Total war

total war
A woman at work in a munitions factory during World War I

World War I was a ‘total war’ that involved the governments, economies and populations of participating nations to an extent never seen before in history. This was distinct from how wars had been previously been fought. Conflicts like the Crimean War (1853-56) and 19th-century colonial wars involved national effort but did not affect the population at large.

Nations called to service

In ‘total war’, a term not coined until the 1930s by German general Erich Ludendorff, the entire nation was called into the service of warfare, rather than just its military.

Governments played an active and interventionist role, passing laws and implementing policies that would be considered 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. 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 raised war loans and made extensive use of propaganda.

Defence of the Realm Act

Several major powers initiated a system of total war almost from the outset. An island nation within reach of German aircraft and boats, Britain feared the prospect of infiltration – or worse, invasion – by the enemy.

A week after the declaration of war, the Westminster passed the Defence of the Realm Act. This legislation authorised the government to mobilise for war. It also gave it sweeping powers to secure Britain from internal threat or invasion.

Under Defence of the Realm provisions, the British government was permitted to use censorship, both in the press and on private correspondence. Westminster was also given the power to imprison suspected enemy agents without trial and court-martial and execute civilians.

Press censorship

Control of the press and communication media was particularly stringent. London appointed ‘official’ military journalists and set up the War Office Press Bureau, an agency that processed stories and distributed them to newspapers (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; to tap into telegraph and telephone communications.

As the war progressed, new restrictions were added to the legislation. Daylight saving was introduced to allow more working hours in the day. Alcohol consumption was restricted, opening hours of pubs were cut back and beer was watered down. Night-time lighting in streets was restricted and it was illegal to light bonfires or fly kites.

Britain’s wartime economy

total war
A cartoon depicting the surge in British artillery shell production in 1916

Britain’s 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.

A new portfolio was created (the Ministry of Munitions), headed 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. Britain’s production of shells increased by more than 1000 per cent.

Food production

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 became a criminal offence to feed stale bread to animals or to throw rice at weddings.

total war
This French poster advertises the sale of war bonds, to help fund the war effort

In Germany, the industrialist Walter Rathenau was put in charge of the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung or War Raw Materials Department. This agency took control of the distribution of essential war materials, fixing prices and determining what should go where.

As Germany began to suffer shortages caused by Allied naval blockades, Rathenau’s skilful coordination of available raw materials and synthetic substitutes allowed industrial production to continue.

After two years of intensive war, however, these resources were severely depleted and production levels were falling.

The ‘Silent Dictatorship’

In 1916, military commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff effectively took control of the German war economy, during a period later dubbed the ‘Silent Dictatorship’.

Under their oversight, the German government implemented a series of reforms to double production of the country’s 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 but the reallocation of labour saw the 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.

France’s war economy

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 15 groups responsible for producing shells, for example, and three groups for producing rifles. These consortiums received government orders and targets and worked collaboratively to fill them.

This system worked in principle but France, in general, lacked the production capacity of Germany. It produced only one-sixth the amount of coal as Germany and was also hamstrung by the loss of some key industrial areas in 1914.

Despite these limitations, 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 military aircraft in France; by 1918, the nation had 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.

“Study of total war might begin with the premise that total warfare, the scourge of the first half of the 20th century, did not fall from the skies in 1914. Its political, military, economic, social and cultural origins lie in the 19th century, if not earlier. The Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars fundamentally altered the course of military history. For the first time since states had established monopolies over the use of armed force, mass mobilisation and broad social support became the basis of warfare. The great Prussian military analyst von Clausewitz was so impressed by this military revolution that he later wrote: ‘Suddenly war again became the business of the people – a people of 30 million, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens.”
Roger Chickering, historian

total war

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.

Title: “Total war”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 5, 2015
Date accessed: May 25, 2023
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