150 Total War

29.6.2: Total War

Almost the whole of Europe and its colonial empires mobilized to wage World War I, directing almost all aspects of life including industry, finance, labor, and food production toward military purposes.

Learning Objective

Discuss the costs of total war

Key Points

  • Total war, such as World War I and World War II, mobilizes all of the resources of society (industry, finance, labor, etc.) to fight the war.
  • It also expands the targets of war to include any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure.
  • World War I mobilized almost all European nations and its colonies into total war with enormous costs, not only to military personnel lost in battle, but to whole societies, dramatically affecting finance, culture, and industry.
  • Civilians back home had to make major adjustments to their lifestyles: women took over for men in industry, food rationing came into effect, and business owners changed or adjusted their products to support the war.
  • One estimate suggests that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion.

Key Terms

total war
Warfare that includes any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all of the resources of society to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs.
The compulsory enlistment of people in a national service, most often military service.

Total war includes all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all societal resources to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs. The American-English Dictionary defines total war as “war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”

In the mid-19th century, scholars identified “total war” as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, to an extent inapplicable to other conflicts, the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants diminishes and even sometimes vanishes entirely as opposing sides consider nearly every human resource, even that of non-combatants, as part of the war effort.

Actions that characterize the post-19th century concept of total war include: blockade and sieging of population centers, as with the Allied blockade of Germany; commerce-raiding tonnage war, and unrestricted submarine warfare, as with privateering and the German U-Boat campaigns.

World War I as Total War

Almost the whole of Europe and its colonial empires mobilized to wage World War I. Young men were removed from production jobs to serve in military roles and were replaced by women. Rationing occurred on the home fronts. Conscription was common in most European countries but controversial in English-speaking countries. About 750,000 lost their lives. Though most deaths were young unmarried men, 160,000 wives lost husbands and 300,000 children lost fathers. In the United States, conscription began in 1917 and was generally well-received, with a few pockets of opposition in isolated rural areas. Bulgaria went so far as to mobilize a quarter of its population or 800,000 people, a greater share than any other country during the war.

In Britain,  government propaganda posters were used to divert all attention to the war on the home front. They influenced public opinion about what to eat and what occupations to pursue, and changed the attitude toward the war effort to one of support. Even the Music Hall was used as propaganda, with songs aimed at recruitment.

After the failure of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the large British offensive in March 1915, the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal John French blamed the lack of progress on insufficient and poor-quality artillery shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915, which brought down both the Liberal government and Premiership of H. H. Asquith. He formed a new coalition government dominated by liberals and appointed David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front.

As young men left the farms for the front, domestic food production in Britain and Germany fell. In Britain the response was to import more food, despite the German introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, and to introduce rationing. The Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports prevented Germany from importing food and hastened German capitulation by creating a food crisis in Germany.

Economics of World War I

All of the powers in 1914 expected a short war; none had made any economic preparations for a long war, such as stockpiling food or critical raw materials. The longer the war went on, the greater the advantages of the Allies, with their larger, deeper, more versatile economies and better access to global supplies. As historians Broadberry and Harrison conclude, once stalemate set in late in 1914:

The greater Allied capacity for taking risks, absorbing the cost of mistakes, replacing losses, and accumulating overwhelming quantitative superiority should eventually have turned the balance against Germany.

The Allies had much more potential wealth they could spend on the war. One estimate (using 1913 U.S. dollars) is that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion. Among the Allies, Britain and its Empire spent $47 billion and the U.S. $27 billion; among the Central Powers, Germany spent $45 billion.

Total war demanded total mobilization of all the nation’s resources for a common goal. Manpower had to be channeled into the front lines (all the powers except the United States and Britain had large trained reserves designed just for that). Behind the lines labor power had to be redirected away from less necessary activities that were luxuries during a total war. In particular, vast munitions industries were created to provide shells, guns, warships, uniforms, airplanes, and a hundred other weapons both old and new. Agriculture had to be mobilized as well to provide food for both civilians and soldiers (many of whom had been farmers and needed to be replaced by old men, boys, and women), as well as horses to move supplies.

Transportation in general was a challenge, especially when Britain and Germany each tried to intercept merchant ships headed for the enemy. Finance was a special challenge. Germany financed the Central Powers. Britain financed the Allies until 1916, when it ran out of money and had to borrow from the United States. The U.S. took over the financing of the Allies in 1917 with loans that it insisted be repaid after the war. The victorious Allies looked to defeated Germany in 1919 to pay reparations that would cover some of their costs. Above all, it was essential to conduct the mobilization in such a way that the short-term confidence of the people was maintained, the long-term power of the political establishment was upheld, and the long-term economic health of the nation was preserved.

The poster depicts a pair of hands full of silver coins transforming into bullets as the hands dump them out.
Total War: British poster encouraging investment in war bonds. Total war involved immense economic and labor costs through the restructuring of finance and industry toward military purposes.



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