World War I ushered in a new age of warfare. No longer did armies stand in fields and fire weapons toward enemy lines. Industrial technology had made that type of warfare obsolete. Industrial weapons could wipe out an entire army standing on a battlefield in seconds. When WWI started, most people thought that the war would be over in months—it went on for four long and deadly years.
Industrial weapons technologies forced western nations to use a “total war” strategy to fight World War I. No longer did armies stand in fields and fire weapons toward enemy lines. Industrial technology had made that type of warfare obsolete. Industrial weapons could wipe out an entire army standing on a battlefield in seconds. When WWI started, most people thought that the war would be over in months—it went on for four long and deadly years.
What is total war?
Total war is when a conflict uses all of society’s political, economic, and social resources to fight a war. As a result, all people in a community became a part of the war system.
European war before WWI: Most European conflicts had been more limited in the few centuries before WWI. Soldiers would go off and fight. If they survived and returned home, they returned either victorious or defeated. Those back home heard war stories but rarely experienced the worst effects of the conflict.
Industrialization changed the game: Industrialization transformed combat. War was no longer about supplying the best-trained troops to fight a battle but replacing dead troops quickly and having an industrial system that could produce large amounts of weapons and munitions. Total war also required motivating your entire non-combat population to sacrifice for the war effort. In Europe and the United States, this meant helping with military-industrial production, moving to rural areas to help with food production, and conserving the use of daily essentials like sugar, meat, and coffee.
Achieving victory: Victory required destroying your opponent’s ability to resupply their army and break the morale of the enemy population. These two objectives led militaries to target non-combat civilian areas far from the battlefield—industrial centers in urban areas and food production centers in rural areas became legitimate military targets. The direct bombing of civilian neighborhoods also increased in WWI as militaries sought to break the morale of enemy populations.
Limited v. total war
- limited amount of nation’s resources devoted to the war effort
- populations less impacted by the war effort
- limited or no food and goods shortages
- limited or no rationing
- death rates among soldiers and citizens are low
- weapons manufacturing increases, but non-war related production continues
- the government does not take over and control production and industry
- most social resources mobilized for the war effort
- the entire population impacted by the war effort
- food and goods shortages
- rationing of resources
- leaders promote nationalist sentiment
- enemy depicted as subhuman
- high death rates among fighting and civilian populations
- manufacturing dedicated to producing war materials
- the government takes over factories for the war effort
- media industry dedicated itself to spreading pro-war and anti-enemy messaging
Impacts of WWI total war
Total war required a reworking of society. Below are some of the significant components of total war during WWI.
Impact 1: massive growth in military spending
Total war requires a massive military expansion. Countries fighting WWI spent significant portions of their gross domestic product (GDP) on military production.
% of GDP spent on the military in 1913
% of GDP spent on the military in 1916
United Kingdom: 2.8%
United Kingdom: 38%
Impact 2: industrial production changes
The outbreak of the world wars required massive changes in nations’ industrial production. Production rapidly shifted from consumer goods and consumer consumption to goods that would help win the war.
- Industry boomed globally to produce raw materials and industrial goods for the war effort
- New types of industry, such as aviation, expanded rapidly
- Women of all classes joined the workforce in large numbers
- Unemployment feel in most areas
- Working poor in industrial nations saw their wages and standards of living increase
German artillery shell production in 1914
German artillery shell production in 1918
Impact 3: industrial production changes
Before the outbreak of war, industrial production and business in western industrial economies were nearly all privately owned. The government had a minimal economic role. The world wars ended this separation. The necessities of war led governments to institute industrial planning committees that planned out production to ensure that societies produced the materials needed to win the war. The type of government economic planning was most common in Europe but did happen to a lesser extent in America.
Germany: In 1915, Germany declared a state-controlled monopoly on the production and distribution of grain. Farmers were required to report and surrender grain amounts larger than 100 kilograms to the state-owned Imperial Grain Corporation.
The United States: In the United States, the most significant agencies regulating production and pricing were:
- the War Industries Board (WIB), including the autonomous Price Fixing Committee which oversaw industrial production and prices
- the Fuel Administration, which oversaw fuel production and prices
- the Food Administration, which oversaw agricultural production and prices
Impact 4: new roles for women
While many women, especially in the poor and lower-middle classes, already worked, female participation in the labor force increased substantially during the war. Many women that joined the labor force worked in factory jobs that men had previously filled. While women were not allowed in combat roles, they joined the military in large numbers in clerk, secretarial, and medic positions. When the war ended, many women left the workforce as men returned home and sought employment.
Impact 5: government-sponsored propaganda
Total war requires the sacrifice of all members in a warring society. Individuals must be willing to fight and die for the state. Those not directly engaged in combat must be willing to work longer hours and suffer food and good shortages. Such sacrifices require gaining the support of the popular masses to direct anger and hatred towards enemies. During WWI, governments used various strategies to gain the support of the masses and win the war effort. Political propaganda and intense appeals to nationalism Intense appeals to nationalism in political propaganda that governments distributed through various public and media channels were essential for motivating populations to support the war effort.
What is political propaganda?
Political propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
Types of propaganda
War propaganda had various purposes, audiences, and sources.
Government and academic: Government bureaucracies and universities produced propaganda in studies and reports on topics related to the war effort. These were to shape government policy and create propaganda that non-governmental propaganda sources could quote. Governments directly published their political propaganda and partnered with private arts and media to disseminate propaganda for consumption through mass media.
- After the United States joined the war in 1917, the American government created the Committee on Public Information. Led by the secretaries of the army and the navy, this organization became the largest generator of WWI propaganda in the United States.
Art and media: Mass consumption art and media sources were essential for spreading war propaganda. Newspapers, magazines, artists, and silent films became part of government propaganda machines. Men as warriors, women as dutiful supporters, and those on the home front were common themes depicted across nations fighting in WWI.
Nationalism in propaganda: The implied message in nearly all propaganda pieces was that you are strengthening the glory of your nation by supporting the war effort and that not supporting the war was unpatriotic or even treasonous. Nationalist propaganda nearly always depicted the enemy as subhuman animals.
Industrial War Technology Resulted in Increased Injuries and Deaths
World War I produced injury and death counts higher than previous wars. The high rates of suffering resulted from the number of countries fighting and industrial war technologies.
New military technology and strategy
At the outbreak of WWI, many men enthusiastically signed up to fight, convinced by government propaganda that they were off to be national heroes. Few had any idea of the horrors of the industrial war that awaited as new industrial technologies increased battlefield dangers. These new technologies resulted in substantial growth in warfare death rates. The manor of death caused by these new weapons technologies also grew increasingly gruesome.
Machines guns had existed for decades by WWI. This war, however, saw their use increase. These guns allowed gunners to fire off more than 500 rounds a minute. Because most armies had machine guns in their arsenal, it became difficult for the Central or Allied powers to gain a battlefield advantage by using the weapon.
The first large-scale use of poison gas occurred when the German army deployed it during the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915. After that, both the Central and Allied powers used gas throughout the remaining years of the war. Armies launched poison gas toward their enemies in shells specially designed to hold and release the gas upon impact.
- Common types of poison gas were chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas, which caused soldiers to choke to death or drown in their vomit when inhaled.
- Soldiers who survived poison gas attacks suffered severe skin, lung, and nervous system damage.
- The use of poison gas led to gas masks becoming standard for battlefield soldiers. International treaties outlawed the use of poison gas following WWI.
Tank technology significantly improved during WWI. Tanks allowed armies to roll across areas of rugged terrain and enemy trench lines.
Airplane technology was in its infancy during WWI. As a result, while planes had a role during the war, their abilities were limited. Not until WWII would planes hold large-scale guns and bomb payloads. However, airplanes were used as surveillance tools because they could fly above battlefields and across enemy lines to survey troop movement and positions.
Submarines were another technology that existed before the war but saw their use and technological complexity expand during the war years. The German navy had the largest and most effective submarine fleet in the war, with German U-boats were responsible for sinking many ships and vessels during the war. It was a German U-boat that sunk the Lusitania, in which 128 American citizens died. This event shifted American public opinion in favor of the United States joining the war.
Before WWI, wars had been fought by lining soldiers up into fields and firing into your enemy’s line of soldiers. Industrial weapons made this battle strategy obsolete. Standing in fields became a suicidal strategy.
- Unsure how to fight modern wars, European armies dug a series of trenches hundreds of miles long, in which soldiers lived and fought.
- Soldiers would peek over the edge of trenches and fire at enemy trenches or jump over the edge of their trenches and run through no man’s land in the middle of the trenches toward the enemy trenches. If they made it without being shot and killed or getting stuck in barbed wire, they would jump into the enemy trenches and try to shoot or stab enemy soldiers.
- Soldiers often died in the trenches of disease or developed severe bacterial infections known as trench foot that required many soldiers’ feet to be amputated.