Chapter 22 World War I

Section 2 A New Kind of War  

“Moderation in war is imbecility,” Britain's outspoken Admiral Lord Fisher once exclaimed.  World War I was a total war. It differed from all previous wars in both scale and scope. World War I reflected the impact of the industrial age on warfare. The war effort ranged around the world, requiring the full commitment of a nation's population and resources. In the process, the war led many governments to increase their control over the economic and political life of their countries. 

The World at War

World War I affected every major region of the world. Although concentrated in Europe, the fighting spread around the globe. In fact, an African soldier in West Africa reportedly fired the first British shot of the war. British and German forces fought in West Africa, East Africa, and Southwest Africa. The Middle East became one of the largest theaters of the war. Naval engagements also occurred worldwide. The North Atlantic, the North Sea, even the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, were all the sites of important actions. German cruisers, under Admiral Baron Maximilian von Spee, operated against Allied shipping in the Pacific. Another German cruiser, the Emden, played havoc with British shipping and installations in the Indian Ocean.

            Eventually, the war involved all the world's great powers. The United States entered the war in 1917. Japan, an ally of Britain, declared war on Germany in August 1914. Japanese leaders saw the war as a chance to advance Japanese interests in East Asia and the Pacific. Japanese forces quickly seized the German naval base in China at Tsing-tao, gaining control of the valuable Shantung Peninsula. Japan also had designs on several German held islands in the Pacific. Under the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the Japanese Navy escorted Allied shipping in both the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. 

            The European empires also made substantial contributions to the war effort. The British Empire contributed 3.5 million men, including 600,000 Canadians, 400,000 Australians, 130,000 South Africans, and 120,000 New Zealanders. Some 1.5 million Indians volunteered for service with British forces. Several thousand of them fought and died in Europe. Many more served in the Middle East, providing the backbone of British forces in the Persian Gulf. The French army also fielded large colonial contingents. Soldiers from Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal, served on the western front.

The Home Fronts

Total war blurred the distinctions between civilian and military. Everyone, whether at home or in the field, felt the deprivations of war. Shortages and rationing of supplies affected all. Belligerent nations had to commit their people and resources fully. France sent some 8 million men into combat—nearly 20 percent of her population. Germany sent 13 million men. Britain eventually fielded about 5 million men, not including those from the Empire.

Economic effects. The war effort stretched industrial resources to their limits. Labor, like armies, sometimes had to be conscripted. Women went to work in factories, replacing men taken by the military. Production soared. French industry, for example, met orders for 180,000 aircraft engines, 35,000 aircraft, and 5,000 tanks. At one point, France was producing 300,000 artillery shells a day. In Britain, a witness recalled, “The whole island became an arsenal.”

            In order to field and support such massive forces, governments developed new methods of organization. Britain and the United States, especially, saw unprecedented centralization of government power. As the head of Britain's wartime production of munitions described it: 

“Nearly all the mines and workshops were in our hands. We controlled and were actually managing all the greatest industries. We regulated the supply of all their raw materials. We organised the whole distribution of their finished products. Nearly five million persons were directly under our orders, and we were interwoven on every side with every other sphere of the national economic life.” 

In the United States too, the war effort resulted in the expansion of federal authority, especially in industrial regulation and labor disputes.

Wartime propaganda. In order to rally public support for the war effort, governments used propaganda—ideas, facts, or rumors spread deliberately to further a cause. They set up agencies to develop propaganda and manage the flow of information about the war. Stories circulated of atrocities, acts of great cruelty and brutality, performed by an enemy that was characterized as almost sub-human. To many people the conflict became “a holy war—a war of right against wrong, of Heaven against Hell.” As emotions ran high, propaganda sometimes led to mistreatment of suspected enemy sympathizers, usually first- or second-generation immigrants from enemy countries. 

Internal security. In fact, both sides had to deal with espionage and sabotage inside their borders. Governments passed increasingly restrictive security measures. Under sweeping legislation known as DORA, or ‘Defence of the Realm Act,’ for example, the British required all residents of German or Austrian ancestry to register with local authorities. Other countries passed similar laws.

            In the Ottoman Empire, security concerns led to more tragic consequences. The war strained to the breaking point relations between the Turks and many of their non-Muslim subjects. In eastern Turkey, fearful that the Christian Armenian population might rise in support of their kinsmen across the Russian border, the Turks carried out a brutal campaign of forced relocation and persecution. Virtually the entire Armenian population of eastern Turkey was deported and moved west. Ottoman records indicate that at least 200,000 people died from starvation or massacre at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen under Ottoman officers; Armenian sources put the number as high as a million and a half. Many observers later called this a case of attempted genocide, the annihilation of an entire people.

Technology and Tactics

The armies and navies of World War I felt the full impact of industrialization. Military planners had to adapt their tactics, or method of fighting, to the new weapons made possible by mass production. The technology introduced during World War I generally shifted the advantage in battle from attacking to defending forces. For example, barbed wire and machine guns together proved a deadly combination. Barbed wire strung out along a defensive line slowed advancing troops, exposing them to raking machine gun fire. On the western front, this combination effectively limited the advances made by either side. Armies dug elaborate earthworks or trenches, for protection and to hold the ground they had gained.

            Improved artillery was also an important factor in the battles of World War I. One European officer had seen the effect of artillery during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904--1905.[2] “The great impression made on me by all I saw,” he had reported, “is that artillery is now the decisive arm . . . the side which has the best artillery will always win.”[3] Trench warfare on the western front led to an increased reliance on the tactic of bombardment, as each side used heavy guns to wear down the other.

            The armies of World War I fielded some of the largest cannons ever developed. Some were so big they had to be mounted on railway cars. In 1918, the Germans introduced the “Paris Gun,” that could hit a target 75 miles away.[4] Air power also provided new ways to strike at the enemy. Dirigibles, gas-filled airships that carried passengers and bombs, and fixed-wing airplanes, increased the range of bombardment beyond the largest guns. However, such weapons were still in developmental stages and saw relatively limited use during World War I.

            As the war progressed, both sides developed even newer technologies in an effort to overcome and break through the defenses of the enemy. Advances in technology allowed navies to develop submarines, which could travel underwater and attack enemy ships without warning. The armies of World War I became the first to use poison gas that made the eyes water, blistered the skin, and clogged the lungs of its victims. Late in the war, the British introduced an armored tractor that carried small artillery and machine guns. Called “tanks,” these vehicles worked well at cutting through barbed wire and shielding advancing infantry from machine-gun fire. A British observer described the first tanks in action: 

“Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, enfilading [covering] us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine-guns swiveling around and firing like mad.”[5]