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READ: World War I - A Total War?

World War I: A Total War?

By Amy Elizabeth Robinson
"Total war" includes four things: Mobilization, refusal to compromise, the blurring of roles between soldier and civilians, and total control of society. In many ways World War I was total war. There had never been a war that was so widely devastating.

Total war: Definition and debate

World War I is often referred to as the first "total war." People at the time used this term to describe the size and devastation of the war. It helped them understand how the roles of soldiers and civilians became difficult to separate. In 1917 France's new Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau declared: "We present ourselves in the single aim of total warfare… My foreign policy and my home policy are the same. At home I wage war. Abroad I wage war… I shall go on waging war." Since the second half of the twentieth century many historians have also used the term. It helped them analyze what is new about "modern" war. Some historians have gone farther back than WWI and refer to the U.S. Civil War as a "total war". They feel that the Civil War was a total war because it involved great loss and mobilization in the United States. But the First World War represented something new, especially in terms of technological warfare and size of impact.
The idea of total war involves four things. The first, mobilization, refers to gathering troops, weapons, resources and other preparations. The second is the blurring of the roles of soldiers and civilians. The third is the rejection of a "compromise peace" or of any outcome other than the complete destruction of the enemy. The fourth and final part is the total control of society. In reality, no war has perfectly met all these criteria. But we can see parts of each in WWI. We also see these four things in the social, political, economic, and environmental effects of the war.
British troops of the 55th Division of West Lancashire suffering from the effects of a German gas attack, Battle of Estaires, 1918, by Second Lieutenant Thomas Keith Aitken. By Imperial War Museums, public domain

Mobilization and the blurring of roles between soldier and citizen

The scale of mobilization for WWI was far greater than anything before. This mobilization included volunteer and forced military service. Governments and private industry worked together in the war effort. Landscapes and economies were remade.
People were initially shocked by the outbreak of war in 1914. But they also responded with unity and purpose. Millions of young men showed up at recruitment centers to volunteer for service. In Britain alone, 2.6 million men volunteered. Women volunteered as military nurses and aides, canteen workers, and more. Women also signed up to fill jobs so that men could become soldiers. Many working-class women, for example, were newly employed to make weapons. Civilians could participate by helping house troops or refugees. They bought war bonds and savings certificates. They also planted "war gardens" once food rationing began.
“A female munitions worker is lifted into the barrel of a 15-inch naval gun in order to clean the rifling.” Photo taken by Horace Nicholls. By Imperial War Museums, public domain.
Governments and industries concentrated on preparing for total war. The industrialized nations that entered the war shifted much of their production to creating war products. Factories produced weapons and supplies at an astounding rate. This aided the war effort and made a lot of money for businesses. Industry produced munitions and parts for ships and vehicles. Agricultural businesses fed soldiers and civilians. As businesses prepped for war, they also improved military technology. Inventions included tanks, two-way radios, mobile x-ray machines, and gas masks.
As the war waged on, countries with military conscription (drafts) increasingly forced men to become soldiers. This provided a low-cost supply of young men for the front lines. All of the major warring countries used conscription. Overall, the number of military deployments over four years of war was unthinkably huge. Historian Kimberly A. Redding says:
Some 65,000,000 men were mobilized between 1914 and 1918. While not all saw frontline service, the casualty rate (killed, wounded, and missing in action as a percentage of those mobilized) was over 50 percent among Austro- Hungarian, Australian, Bulgarian, French, German, Russian, and ANZAC forces. 8.5 million soldiers died and at least twice that number were wounded. Of these, at least 9.5 million were considered permanently disabled….
The length and violence of the war took a toll. War even increased the devastation of illness. When the flu broke out in 1917-1918, it was rapidly spread by the movements of troops and workers. It resulted in the death of 3-5% of the world's population. Like poison gas, it did not discriminate in its damage.

Complete destruction of the enemy

European wars in the early twentieth century were governed by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. These were a set of international agreements outlining the rules of war and war crimes. (This was not true for colonial wars. Those were considered "imperial" rather than international matters.) Many Hague Convention rules were violated during World War I. One rule stated that war cannot begin without clear warning. The German invasion of Belgium violated that rule. Poison gas was used although it was banned by both conventions. Allied propaganda made much use of German war crimes. But ironically it was used to advance a "total war" approach to the war's progress and resolution. "Military strategy dictated devastation," says historian Tait Keller. Lands were purposely flooded and anything that might be useful to the enemy was destroyed. Large weapons barraged (fired rapidly and broadly at) the enemy. Chemical weapons were used, and compromise was rejected. These were startling actions for Europe.
British propaganda poster with the sinking of the Lusitania in the background, by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 1915. By Imperial War Museums, public domain.
World War I raised many moral questions about technological warfare. In the first half of 1915, people became even more concerned. That's when the German government began Zeppelin raids on cities in Allied nations. Germany declared it would attack Allied shipping using submarines and used chemical weapons at Ypres in Belgium. Then they sank the British ship RMS Lusitania. Debate continues over whether the Lusitania was a valid military target. It was carrying civilian passengers and crew from many nations. But it was also carrying a large amount of ammunition for Allies. In the public mind, the sinking became a symbol of German brutality and the new extremes of war.
At the beginning of the war, many Europeans believed that modern advances in technology would make war more efficient and manageable. But military technology had grown much faster than the knowledge and experience of how to use such technology. As historians J.R. and William McNeill explain:
Military medicine had progressed to the point where doctors could keep gigantic armies free of epidemics long enough that they could engage in the prolonged slaughter of trench warfare. Heavy artillery and poison gas made life in the trenches living hell, while the machine gun made climbing out of them extremely lethal.

Total control of society

War impacted all areas of society. Private companies earned massive profits supporting the war. These companies supplied arms, raw materials, and transport. This supply chain had a global impact. Many witnesses described the ruin of landscapes on the Western Front. Bombs left craters in fields and former forests. Trenches crisscrossed the land. The country side was filled with toxic poisons. These landscapes, however, recovered after the battles of the war. Industrialization and removing of resources caused even greater damage to the environment far away from the front lines.
Local economies and ecosystems far from Europe were dramatically reshaped. Timber was cleared in Lebanon, Britain, India, Canada, the U.S., and in German occupied territories. Tin was extracted in Malaysia. The war machine began to rely on petroleum from Mexico and the U.S. (and to a lesser extent the Middle East). Industrial agriculture transformed U.S. plains. In historian Tait Keller's words, "the distinction between modern war and modern industry had, in many ways, faded. Transformations to the natural world occurred in places outside the combat zones. People far from the fighting felt the war in their everyday lives through its long environmental reach."
Governments also became more involved in civilians' personal lives. They censored the press and distributed propaganda. They passed new nationality laws and social rules that restricted minority communities. They also tightly regulated how food was produced and distributed. Many historians believe that this intrusion of the state into private lives was one of the most significant consequences of the war.
Some groups were willing to give up some of their rights and set aside their differences at the beginning of the war. This included urban workers, colonial subjects, women suffragists, and even soldiers themselves. But faced with ongoing toll, they found it increasingly difficult to support their governments. The tension resulted in revolution in the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Elsewhere, it resulted in unrest, cynicism, trauma, and the growth of new social movements across national borders.
World War I in some ways showed the impact of the rapid growth in four areas during the "long nineteenth century". These included industrialization, imperialism, international connections and conflicts. The war also broke down powerful empires and long-held beliefs in "progress" and "civilization." It was certainly not a "war to end all wars," but it was a war of unprecedented intensity and impact. The effects of this total war were felt for years but especially among the young men and women who experienced the war first-hand. These young people who witnessed the horrors of war and saw their friends die on the battlefield were often referred to as the "lost generation", a term used by the author Gertrude Stein to describe her friend Ernest Hemingway, "'That's what you are. That's what you all are,' Miss Stein said. 'All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.'"
Author bio
Amy Elizabeth Robinson is a freelance writer, editor, and historian with a Ph.D. in the History of Britain and the British Empire. She has taught at Sonoma State University and Stanford University.

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