The Great War: The New Concept of Total War

17 Apr

No Notion of Total War in 1914
The nations that were embroiled in the Great War did not have an idea what warfare truly meant in the new century – their only experience with war was from the late 19th Century; limited in size, scope, and duration. In turning the corner with modern weaponry in the 20th century, the armies which fought with this new technology were only as successful as their supply lines could provide and their capacity to manufacture at home. Russia was a perfect example of a country that could not be counted on to wage war completely until just before the war began: “What money did reach the armies in all countries had to go in large part to the modernization of existing forces rather than the creation of new ones. This applied not only to the Russian army, devastated by the losses and deficiencies of the Manchurian campaign, but to land forces everywhere, as they contended with the adoption of the new equipment and tactics that the Russians’ dearly bought experience had shown to be necessary on the modern battlefield.”[1] This point is essential – the arms escalation which was characteristic of the Great War, came at a great cost to the participants and their armies. The German and British naval race for Dreadnought-type battleships came at a tremendous monetary cost to both counties – and as a result to their land armies as well. The Austro-Hungarian army and Italian army were both hampered by weak economies and little funds for equipment. Total War meant land and sea forces operating at one-hundred percent capacity – in an ideal war. Such was not the case before or at the early stages of the Great War.

1916: The Turning Point
The concept of Total War began to sink in from 1916 onward: “By 1916 both Britain and, to a lesser extent, France had accepted a considerable degree of control and centralization in the direction of their war economies… Britain hoped to win the war in 1917 by the systematic application of industrial power to the battlefield.”[2] Strachan goes on to add that in the second half of the war manpower and machinery had accelerated had a shifted balance – more sophisticated weaponry supplanted the basic infantryman with rifle.

Nations Adjust
France and Germany were more capable at fighting the war and adjusting to the realities of Total War than the other belligerents. Both possessed the ability to manufacture and deliver. Progress in both automobiles and aviation were two strong industries for each. Competition for the best dirigible airship led Italy, Russia, and Great Britain to try and keep pace with France and Germany with progress in the air. Herrmann points out very importantly that public excitement fueled this new-found aviation excitement in aviation. Progress or lack of progress in rail expansion was another key determinant to supplying a land force across great distances. Total War meant those who had the financial ability to expand would succeed – and those who could not, did not. Integration of private industry into national mobilization for war was a cornerstone for effective Total War – one which France and more notably Germany were able to facilitate.[3]

1 David G. Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 59.
2 Hew Strachan, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 141.
3 Ibid., 142


Herrman, David G. The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Page references are to the 2000 edition.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 17, 2012 in World War I - General


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: