Before people had to distinguish between two world wars, the first one—the war of 1914-1918—was simply “The Great War.” Born from the rivalries dividing Europe, the war left ambigu-ous legacies for people and nations all over the world. Early on, British novelist H. G. Wells tried to graft an uplifting moral objective to the carnage of the first of those blazes and called it “a war to end war.” American President Woodrow Wilson tried the same thing, with the same phrase, after the United States entered the war in 1917; and many people who heard it then lived to see it be-come a cruel and cynical joke.
The Great War was a solvent of Empire. When it was over, the Hohenzollern and the Hapsburg thrones, the Romanovs’ and the Ottomans’ too, were gone. The powers they had repre-sented were scattered and divided. A generation of boys, millions of young men were gone or maimed. Millions more were shattered in mind and spirit. The victors were hardly better off than the vanquished. Virtually all the wartime leadership, on all sides, had disillusioned millions of their veterans, and millions more of their civilian citizens too. And all the European states were broke.
Europeans had recruited and conscripted troops from their empires. They had taxed their colonies to pay for the war too. As a result, and in short order, Africans and Asians learned to see the hypocrisies, the limitations, and (very important) the vulnerabilities of colonialism. There had been, among the colonized, those who were half-convinced that European rule was a modern, hu-mane, and material improvement on what had come before. The war taught a lesson learned in the colonies as back at home in Europe; the blessings of modernization and westernization were more mixed than first thought. But now even those who supported insisted that occupied peoples had rights equal to those of the colonizing nations. Indeed, they argued that they had rights that super-seded those of the colonial masters. European colonialism had been a tsunami that engulfed the western hemisphere, Africa, and much of Asia over nearly five hundred years. Now it began to recede. And this tide was about to cause as much or more damage going out as it had coming in.
Woodrow Wilson famously refused to see Ho Chi Minh when the Vietnamese leader—who was not yet a Communist—showed up at Versailles to plead for some modest improvements in Vi-etnamese rights under the French colonial government. Less famously, Wilson made sure to block a declaration of racial equality Japan wanted to write into the Covenant of the League of Nations. The rights of “occupied peoples” (at least when applied to Europeans) had been part of Point Five of Wilson’s Fourteen Points; but the American president—descended from Confederates—had no sympathy for Asians or Africans. At Versailles, the victors wanted to create balances of imperial power out of the wreckage of Germany and Austria. They were much less interested in applying Wilson’s Fourteen Points—anywhere. Wilson’s government believed itself to be more detached and objective than the Europeans were, and it may have been that. But the United States joined all the other victors to abandon Point Five in an attempt to preserve the power of European colonial rule.
The Romanovs had not survived to send Russian diplomats to Versailles. Neither would the Allies invite or receive representatives of the new Soviet government. But Lenin was a presence at the conference, even if no one would admit it. The Revolution had deprived Britain, France, and the United States of their Eastern ally, after all. The Communists’ openly stated revolutionary in-tentions also distressed them. The victors intended to restrain Germany for the foreseeable future. However, they openly intended to restrain the Soviet Union as well. The new maps of Europe re-flected their efforts until first Hitler’s armies and then Stalin’s succeeded in moving—and erasing—those carefully drawn lines.
The Great War had also changed the making of war, and that has been among its most cruel legacies. The earliest sites of combat became killing fields in the instant that fighting was joined. New machine guns and infantry rifles rained lethal projectiles on soldiers protected only by their uniform coats and “tin hat” helmets. At the same time distant cannons sounded a strident and equally deadly artillery beat. The soldiers’ name for the ground between the armies could not have been more apt: no man’s land. The only safety on such battlefields was below ground. Within weeks each side was feverishly entrenching. Before too long both had built enormous trench com-plexes that ultimately stretched from the marshes and beaches of the North Sea coast to the Swiss border in the Alps.
A direct charge against such fortifications was a recipe for disastrous casualties and little military benefit. In 1916, the Battle of the Somme took more British lives on its first day than did the Crimean, Boer, and Korean Wars combined. When it was over, four months after it began, the battle had cost over one million casualties (on all sides), for very small returns. Ordinarily, a com-mander would prefer to go around fortifications. But one end of these trench lines rested in the ocean and the other end butted up against a neutral border that everyone had an interest in protect-ing. There was no going around these fortifications.
So armies continued to serve up thousands of conscripts to an endless war of attrition. At the same time, though, some leaders pursued answers to two questions: how could one provide some sort of additional protection to troops advancing against field fortifications? And how could one replace the idea of moving around strength on the ground with the idea of moving over the ground?
The combatants found their answers: the airplane, the tank, the submarine, and poison gas. Of those, the tank had the smallest immediate legacy. Hobbled by weight of armor and the limita-tions of early internal combustion engines, tanks became moving artillery cover for infantry. Lid-dell Hart, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, and George Patton—the soldiers who early on con-ceived of modern armor filling the combat role once played by the cavalry—were but junior offic-ers in The Great War.
If they thought about new weapons at all, generals and admirals first understood how air-planes and submarines could play tactical military roles. Reconnaissance was the first of these, fol-lowed by small scale striking power. But as the first major war between industrial powers, World War I provided a set of targets that had not previously existed, what came to be called “the home front.” In peacetime, factories frequently make things faster than the company can sell them. War, though, uses up manufactured products—say, bullets or artillery shells—as fast or faster than facto-ries can make them. And that makes factories (and the laborers who work there) tempting targets—if you can reach them with weapons.
Britain targeted German workers with one of its most traditional weapons, a maritime blockade. The Germans responded by bombing London from the air, from rigid, lighter-than-air dirigibles. The technology was not yet up to the task; the impact was negligible. But the small campaign foreshadowed what was to come. Thinking the same way, the German Navy sought to match the British naval blockade with unrestricted submarine warfare that would cut off the Allies’ supplies and reinforcements from abroad. From these campaigns, and from the new, technological weapons that made them possible, emerged a new kind of “strategic warfare.” It is better—that is cheaper, safer, and much more certain—to destroy a weapons factory (of any sort) than to fight and defeat a force using the factory’s weapons in the field. If you don’t mind attacking civilians and violating the Hague and Geneva Conventions written only a few years before The Great War began.
Europeans had sought to separate combatants and civilians in their warfare, and to protect the civilians from at least some of war’s violence—when they had been dealing with Europeans. It had been different in the colonies. After 1914, the colonial objectives of annihilation and subjuga-tion, like the machine gun, were brought back home and used against their creators. As it was with strategic strikes, so it was with the renewed targeting of civilians. The grim legacy would be more fully realized in the Second World War than it ever was in the First; but the process had begun.
War had become, in the words of American critic Randolph Bourne, “the health of the state.” The state’s existence was at stake in this total war, involving—requiring—the entirety of a nation’s material and spiritual resources. With stakes like that, the government—any government—could claim the right to exercise enormous power throughout the totality of public and private life. Even in the United States, furthest removed from the scene of actual combat, the notion of a total war incubated substantial increases in government power. The federal government would conscript troops, regulate what people said or wrote or read, what they could eat or drink, what they could manufacture, and how they could manufacture it. Local governments and vigilantes followed suit.
Thus, total war gave birth to totalitarianism.
The new technologies of violence were among The Great War’s legacies, but so too were the abortive efforts to create representative governments in what had once been autocratic monar-chies. Ironically, the equally abortive efforts to resolve disputes without war were also among the forces that led to a greater war.
Seeking to establish more representative (but still anti-Communist) governments in Central and Eastern Europe, Versailles and several other postwar conferences established borders based on language and ethnicity. Seeking to curb militarism, and to harvest some spoils of war, the victors imposed a military occupation and ruinous obligations on the defeated. Reparations imposed on Germany and loan repayments owed by Britain and France made European economies dependent upon financing from the United States. European and American economies were linked to each other and dependent upon each other’s success at precisely the moment when the costs and resent-ments of war drove the one-time combatants further and further away from each other. When those economies failed, the situation was ripe for catastrophe.
Ultimately, the most important legacies of The Great War were those that guaranteed that the world would soon fight a second, even larger war.
Albert I. Berger is a professor of history at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
In this Series
- 17 updates
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!