War has always been a defining characteristic of human civilization. Since historical times, people have waged war against each other for various reasons. Before the First World War of 1914 to 1918, armed confrontations between nations were carried out in restricted manners and primarily against military targets. However, the First World War led to the emergence of a new kind of war.
The two main sides in the confrontation carried out attacks with an aim of defeating the belligerent at whatever cost. The paper will demonstrate that the First World War was a total war since it bore most the hallmark characteristics of the total war including unlimited warfare, prioritization of armament efforts, involvement of the civilian population, and the widening control of the economy by the government.
The Concept of Total War
The concept of total war emerged in the years following the end of the devastating First World War. By definition, the total war is an engagement where each nation’s social and economic resources are impressed into the war efforts. During this war, all available national resources are mobilized and fully exploited to the single end of military success.
Whole nations became integrated fighting units with military personnel taking over aspects of production in some countries. Another defining characteristic of total war is that it leads to the blurring of distinction between civilians and soldiers.
All sectors of society are appropriately redefined as potential military targets leading to the abolition of the traditional distinction between military and civilian activities, and between combatant and noncombatant. In addition to the resource aspect of the total war, the total war is characterized by total unity among the leadership, army, and people.
This unity is necessary for the country to accept the huge financial and human costs associated with the sustained war efforts.
World War I as a Total War
The First World War was a total war in that the warring parties were committed to an unlimited warfare. The idea of unlimited war is where the nations involved set out to fight to the end. The nations mobilized their resources and neither side was prepared to compromise and reach a peaceful resolution to the war. Complete victory by crushing the enemy was the only alternative open to the warring parties.
The end of the war would require the unconditional surrender or total destruction of the enemy state. In the First World War, all the warring parties were unwilling to compromise since they all had ambitious war aims. Each side predicted a decisive victory over the belligerent and encouraged its citizens to join in the glorious battle (Fritz 59).
Another characteristic of total warfare exhibited by the First World War was the large-scale involvement of civilians in the war. This war destroyed the ages-old distinction between civilians and soldiers by making every citizen a combatant and the object of attack. Each party in the war engaged in strategic bombing of civilian locations and large-scale starvation.
Junger documents that civilians were attacked using bombs and even chemical weapons by the belligerents (62). The civilians were turned into active participants of the war. Historians explain that the civilians are not spared in a total war since the home front is as important as the battlefields in influencing the outcomes of the war.
The civilians at home provide the economic and moral support needed by the military personnel to carry on their war efforts (Kealey 57). German war bond posters from 1917 reveal that the government pleaded for aid in both moral and material from the German civilians (Fritz 59). For the enemy, breaking the home front is a priority since it will directly influence the military.
The social lives of civilians in the warring countries were impacted by the war. The huge casualties suffered at the battlefronts transformed the society by creating a large number of single parent families and increasing the number of destitute children.
The war also led to social changes as women took on the roles of men in factories as the young men were conscripted into the army. Howard reveals that while Britain had relied on voluntary membership to the army, the government was forced to introduce compulsory military service in May 1916 (58).
An aspect of total war evident in the First World War was the prioritization of armament. In order to carry out an effective and sustained military offensive against the enemy, each nation needed to be properly equipped. The warring parties made significant investments in their weaponry development.
There developments were made since each side wanted to gain an edge over the enemy and therefore achieve total victory by breaking the deadlock that the almost equal military capability had resulted in.
The early Germany victories over France were in part enabled by the massive artillery superiority that Germany boasted (Howard 63). In addition to conventional weapons, both sides used banned weapons. Accounts by Junger from a village in France reveal that chemical attacks were used against villages during the war (62).
The war efforts led to food shortages in Europe as farms were abandoned by men who joined the army (Howard 56). The nations therefore had to import most of their food supplies and this led to shortages as each side took steps to prevent the other from acquiring food from outside sources.
A major wartime activity was the naval blockade carried out by Britain in the hope of starving the enemy populations into submission (Howard 56). This blockade stopped vital food supplies from getting to Germany leading to desperate food shortages and the introduction of rationing. In retaliation, Germany engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare aimed at preventing Britain from importing food supplies.
In the total war, the government exerts control over the social, political and economic life of the population. This was the case in the First World War where governments took complete control of their country and ensured that all aspects contributed to the attainment of victory in the war. The military influenced the economic production of the nation during the First World War.
During peacetime, Western governments left most of the aspects of economic production to the private sector. During the war, this changed as the government took on a more active role in the economy of the country with resources being distributed in such a way as to bolster military forces.
Howard documents that the First World War turned even liberal states such as England into states where the government had increased power and a great command of the country’s economy (57).
The First World War made extensive use of propaganda to bolster the unity of the nation. This led to the total political and moral unity of the population that believed in the ability of their country to win the war (Kealey 57).
Both sides in the war engaged in widespread propaganda leading to heightened nationalism. Each side justified its position in the war by demonstrating that the other side was in the wrong and therefore needed to be defeated.
Historians agree that the European war leaders did not manage to mobilize everyone and everything for war. Even so, the war led to the mobilization of as many people and a significant portion of the resources available to the State to the war efforts. The attempt to wage total war against each other led to many negative effects for the participants.
The attempt to achieve complete mobilization of people and resources by one side was countered by a similar attempt by the other side. This led to a prolonged conflict that was ruinous for all sides.
The use of extreme measures such as poison gas and naval blockades to starve the enemy was countered by equally extreme measures leading to high casualties in the war. The total war did not promote total victory since in the end; all the participants were exhausted hence unable to secure a decisive victory.
This paper has argued that the First World War was a total war since it exhibited the main features of the total war. It has shown how the war involved not just the military components of the warring nations but also their general population with civilians being active participants and targets in the war. The economies of Europe were mobilized for the war effort leading to a costly and long military engagement.
Even though the First World War did not end in the complete destruction of one side by the other, it can be classified as the world’s first total war since attempts were made at unlimited warfare, civilian population mobilization was widespread, and the government took control over the economic and social aspects of the society.
Fritz, Erler. German War Bond Poster: “Help Us Triumph!”. Stanford: Hoover Institute Library, 1917. Print.
Howard, Michael. The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Junger, Ernst. Storm of Steel. Penguin Books, 2004. Print
Kealey, Evans. British Recruitment Poster: Women of Britain Say – “GO!”. London: Department of Art, Imperial War Museum, 1915. Print.