On 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. In less than a week, Russia, France, Belgium, and Great Britain and its Empire were at war with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By November 1918, many more states had been drawn into the conflagration, including Greece, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, the USA, Portugal, Italy and Japan. An estimated 10 million soldiers, sailors and airmen died in the war and another 7 million civilians lost their lives. And worse was to come. Between January 1918 and December 1920, some 500 million people were infected by the H1N1 flu virus in a pandemic that swept the globe. Between 50 million and 100 million people died (3–5 per cent of the world’s population). This compares with the Black Death (c.1346–53) which killed more than 75 million people in Europe alone (30 per cent of Europe’s population).
The Great War was not the first global war, nor the worst. The Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) were global, reaching from Europe to Asia, North Africa and the Americas, while navies fought each other on the world’s oceans. This conflict was not the first global war, though. That dubious accolade goes to the Seven Years War of 1756–63 which was fought in Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India and Asia, as well as at sea. For a war that was hugely destructive to Europe, its farmlands, its villages, its towns and its cities, and its people, the Thirty Years War (1618–48) takes some beating; around 8 million people died while great areas of farmland were laid waste which contributed to famines which helped disease to take hold, while state bankruptcy beggared populations and contributed to lawlessness and chaos. Then there were the wars in Asia, such as Tamerlane’s campaigns in the fourteenth century in which 17 million people died, the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war in China that lasted from 1850 to 1864 in which 20 million died, while 40 million died at the hands of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. But by far the worst war of all was the Second World War (1939–45) in which some 65 million people died worldwide.
Yet, the Great War is often perceived as the epitome of senseless slaughter. The reason for this, of course, is the apparent immobility of armies on the Western Front facing each other across a strip of no man’s land in perpetual stalemate, slogging it out for four years in a war of attrition in which no side could wrest victory from the other. Except, that scenario is not what happened. And while the Western Front was the principal theatre of war, the fighting on the Eastern Front, for example, bore little similarity to that across Belgium and France.
Trench warfare is often regarded as the unique and defining feature of the Great War. In fact, it was not unique to the Great War at all. Trench warfare was a feature of the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War (1853–6), was a significant aspect of the American Civil War (1861–5) – the first industrialised war – and was a major part of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), as well as the Second World War, not to mention the Korean War (1950–3). Indeed, trench warfare in Korea was little different from trench warfare on the Western Front during the First World War both in nature and duration. Trench warfare has figured in almost every war since the middle of the nineteenth century.
So what sets the First World War apart from all these others if it isn’t the uniqueness of trench warfare? The answer lies not so much in the duration or nature of trench warfare on the Western Front – although the lengthy stalemate was unusual – but in the speed of tactical, technological and industrial change during the war, aspects of the war that do not loom large in the popular imagination. Indeed, these changes were quite staggering in their extent and contributed significantly to an Allied victory in 1918. Throughout the war, the nature of the fighting continually evolved as attack and defence competed for dominance. The war in 1915 differed substantially from that in 1914 and this process continued throughout 1916, 1917 and 1918. The armies that went to war in 1914 were essentially nineteenth century in outlook. Although they were armed with twentieth century weapons, everyone failed to grasp their significance prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. That did not make commanders incompetent, merely lacking in prescience.
The armies that emerged from war in 1918 were completely different from those of 1914. They were equipped differently and they were trained differently; consequently, they fought differently from their predecessors. Indeed, warfare has never been the same since the Great War, not because of some vow by politicians to avoid the horrors of the First World War but because of the development of new tactical doctrines between 1914 and 1918 which changed how wars are fought. And these came about through greater understanding of science and technology in relation to the use of weapons, rather than through new and innovative weapons. Sciences such as map-making and meteorology and how these applied to artillery in particular were crucial to the new tactics. None of that was true of the global wars of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Armies that emerged from the Seven Years War and from the Napoleonic Wars were little changed.
The popular view of the First World War is skewed by the works of those who wrote about it in the 1920s and 1930s, the war poets in particular and, surprisingly perhaps, by the anti-war sentiments of the Vietnam era which were, themselves, affected by the anti-war feelings of some writers in the 1920s and 1930s. The truth about the First World War is more complex than mere stalemate. The charge of incompetence by army commanders has long since been discredited although the notion still persists in the popular imagination. History is linked to the present and the present to the past because, in the end, none of it is really about facts but about their interpretation. That’s when the arguments start.