Was World War I a total war?

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Was World War One a total war? Why? Why not?

The First World War of 1914-1918, also known as the Great War, was the first total war in history. What began as a European struggle over the balance of power between the triple alliance of France, Britain and Russia on one side and the central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other, soon became a global conflict that involved the imperial powers of Europe, their colonies and lands such as the Ottoman Empire, Japan and the United States. Although the sheer number of countries involved in the conflict is enough to describe the First World War as a mass war, what makes it total is the fact that it was waged not only against the enemy’s armies, but also against the civilian population. Military attacks, the use of propaganda and the fact that governments had to mobilise every available human and material resource for the conduct of war affected non-combatants and made World War One a war not fought between armies, but entire societies.

Civilians became targets of warfare because their efforts were crucial to the outcome of the war. While fifteen million soldiers died , untold millions suffered off the battlefield. One weapon that had a major effect on warfare in 1914-1918 was the submarine. Since all Britain’s supplies were seaborne, enemies such as Germany resorted to starving the population by destroying British supply ships. The British also found it an effective tactic to blockade supplies to Germany, starving the German war economy and population. Air raids were also a reality for citizens and the general populace had to be ready for the enemy to strike at any time. Attacks were not always so random. An Armenian woman tells of her experiences of being taken from her city with her children, knowing that she was going to be killed - “I was in the last caravan to leave the city; we knew they were leading us to our deaths…there was a well wide open where the executioners immediately threw the women they were stabbing.” This is an example that shows how women and children suffered in a conflict that many did not understand or want to be a part of.

The use of propaganda and the war of words between belligerents played a big part in making the First World War total, as “the orgy of killing on the battlefield took place against the backdrop of an orgy of loaded words.” The government and press were able...

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...d be directly or indirectly involved in the war – if not physically involved in battle, they could be emotionally affected by the use of propaganda or manipulated by misleading information. Finally, the First World War was waged with armaments that require entire economies to produce them. This means that the war was total because non-combatant involvement in the war effort was essential.


Bentley, Jerry H. & Ziegler, Herbert F., Traditions & Encounters, (New York, 2003).

Demm, Eberhard, ‘Propaganda and Caricature in the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 28, No. 1. (1993), pp. 163-192.

Hobsbawm, Eric, ‘The Age of Total War’, Age of Extremes, Michael Joseph, 1994. 21-53.

Marquis, Alice Goldfarb, ‘Words as Weapons: Propaganda in Britain and Germany during the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 13, No. 3. (1978), pp. 467-498.


Lines of Fire. Women Writers of World War I, edited by Margaret Higonnet (New York, 1999): Gadarinee Dadourian, ‘A Mother’s Deportation’, pp.280-1.

Mike Iavarone, “Trenches on the Web: Posters from the Great War,”
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