In the summer of 1914, the world was integrated as never before. Despite its simmering tensions and conscript armies, the European continent had open borders, a shared respect for private property and rule of law, and dynastic ties that bound its monarchs together – most poignantly represented by the pageantry surrounding the funeral of Edward VII of England in 1910, the world’s largest assemblage of royalty and rank in history. The expansion of world trade, free labor migration and the rise of a cosmopolitan cultural milieu defined this first great globalization.
It was accompanied by democratization, as many nations acquired parliaments and and widened their franchise: by 1900, some 29% of Frechmen, 22% of Germans, 18% of British and 15% of Russians had the vote. In supposedly belligerent Germany, the anti-war Social Democrats won 34.8% of the vote in 1912. Though there were strident militarist and pan-nationalist lobbies, they were partially countered by pacifist movements and moderated by mainstream politicians, who viewed the prospect of a general war with apprehension: even in Germany, with its reputation for bombastic rhetoric, in July 1914 Chancellor Bethman remarked, “a world war with its incalculable consequences would tremendously strengthen the power of Social democracy… and topple many a throne”. Yet glimmers of darkness on the horizon presaged a gathering storm, and “the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again”.
The First World War ended the first golden age of globalization and history returned to Europe with a vengeance. It killed or maimed a generation of European men, destroyed four great empires and spawned the disillusionment that would find its (apparent) resolution in totalitarian ideologies. This “war to end all wars” came to be known as the first “total” or “Blochian” war, and as the “Great War” in the British Isles, replacing the Napoleonic Wars which had hitherto fallen under that designation.
One reason for viewing the First World War as a historical crossroads was the unprecedented “totality” of the conflict. The war was up till then unsurpassed in the blood sacrifice it demanded of its participants, producing around 10mn military dead and twice as many wounded during four years of brutal industrialized warfare. Only fifty parishes in England and Wales, called “thankful villages”, suffered no war dead amongst their menfolk who went off to the trenches. The killed as a percentage of military manpower were far higher in other nations such as Serbia (23%) and France (13%), and far more were wounded. Such concentrated carnage had not been seen in Europe since the Thirty Years War.
This outcome was unanticipated by the conventional wisdom before the war, which assumed that the next war would be characterized by rapid, railway-based mobilization, followed by massed attacks, set-piece battles and glorious, unambiguous victories like Sedan in 1870 – in other words, just like the last war that generals always plan for. The side with the most élan or steadfastness (particularly emphasized in France) would carry the day and the war would be over by Christmas, the final victory usually predicted to go to the commentator’s own country.
This was reflected in the antebellum pulp war fiction, such as L. James’s The Boy Galloper, in which English schoolboys fight off a German invasion (kind of like a precursor to Red Dawn). Other literary masterpieces from this genre carried titles such as The Invasion of 1910, When England Slept and When William Came: A History of London under the Hohenzollerns. The armchair generals and war nerds weren’t all British. A similar genre flourished throughout Europe, for instance Friedrich von Bernhardi with his magnum opus Germany and the Next War (1912), “three of [whose] chapter titles, ‘The Right to Make War’, ‘The Duty to Make War’, and ‘World Power or Downfall’ sum up its thesis”. In short, substantial segments of society in most European nations imagined the next war would be short, clean and glorious.
These attitudes enjoyed general acceptance throughout Europe, which was at the time an excellent crucible for the kind of values needed to fight an industrial Great War. Their conscript armies were integral to imagining communities into nation-states, giving cohorts of men from diverse provinces a common background. This was reinforced by schools, churches and the universities – for instance, at the University of Berlin the political theorist Heinrich von Treitschke gave a series of lectures headlined under: “Without war, there would be no state”.
Despite philosophical objections to its brutality, “in reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas”. In Britain, the sense of national duty led all but 8 of 539 boys leaving Winchester (a school for the elite) in 1909-1915 to volunteer. In France, “almost in awe, a foreign observer reported the upsurge of “national devotion” joined with an “entire absence of excitement” in a people of whom it had so often been predicted that anarchical influences had undermined their patriotism”. And off to war they went, the sons of workers, doctors, artists and soldiers alike, driven on by an ingrained sense of duty heavier than a mountain.
Many of these delusions about the short war crept over into military thinking, which tended to extrapolate from past conflicts like the Franco-Prussian war. France was afflicted with the dogma of the frontal offensive, with its unflinching belief that cran (“gutsiness”), the bayonet and Plan XVII would lead to victory – no matter the visibility of their soldiers’ pantalons rouges in an era of bolt-action rifles and their relative lack of heavy artillery for reducing well-defended German positions. The Germans held rigidly to the Schlieffen Plan, an ostensibly workable scheme if firmly adhered to, as requested by its designers on his deathbed; yet Moltke the Younger, then Chief of the German General Staff, weakened it over his unfounded fears of the “Russian steamroller” blasting its way into Prussia – in itself an Entente dream that never really materialized.
Similarly, naval planners envisaging a decisive Trafalgar between the Royal Navy and the Reichsmarine were to be disappointed as the sea struggle devolved into a dispiriting game of blockade and counter-blockade.
Some military men did anticipate these trends, such as Moltke the Elder, who foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, and that the ‘age of cabinet war’ would have to give in to ‘people’s war’. This view was shared by his disciple Colmar von der Goltz, whose influential book Das Volk in Waffen advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. This would eventually come to pass in the last year of the First World War, when Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff became virtual dictators of the Reich.
Interestingly enough, the most accurate predictions came from a financier and a Communist. The Warsaw banker Ivan Bloch in Is War Now Impossible? (1899) argued that military developments ended the ‘day of the bayonet’ and that the ‘next war…[would] be a great war of entrenchments’, with ten million men ‘spread over an enormous front’. The final triumph would go to the side with the greatest industrial production, socio-political strength and self-sufficiency. As early as 1887, Friedrich Engels envisaged, “a world war of never before seen extension and intensity…eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other…the devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent; famines, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses…collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class”.
Far from states collapsing after a few months due to general exhaustion, as posited by the prominent anti-war activist Norman Angell in The Great Illusion (1909), these two prophets of the next war proved remarkably accurate. Contrary to the pre-war emphasis on the charge and the bayonet, the vast majority of casualties accrued to artillery and machine gun fire. Nations suborned their industries into producing war material, strikes were suppressed and wartime social controls like rationing were imposed.
Civilians became increasingly legitimate targets, with primitive air raids and naval blockades explicitly targeting them. The German advance into Belgium was marked by vicious reprisals against Belgian civilians suspected of being franc-tireurs, bringing the first taste of what had previously been confined to their colonial empires, such as the misnamed Congo Free State, to ‘civilized’ Europe. The first (arguably) genocide of the twentieth century was carried out by the waning Ottoman Empire against its Armenian minority. As the circle of hate deepened, things like Christmas truces and football matches ceased between British and German soldiers. According to Niall Ferguson’s counter-intuitive observation in The Pity of War, men would fight and kill with decreasing reluctance and increasing enthusiasm as the war progressed.
After the failure of the Spring Offensive in 1918 and the introduction of fresh, well-equipped American troops, backed by the world’s first industrial power, Germany’s surrender was probably inevitable; by the end of the year, its home front in collapse. The enemy blockade had cut off vital imports such as phosphates for agriculture, fuelled massive inflation (ersatz substitutes could no longer cope) and stirred social discontent. (Yet just a year previously Germany had managed to knock underdeveloped Russia out of the war, whose political cohesiveness and military potential evaporated under the stresses of total war, and imposed the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on it). Nationalists would reinterpret the German request for an armistice in November 1918 as a perfidious “stab in the back” by Jews, socialists and civilian politicians – the so-called “November criminals”, and this myth would later contribute to the rise of Hitler.
This was part of the general post-war disillusionment. Gloomy poems and art; “Dulce et Decorum Est”; war cripples; veterans unable to adjust to civilian life; socialist agitation and right-wing reaction; Spengler’s The Decline of the West; the feeling that it was all for nothing: these are some of the things characterizing the post-war period. In Germany, the once-high fertility rate fell by half within just a decade from 1914 to the 1920’s; until then, a uniquely rapid demographic transition. In his The Realities of War, the former British war correspondent Philip Gibbs presented a picture of the war very different from his wartime propaganda.
Perhaps the most well-known work in this category was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929. It tells in unpretentious prose the rigors, tragedy and banality of military life: the hypocrisy of schoolmasters sending off their pupils to war, the waste of youth to shells, bullets and brothels, etc. Perhaps the most poignant scene is where a truck comes laden with fresh troops and takes away coffins with corpses – a most fitting metaphor. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that it really was a “great” war for some soldiers – they enjoyed the feelings of camaraderie and shared sacrifice involved in the great battles, and violently recreated them in the Russian Civil War, armed skirmishes throughout Europe’s new borders and within internal paramilitary organizations such as the Freikorps and Blackshirts.
The First World War was in many ways a seminal event of the twentieth century and of military history. First, it was the fulfillment of something long anticipated by and prepared for by many Europeans, including former conscripts, generals, national policy-makers, and philosophers. Second, it was unprecedented in its bloodiness, both in the slaughter of soldiers in the Flemish trenches and the Polish plains, and the atrocities against civilians – especially evident in the Balkans and Turkey, and a dark presage of what would come in the next war. Third, it necessitated a similarly unprecedented degree of national mobilization and government interference in civilian life, which had hitherto run on classical liberal lines – most fully in Britain, but also to an extent in most other European nations. Fourth, it defined the worldviews of the millions of men who served in the trenches, who ushered in a wave of disillusionment with the old order – social life was increasingly polarized between never-again pacifists and embittered militarists. Fifth, it redefined the geopolitics of Europe, bringing down the German, Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires, and stoking resentments that would again bubble to the fore and result in a second, even more terrible war.
Above all, the war radically changed the national consciences of all of its participants. Germany went from being a confident, boisterous expansive power, to one embittered by defeat and post-war humiliation by the Treaty of Versailles – yet still possessing the latent industrial and waning demographic strength to avenge itself. France was permanently traumatized, adopting a barrier mentality with the building of the Maginot Line – not surprisingly, because not only were its military losses the most severe in relative terms among the West European belligerents, but they impacted on one of its lowest-fertility populations.
Even today, this epic struggle remains the “Great War” in the United Kingdom because of the unprecedented social changes it unleashed – a certain leveling of classes from rationing, conscription, and government controls on key industries like coal. For a previously insular isle, which before had relied on its navy, professional armies, and mercenaries to fight European wars, this was a major discontinuity. In both Britain and France, the will to fight for the nation was permanently sapped.
Yet the greatest impact of all was incurred by Russia, which was forcibly taken over by a radical anti-capitalist sect, the Bolsheviks, who embarked on their world-historical project to leapfrog into Europe’s future by reinforcing the most extreme elements of traditional Russian absolutism. They were unsuccessful in their endeavor, and Stalin ended up returning Russia to Russia’s future.
The first total war in modern times was Year Zero in the secular decline of Europe – and the genesis of mankind’s reaction against it – and as such, the apotheosis of the West.