Disabled Empire: Decolonizing Care and the First World War in Imperial Britain


ACLS Fellowship Program




The First World War generated radically new ways of treating and politicizing the bodily and psychological effects of war. This voluminous history has focused primarily on white soldiers. Yet 1914 to 1918 also saw the largest single labor migration within the British Empire to date, as nearly three million non-white troops volunteered to fight far from home. "Disabled Empire" tells the stories of these soldiers’ journeys through medical and military bureaucracies, exploring how the intimate interactions between patient and carer mapped onto the greater constellation of war and colonialism. Whether in the form of ethnic-specific diets, the provision of impractical prosthetics, or discounting trauma through racialized stigmas, colonial soldiers navigated a system whose diagnostics and treatments denied them the same level of care as their white counterparts. At the same time, the conflict forced the British state to reckon with new debts. Imperial servicemen were not passive subjects in a wartime laboratory, but vocal participants who demanded a say in their care. The result was a mixed legacy of therapies that lasted well into the post-colonial period, carrying with them both groundbreaking empathy and lasting inequality.