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Scott Graber

The long-delayed burial of the Empire 

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It is Sunday and we read that Queen Elizabeth will be buried tomorrow. The Royal Family is good at ceremony — weddings, coronations, funerals. But there won’t be a shift in political philosophy; or transfer of the tote bag containing the missile launch codes. There’s only the transfer of those entitled to sleep at the palace; those entitled to review the Coldstream Guards; those entitled to bestow knighthoods. 

Most of us will watch the funeral because there will be a new (if irrelevant) King, majestic music, inspirational interiors and celebrities who somehow got (soon-to-be framed) invitations. 

But what we got (in Elizabeth) was the person who witnessed the prolonged, painful disintegration of a huge empire that stretched around the world. She was a young woman — not yet Queen — when Britain governed from Hong Kong to Cape Town to Cairo and still had enough Glasgow-built battleships and Highlander Battalions to back-up their world-wide governance. 

But in the years before Elizabeth’s birth, Ireland had made it clear it wanted out; India was restive; Kenya was heading toward rebellion and Afghanistan continued to be the predictable trouble-maker it has been since Alexander. But these small insubordinations were totally eclipsed by the Battle of the Somme where — on the first day — 20,000 British soldiers were killed. We are not talking 20,000 casualties — we’re talking 20,000 dead. 

When one considers that in August 1914 the British Empire was 450 million strong with access to every fighting-aged man in Australia, Canada, South Africa, India, Egypt, Singapore and the West Indies, 20,000 dead would seem to be a drop in the empirical bucket. But the Battle at Gallipoli would cost the British another 50,000 men killed and in the end the Brits would lose almost 900,000 men, women and children in World War I. 

“After so many miseries in its name, glory was discredited in the hearts of the people, and war, which had given the British such vicarious satisfaction in the past, was recognized now in its true obscenity,” writes James Morris in “Farewell the Trumpets.” 

Yes, The Empire survived World War I — actually it acquired a little more territory — but there was a sense of tragedy that descended on the UK. This sadness and sense of vulnerability was made manifest by the lame and sightless veterans who wandered the streets of London, York and Bristol. 

When Elizabeth came of age she saw these disfigured men, and the resulting resentment of the British High Command. She must have known the Australians would never forgive British for the slaughter of their teenagers at Gallipoli. She must have known that now Canada wanted complete control of its own army. She must have realized that Gandhi would eventually prevail and lead India — with its immensely profitable cotton, rubber, tea and indigo industries — out of the Empire. 

Then came World War II and another bloody, world-wide conflagration that saw a succession of disasters in Singapore, Burma, Norway and in the China Sea with the sinking of the battleship, Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser, Repulse. But this time around the enemy, led by Hitler and Hirohito, was easy to hate and in due course the United States and its fast-twitch industrial muscle came into play saving Britain and its restless Empire. 

In the aftermath of that kill-off, the United States decided the imperialism and empire were bad. 

“They were astonishingly ignorant about the British Empire — it was commonly supposed even in Detroit and Chicago that Canada was ruled from London, but they were generally convinced that whatever its nature was, it was reprehensible,” so saith James Morris. 

All so our pale Elizabeth was trying to hold the Empire together while India, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya and the rest of her former colonies made haste to the illuminated signs marked “EXIT.” We in the United States were happy to watch these departures — notwithstanding our Special Relationship with the UK — as long as these folks stayed clear of Communism. 

Elizabeth and her father, George VI, were close, and he prepared her (if we believe “The Crown”) for queenship. What is remarkable is that Elizabeth knew most of the actors in this drama. It is one thing to die at 96; it is another to have a front row seat—and a speaking role—with the likes of Churchill, Gandhi, Eisenhower, McMillan, Montgomery, Nasser, Kenyatta, Weizmann, Waugh and the Beatles. 

This will not be Elizabeth’s funeral. It will be the long-delayed burial of the Empire. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com. 

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