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World War I as a Total War

What Made WWI Different?

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World War I was a conflict the nations had never seen before. Over thirty countries lost millions of lives between 1914 and 1918, fighting for their ideals and principles. As a result, the great empires ended their existence, the political map was significantly reshaped, and the series of Treaties influenced modern international economic guidelines. Massive resources and significant consequences allow historians to call WWI a total war.

Lack of Clear Definition

While the word “total” is associated with something massive and affecting many people, there is no agreement among historians about the term. Modern scientists try to analyze WWI in numbers, participants, motives, and actions, which sometimes leads to “exhaustion rather than resolution of an issue” (23, PDF). Herwig points out that the definition is somewhat vague and is more of a concept as opposed to the precise term (25, PDF). Historians talk about absolute war and victory, but no guidelines exist for the numbers of people participating or dying, as well as for other resources involved.

The Conflict the World Had Never Seen Before

When people hear about ongoing wars today, for the majority, they remain distant actions described in the news. That was not the case with WWI, despite not having all the technology to quickly spread the information. Chickering does not doubt that this war is total war with its “operational paralysis and continuous battle”, as well as involving millions of civilians (11, PDF). He also says that WWI could not have ended with both sides benefiting from the conflict (Chickering, 11, PDF). The tension was so high that the battles would continue until one alliance is destroyed. Besides, the participants could not rely on the history lessons from past conflicts, as nothing at this scale had occurred before (Chickering, 18, PDF). All the shortcomings and lucky coincidences were new material for the military leaders to comprehend.

The Spark

Stretched over the years, political tensions and cautious alliances created a dangerous situation in Europe in 1914. The spark that ignited the war’s fire was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, by a Serbian nationalist. Russian Empire supported Serbia at that moment, so Austria-Hungary unified with Germany to be ready for a powerful attack from the East. Since political agreements tied many countries, this triggered a chain reaction as they proclaimed their sides and interests in the growing conflict.

The Resources

Massive conflicts call for large volumes of resources, so mobilization for WWI was unprecedented. Bessel writes about the German mobilization as having “astonishing” numbers and involving “millions of civilians” (page 2, PDF). The country carefully planned its operations, educated new specialists in different spheres, and produced the numbers of weapons that were not possible before. However, as Bessel describes it, even with all the time, money, and propaganda invested into the military force, the result was a failure (5, PDF). Germans are known as a disciplined and strict society, but even with the detailed plan, the hyper mobilization led to shortages of food, ammunition, and soldiers, which shows the enormous demands of the resources for the participants of WWI.

The results of failure in a total war are devastating for the country that has lost. Herwig calls what happened to Germany, “a war crime,” after describing the high mortality rates and the diseases and starvation the citizens had to experience (24, PDF). Total war leads to complete destruction of the defeated society making it nearly impossible for the country to recover rapidly without outside help.

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The Forces Were Close

Desire to win the war and tiredness from its length have led Germany to almost desperate battles with Great Britain. They were trying different methods, one of which was using the U-boats to take away British advantage at sea. As Herwig points out, the plan was brave and ambitious, but the calculations of the enemy’s position and resources were not accurate enough for the plan to be completed (35, PDF). It may be due to bad luck on the German side or because the Great Britain forces were better organized. However, the advantage was not obvious, and the victory could have been on either side. Close forces at war make the battles long and unpredictable, just as it happened in WWI.

Total Victory

Total war should logically lead to total victory, but this term is not clearly defined either. Keiger describes it as “an unbending commitment to fight for a victor’s peace and thus a refusal of any compromise settlement” (45). It sounds too radical to be implemented in any war, but also shows the ambitions of the leaders. French leaders refused to surrender even when the odds were clearly against them. It was a standard view for major opponents in WWI. This may also be why the final Treaties are so strict to the side that lost.

The Complexity

Since WWI involved many countries with complicated political relationships, the military action was not concentrated in one spot. As Kennedy describes it, the plan on either side had to include numerous maneuvers at different fronts and taking into account all the events taking place (58, PDF). Because dynamic factors kept changing and commanders added new details daily, WWI was an incredibly complex military event.


While the term “total war” does not have a clear definition, historians describe it as a massive military event of a great significance. It involved numerous countries fighting against each other in a lengthy and complicated conflict. Millions of lives were lost and damaged because of the struggle for power and influence. WWI was a new and horrifying experience for humankind to respect and to learn from, and calling it a “total war” is appropriate.

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