The first of two World Wars of the twentieth century began in 1914 and ended four years later in 1918. This war signified the beginning of a new kind of warfare that differed greatly from the wars of the 19th century and earlier. It changed everything in Europe – its political map and economies of participants. This paper will tell about the influence of World War I, or Total War, on soldiers and civilians as well as difference of World War I from previous much shorter wars.
In order to understand the effect of World War I on people, one needs to see the difference of this war and those fought in Europe prior to World War I. It was a new kind of warfare with new tactics and weapons. However, the main difference of this war was the system of alliances that presupposed participation of all great powers, including the non-European ones such as Japan and the USA. As the fight went on battlefields in and outside of Europe, this war was truly a world one.
The number of nations involved in the conflict differed this one from the previous wars, but the biggest difference was in the nature of the war. The Industrial Revolution brought technical progress and advances to many spheres of life, including the military complex. New means of delivery including motorized transport and railroads enabled the sides of the conflict to supply their battlefields with weapons and equipment (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 299). Among the used weapon systems and equipment were machine guns, long-range heavy artillery, “flame throwers, poison gas, the tank, the airplane, the lighter-than-air dirigible, and the submarine” (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 299).
Despite having new weapons and technologies at their disposal, the generals of the warring sides used military tactics of the previous century during the early battles of the war. At first, they planned their battles like the old times – masses of infantrymen with bayonets led by “their officers in dress uniforms complete with white gloves” (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 299). Flags and drums were used as a necessary part of the battle. It should be noted that the Europeans anticipated such a war when it began, but the destructive power of new weapons caused immense and unprecedented casualties during such attacks, which quickly killed the people’s enthusiasm about this war.
Indeed, when the war began in 1914, it was met with enthusiasm because soldiers and civilian population thought it would not last long and their nations would win. This enthusiasm and romanticizing the war was evident in pre-war prose and poetry. In his poem 1941 Sonnet: I. Peace, Rupert Brooke welcomed the beginning of the war:
Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye and sharpened power,
To turn as swimmers into cleanness leaping (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 307).
As it has been mentioned, enthusiasm about the war quickly faded when first attacks and battles ended with massive casualties. The realities of war did not match the romantic expectations of those who had volunteered to serve in the army and go to war. In reality, those who had not died during infantry attacks had somber awakening and realization of what the war was really like.
Among the volunteers whose nationalism and patriotism had pushed them to military service was Henri Barbusse who described his experience in the novel Under Fire. He wrote about soldiers in his squad and their psychological state while preparing for the attack. Those soldiers were neither savages nor warriors but simple men who clearly understood what awaited them in future attacks and knew that they might die at any moment. The fact that they were not heroes made their sacrifice even greater than any heroes’ (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 312).
The soldiers who had died in the trenches or on the battlefields from the enemy fire and poisonous gas were not the only casualties of World War I. In some sense, everyone who had participated in that horrible war, regardless of whether he or she had been wounded or gone through all 4 years of the war unscathed, could be considered its casualty. These people were damaged morally and psychologically from the horrors of the war. Erich Maria Remarque in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front wrote about soldiers who would return home after the end of the war, “if we go back, we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way anymore” (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 320). At home, these people would find no understanding from the previous generation and the one that would follow theirs.
It would be unfair to say that the major burden of the war was on the shoulders of soldiers and their generals. The civilian population suffered from the war as well. When it became clear that the war had reached a stalemate and it was bound to be long, the economies of the warring nations had to rebuild themselves to maintain the war effort. The role of the civilian population was tremendous for the war effort. People had to endure strict rationing of food and consumer goods as supplying the army was the priority for the governments of all warring sides Discovering the Western Past, pg. 300).
As some unknown German civilian wrote about food rationing, the pre-war calorie intake for a person used to be 3500 calories daily, but it shrunk significantly during the years of the war (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 324). The longer the war lasted, the less calories people could consume per day. Some products such as milk or butter were such scarce that they were either not issued to people in case of butter or given to children only, in case of milk (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 325). On the other hand, people had access to fresh vegetables that did not need to be rationed.
In addition to necessity of rationing products, the governments of the warring sides had to pay attention to the morale of the population. Civilian morale had to be sustained at any cost because the population with broken morale meant a lost war for that nation. Maintaining morale of the civilian population meant censorship of the press, propaganda, absolute control over public opinion and news, which could also called violation of people’s rights (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 300). In some sense, these measures could have been justified because knowing everything about losses at the front and failure of the armies did undermine people’s spirit and fueled the thought that fighting that war was in vain. As it was noted in Report on French Public Opinion in the Department of the Isere, soldiers returning from the front only added to the decline of public morale, telling about unpleasant incidents on the front or the errors of their commanders (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 327).
Victory was not possible without the home front, which all warring sides understood very well. It meant that the civilians felt the war even without being in the trenches or in the frontlines. Surface fleets blocked shipping routes and submarines attacked convoys to disrupt war production and saw fear and panic among the civilian population, which would lead to the decline of the public morale. More to say, with the invention of dirigibles and aircrafts, the civilian population could not be safe in their cities. Vera Britain described the London air raid on June 13, 1917 as the event that “brought it home” (Discovering the Western Past, pg. 324). The war came to London when London hoped that the war was far away from it.
The war changed lives of people in a way that would be felt for the years to come. Men who returned from the war often felt that they were lost and not needed. They were afraid that nobody would understand them. In addition, with so many men absent from their homes, it was expected that the birth rate would drop dramatically during the years of the war. Women benefitted from the war in some way because they were able to improve their status. During the war, they had an opportunity to occupy positions they would not be able to take in the peacetime period.
Summing up, one should say that World War I, or Total War, was the first global war that changed the entire world forever. New weapons and technologies changed the way wars were waged and battles won. The war put a strain on governments of the warring sides and on the civilian population of those nations as well. World War I transformed societies, leaving many men lost and unwanted in their countries and women empowered with the opportunists they had while men fought on the battlefields. This global war was met with enthusiasm of many people, but all romantic notions about the war were shattered by the grim reality.
Unfortunately, it only laid the foundation for another, bigger, and bloodier war.