Total War in Relation to World War I and II
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Total War in Relation to World War I and II
[IMAGE]First of all, what is “Total War”? What do we mean by it and
what answer do we expect from this question? Total War is the war that
affects all of society- not just armed forces, and that uses all the
resources available to be able to win it. It’s “the mobilization of
the whole society and its resources for the war effort.”
In most of the countries the first Total War was the First World War.
World War One started a completely new generation of wars. Before 1914
wars only affected the army and had no change on the lives of ordinary
people. At earlier times small professional armies fought the wars,
which means that all the men were especially trained for fighting.
Well, those two wars- World War One and World War Two were different.
Everyone fought them and everyone provided as much help as possible,
it didn’t matter whether the person was skilled or unskilled, old or
young, male or female. In this essay I will also investigate why were
World War One and World War Two called Total Wars. The first thing
that comes to mind is the scale of war. It was tremendous. I am going
to start from speaking about World War One and then later on about
World War Two.
[IMAGE]World War One was a completely new style of wars, the changes
were unbelievable, in fact the historians even see the World War One
as “the dividing line between modern and contemporary history”. The
war didn’t only change the style of fighting, but also the lifestyle
of people and their views on wars. It involved almost the entire
World, and not only the arguing countries were involved, but the
others as well. It involved “the entire population on large scale”. As
I mentioned previously, the scale of war was enormous. There were
about 70 million men fighting from 20 countries. In the beginning
there was no conscription, all the men were volunteers, and in fact
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Total War World War World War I Relation New Generation Armed Forces War Effort Conscription
there were quite a lot of people who wanted to join. Men thought that
this war would be like the previous ones and therefore wanted to get
it over with. However they were wrong, everything was different, and
what the war was really about was completely unexpected.
[IMAGE] The government introduced a huge recruitment campaign. It was
also the first time so much propaganda was used. Half a million joined
the army in one month! The government tried as hard as possible to
encourage men to sign up. There were posters, leaflets, exciting
speeches from the politicians etc. The campaign was highly successful.
By 1916 over two million men in Britain had volunteered to join the
army. However as the war went on more terror was revealed about it.
Seeing the truth fewer and fewer people wanted to sign up. The
government had to introduce conscription. All the men between 18 and
40 had to register. It was the first time ever that conscription had
been introduced in Britain. The volunteering system failed. It was the
first time for everything.
In 1914 the British government introduced DORA- the Defense Of the
Realm Act. “ It gave the government unprendented and wide-ranging
powers to control many aspects of people’s daily lives. It allowed it
to seize any land or building it needed, and to take over any
industries which were important to the war effort.”
[IMAGE]In the beginning of the war nobody expected that it would last
for such a long time, more and more men were needed to replace the
dead and injured. The loss of men damaged the industries a lot, as
there was not enough workforce. All the industries were now working
under the government and were producing what was needed for the war.
To keep the production going WOMEN for the first time ever introduced
to the men jobs. It was something like a revolution. There was a new
style of propaganda asking women to work in industries and help to win
the war. New groups were organized like: “the order of the white
feather”, “mother’s union”, “women’s hospital corps”, “women’s police
volunteers”, “woman’s land army” and many more. Women volunteered to
work as nurses, to cook, farm workers etc. By the end of the war half
a million women had replaced men in the office jobs, and almost
800,000 had taken up work in engineering industries. In fact very soon
people realized that with very little training women were as skilled
as men. So as we can see the role of women changed completely during
the war years.
The loss of men damaged the industries a lot, as there was not enough
workforce. All the industries were now working under the government
and were producing what was needed for the war. To keep the production
going WOMEN for the first time ever introduced to the men jobs. It was
something like a revolution. There was a new style of propaganda
asking women to work in industries and help to win the war. New groups
were organized like: “the order of the white feather”, “mother’s
union”, “women’s hospital corps”, “women’s police volunteers”,
“woman’s land army” and many more. Women volunteered to work as
nurses, to cook, farm workers etc. By the end of the war half a
million women had replaced men in the office jobs, and almost 800,000
had taken up work in engineering industries. In fact very soon people
realized that with very little training women were as skilled as men.[IMAGE]
The amount of food became a problem in the countries; there was not
enough of it. As the supplies were running short, the prices kept
rising. Poor people couldn’t afford to buy enough food, while the rich
were buying too much. Soon there were laws made that controlled the
prices of bread. In May 1917 volunteering rationing was introduced,
but it didn’t help much, so in 1918 compulsory food rationing was
introduced. If someone would break the rationing rules he would get
It was also the first time during the war that people were not told
the whole truth, the government was controlling what the public knew.
They were only telling the good news. There was propaganda against
other countries, especially Germany. In cinemas people would be
watching propaganda films. Journalists were not allowed to the front
until 1916 (November). Everything was censored including the letters
which soldiers sent to their relatives.
World War Two wasn’t much difference, except that it brought more
horror and damage. In this war more civilians died than soldiers, they
were “in the front line of attack”. Civilians were bombed, imprisoned,
massacred, taken as slaves and starved to death. The most horrifying
weapon of World War Two was the atomic bomb; it became typical at that
time and brought horrific civilian casualties.
Before 1914 even though some wars involved lots of countries, they
were mainly fought battle by battle. After 1914 World War Two put an
end to this style of fighting. Now wars were fought on many fronts,
all at the same time. In World War Two there was ground war as well as
air war and sea war. The aim of most of the countries was to destroy
the industries of the “enemy”; this was done by killing the workforce,
bombing their houses for example.
In 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, so USA joined the war. Almost
every country was participating: Far East, USA, Europe etc.
There was massive recruitment as more help was needed. The government
introduced forced conscription. All the women were working in
industries in order to keep the production going. In some countries
even children were working, for example making grenades at 15 years
old! Some countries used slaves to increase production, for example
Germany used Russian refugees as slaves, and the same was taking place
in China with Japanese refugees.
[IMAGE]There was a shift in industries, they were adapting to the war
production, for example an industry that was producing kettles or
something of that kind was now making helmets. Some workers in the
country had had to move from one part of the country to another to be
able to work in an industry.
Every single thing in the country was being used. For transport there
were mostly trains (“war by timetable”) and also new technology was
used to get the food faster to the front. For example in Leningrad
during the two years of resistance the food was delivered in the cars
through the frozen lake, as there was no other way.
In World War Two the amount of food was even smaller than in World War
One, therefore compulsory food rationing was introduced as well. In
most of the countries, to be able to save more food, flour was mixed
with sawdust to make bread and the soup was made with glue.
There was also a mass use of propaganda. Even famous people would take
part in it, like actors, singers etc. (e.g. Marlene Dietrich- in
Germany). Cinema was a popular event at that time, and was also used
as propaganda. Just like in World War One, all the letters from the
soldiers were censored and people were only told about good things.
Some soldiers even used to write on bombs with which they would later
on bomb their enemies!
[IMAGE]Science developed even further and allowed a higher mass
destruction. There was a mass use of tanks, which by now were highly
developed. Fire was one of the most common weapons, as it was hard to
put it down, ex. Spitfire – it fired even through a propeller! Even
firebombs were made. By the end of the war Germany produced a V1
plane-, which didn’t even need a pilot to get to a destination! If
Germany would make it in the beginning of the war, it is most certain
that it would win the war. And as I mentioned previously the most
horrific weapon ever was THE ATOMIC BOMB. It was used in Nagasaki and
Hiroshima, the effects were disastrous! In Hiroshima at least 75,000
people died instantly. Tens of thousands more died from radiation
poisons in the years that followed.
[IMAGE]This war mostly concentrated on the civilians because the
government believed that this would lower people’s morale and they
would stop supporting the government in their countries, which would
make it much easier to win the war. The civilians became a target.
[IMAGE]Those two wars saw casualties on an unprecedented scale. In
World War One the best estimate in a global total of 8,500,000 killed
and 57,470,000 injured. However the casualties of World War Two were
much more horrific, altogether about 55 million died, abut 40 million
were the Soviet and about 30 million Chinese. There were lots of
refugees. Some cities and villages were totally destroyed, especially
in Russia. Much much more civilians died than soldiers. This never
As we can see from all the above information on both of the wars, we
can definitely say that World War One and World War Two were Total
Wars. Each level of society and almost every country were affected.
They were the first Total Wars as nothing of this kind ever happened
before the effects were horrific and the memories of those wars will
always stay in people’s hearts.
World War I was a total war, involving the governments, economies and populations of participating nations to an extent never seen before in history. This was distinct from the way ‘smaller’ wars had been fought, like the Crimean War (1853-56) and late-19th century colonial wars. In ‘total war’ – a term not coined until the 1930s, by German general Paul von Ludendorff – the entire nation was called into service, rather than just its military. Governments played an active and interventionist role, passing laws that would be intolerable during peacetime. Ministers and departments took control of economic production, nationalising factories, determining production targets, allocating manpower and resources. Conscription was introduced to bolster military forces and resources like ships, trains or vehicles were commandeered for military purposes. Wartime governments also acted to protect national security, by implementing press censorship, curfews and strict punishments for breaches and violations. They also made extensive use of propaganda, both to raise public morale and to raise money through war bonds.
Britain initiated total war from the outset. A week after the declaration of war, the parliament at Westminster passed the Defence of the Realm Act. This legislation empowered the government to secure the nation from internal threat or invasion, by handing it wide-ranging powers, including censorship, the authority to imprison without trial and the power to court martial and execute civilians. Control of the press and communication media was particularly stringent. London appointed ‘official’ military journalists and set up the War Office Press Bureau, which processed stories and distributed them to newspapers (very few civilian reporters were ever let near the front lines). Government agencies and the military were authorised to prevent the publication of offensive or dangerous material in newspapers and books; to open and censor civilian mail; and to tap into telegraph and telephone communications. As the war progressed, new restrictions were added to the legislation. Daylight saving was introduced to provide more working hours in the day. Alcohol consumption was restricted, opening hours of pubs were cut back and beer was watered down to reduce its strength. It became illegal to light bonfires or fly kites, both of which might attract enemy airships.
The British economy was also shifted to a total war footing. Under the Defence of the Realm Act the government could requisition any land or building deemed necessary for the war effort. Government control of the economy increased dramatically in 1915, in the wake of the ‘Shell Crisis’ (a shortage of artillery shells that contributed to British military failures on the Western Front; this shortage brought about strong criticism of the government and a change in prime minister). A new portfolio was created: the Ministry of Munitions, filled initially by future prime minister David Lloyd George. Construction of a massive factory capable of producing 800 tons of cordite a day was ordered, while other factories were nationalised and retooled for the production of artillery shells. British production of shells increased by more than 1000 per cent. The government also formed departments to coordinate other areas of the economy, including food, labour and maritime transport. Munitions aside, the other pressing demand was for food, both for the military and the civilian population. Westminster seized control of unused land for farming, including parks, commons and disused blocks. Rationing was introduced and food queues became the norm. Food became so valuable that it was a criminal offence to feed bread to animals or to throw rice at weddings.
In Germany, Walter Rathenau was put in charge of the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, or War Raw Materials Department. As Germany started to suffer shortages caused by an Allied naval blockade, Rathenau’s skilful coordination of available raw materials and synthetic substitutes allowed industrial production to continue. But after two years these resources were severely depleted, and by 1916 production levels were falling. Military commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff implemented a series of reforms to double production of military needs. The Oberster Kriegsamt, or Supreme War Office, was formed to control and coordinate all aspects of wartime production, labour, industry and transport. The Auxiliary Service Law, passed in late 1916, empowered the government to employ and relocate any adult males it needed to meet its labour needs. More than two million men were forced out of the agricultural sector to work in weapons and munitions production. This had the desired military outcome, however the reallocation of labour saw production of both food and consumer goods plummet. These shortages, exacerbated by the ongoing Allied blockade, led to critical food shortages by the winter of 1916.
The French economy also mobilised to meet the nation’s war needs, though this was achieved with less government intervention than in Germany and Britain. France’s war production was left largely to groups of privately-owned companies, each responsible for a particular military necessity (there were fifteen groups responsible for producing shells, for example, and three groups for producing rifles). These consortiums received government orders and targets, then worked collaboratively to fill them. This system worked in principle, though France as a whole lacked the production capacity of Germany; it produced only one-sixth the amount of coal as Germany, and it was also hamstrung by the loss of some key industrial areas in 1914. Nevertheless the French achieved some spectacular increases in armaments production. By 1918 French producers were making 1,000 artillery guns, 261,000 shells and six million bullets per month. At the outbreak of war there were 162 aircraft in France; by 1918 there were more than 11,800. These striking increases made France the largest Allied producer of weapons and munitions, exceeding even the United States. Socially, the demands of the war economy took their toll on France’s workers, who suffered from stagnant wages and rising prices.
1. World War I was a ‘total war’ as civilian societies, economies and labour were all seconded to the war effort.
2. Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act gave its leaders extensive powers to reduce threats and harness the economy.
3. A critical shortage of artillery shells in 1915 led to a change in government and new measures to increase production.
4. In Germany, production was taken over by high-ranking officers, who reorganised industries and conscripted labour.
5. There were also dramatic increases in French military production, which exceeded that of the other Allies. Unlike in Britain, production was largely left to private companies working to fulfil government contracts.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Total war” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/total-war/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].