisting of the forces of the Empire as whole, including the British Army. Indeed, contemporaries understood this polity as analogous to Austro-Hungary because both were multinational Empires with one Emperor/Empress and one army.

The thesis argues that ‘national’ identities within the imperial officer corps lived within this broader imperial identity. It reveals complex forms of ‘national’ identity that were not based on a birthplace, residence or even any personal experience of a particular national territory. These identities were found throughout the imperial elite. Perhaps half of all officers in the imperial officer corps were born outside of nations they identified with. However, the thesis takes as its main case the example of self-identified Irish officers. Using an original biographical database of over 600 self-identified Irish officers, who served in the infantry, cavalry, Guards, Indian Army, Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, it reveals a huge group of officers who were English by definitions of nationality based on a birthplace in a particular national territory but who chose to identify as Irish when they did not have to. The thesis argues that this peculiar form of ‘Irish’ identity is best explained as part of an imperial history rather than the history of Ireland. ‘National’ identities existed throughout the British imperial elite that bear little resemblance to modern historiographical understandings of national identity.

The thesis also challenges the persistent linkage of the British military with pre-modernity. Previous historians saw the Protestant gentry in Ireland as a military caste, the nearest equivalent to the Prussian Junkers in the British Isles. The military tradition of this caste was understood as rooted in the 3 conquest of Ireland in the early modern period. Officers from this antediluvian caste were allegedly vastly overrepresented in the officer corps. For previous historians, these officers were the most backward of the generally backward British elite. The thesis challenges this narrative in several ways. First, it shows that officers born in Ireland were underrepresented in the military compared to the population of Ireland in 1900. Second, it demonstrates that most self-identified Irish officers, far from backward Junkers, were professional soldiers, who saw themselves as such. By challenging assumptions about backwardness that generated and sustained the misleading notion of an Irish Junker caste, the thesis argues for the existence, among self-identified Irish officers, but also more generally, of an imperial service class which passed down service in the administrative, technical and military branches of the imperial state through the generations. Officers in the imperial armies were typically professional state servants, serving an imperial polity that has been obscured by the national frameworks of British and Irish historiography.
Date of Award1 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDavid Edgerton (Supervisor) & Richard Vinen (Supervisor)

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