Total War Facts & Information

Key Facts

  • A total war is a war that involves civilian societies and economies.
  • World War I was a total war.
  • Britain’s leaders had extensive powers to reduce threats and at the same time harness its economy through the Defense of the Realm Act.
  • This act was initiated because a shortage of artillery shells in 1915 led to a change in government and new measures were necessary to increase production.
  • Production of weapons was supervised by high-ranking officers in Germany, who reorganised industries and conscripted labour.
  • France outdid its allies by going a different route. Unlike its allies, production was largely left to private companies working under government contracts.

World War I was a total war that involved the governments, economies and populations of participating nations. This was different from the way all the other ‘smaller’ wars, like the Crimean War (1853-56) and late-19th-century colonial wars, had been fought. According to a German general Paul von Ludendorff, ‘total war’ called the entire nation into action rather than just its military. Legislations that would be intolerable during peacetime were passed by governments, who acted as interventionists. Economic production, nationalising factories, determining production targets, allocating manpower and resources was done by ministers and their departments. Military forces and resources like ships, trains or vehicles were commandeered for military purposes and achieved through conscription. Governments formed during the war acted to protect national security by implementing press censorship and curfews. Large prison sentences and fines were imposed on anyone not adhering to these laws. Morale and money were raised through war bonds and extensive propaganda.

Britain was at the forefront of initiating total war. The Defense of the Realm Act was passed by Parliament at Westminster a week after the declaration of war. This piece of legislation gave the government the ability to secure the nation from internal threat or invasion by handing it wide-ranging powers. Among these powers were censorship, the authority to imprison without trial and the power to court-martial and execute civilians. It also included control of the press and communication media. ‘Official’ military journalists were appointed in London and they set up the War Office Press Bureau, which processed and reviewed stories and distributed them to newspapers. The frontlines were not reserved for civilian reporters. Government agencies had the power to prevent the publication of ‘offensive or dangerous material’ in newspapers and books and to open and censor civilian mail. They also had the authority to tap into telephone and telegraph communications.

More restrictions were added to the legislation as the war continued. Daylight saving was introduced to give more working hours in the day. Alcohol consumption was restricted as opening hours of pubs were reduced and beverages like beer were watered down to reduce their strength. In an attempt to stay safe and not attract airships, it became illegal to light bonfires or fly kites.

Britain’s economy also shifted to total war. The government could requisite any land or building deemed necessary for the war effort under the Defense of the Realm Act. The government control of the economy increased dramatically in 1915 in the wake of the ‘Shell Crisis’, where there was a shortage of artillery shells which contributed to British military failures on the Western Front. This drew strong criticism of the government and led to a change in prime minister. A factory that was able to produce 800 tons of cordite a day was built, while other factories were nationalised and restructured to produce artillery shells. This led to an increase of more than 1000 percent. Future Prime Minister David Lloyd George created the Ministry of Munitions.

The British government also formed departments to coordinate other areas of the economy. These departments controlled food, labour and maritime transport. Food security was a high priority for both civilians and the military. Any unused land, including parks, commons and disused blocks was seized by Westminster and used for farming. Food rationing was introduced and enforced through food queues. Food was so valuable that it became an offence to feed bread to animals or to throw rice at weddings.

In Germany, an allied naval blockade caused food shortages. The Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, or the War Raw Materials Department, was under Walter Rathenau who used his skilful coordination of available raw materials and synthetic substitutes to promote industry. After two years, however, these resources were heavily depleted, and by 1916 production levels were plummeting. A series of reforms to double production of military needs was implemented by military commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. The Supreme War Office or Oberster Kriegsamt was formed to control and coordinate all aspects of wartime production including labour and transport. The government became empowered by the Auxiliary Service Law, passed in late 1916, and was now able to employ and relocate any adult males it needed to provide labour. The agricultural sector took a blow as more than two million men were forced to work in weapons and munitions production, but this had the desired military outcome. Food and consumer goods became scarce, and together with the ongoing Allied blockade, led to critical food shortages by the winter of 1916.

In France, the national economy was also mobilised to meet the nation’s war needs. This was achieved with less government involvement than in Germany and Britain. Weapons needed by France’s military were produced largely by privately-owned companies, each specialising in a particular military necessity. There were fifteen companies tasked with producing shells while three companies produced rifles. These companies were issued with government orders and targets and would work together to achieve those targets.

The system worked in principle, although France was found wanting in their production capacity compared to Germany or Britain. It produced only one-sixth the amount of coal that was produced in Germany and in 1914 it also experienced losses in some key industrial areas. Nonetheless, the French achieved some impressive increases in armaments production. 1,000 artillery guns, 261,000 shells and six million bullets were being made per month by 1918.

At the beginning of World War I, there were 162 aircraft in France and by 1918 this had risen to more than 11,800. These made France the largest Allied producer of weapons and munitions, surpassing the record set by the United States. However workers suffered socially, and with stagnant wages and rising prices.

In addition to these preparations, some actions characterising the post-19th-century concept of total war included:

  • Strategic bombing that was used during other wars like the Korean War and the Vietnam War became part of operations nicknamed ‘Rolling Thunder’ and ‘Linebacker II’.
  • Commerce raiding, tonnage war and unrestricted submarine warfare in order to make economies crumble, as with German submarine campaigns in WWI and WWII, and campaigns led by the United States against Japan in World War II.
  • Collective punishment in populations deemed hostile through execution and deportation of suspected hostiles.
  • Prisoners of war and civilians were forced to provide labour, for instance, Japan and Germany’s massive use of forced labourers of other nations during World War II.