1 The Age of Total War

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The Age of Total War

Eric Hobsbawm
Lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,

They leave their trenches, going over the top,

While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,

And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,

Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
- Siegfried Sassoon (1947, p. 71)
It may be thought better, in view of the allegations of ‘barbarity’ of air attacks, to preserve appearances by formulating milder rules and by still nominally confining bombardment to targets which are strictly military in character. . . to avoid emphasizing the truth that air warfare has made such restrictions obsolete and impossible. It may be some time until another war occurs and meanwhile the public may become educated as to the meaning of air power.
-- Rules as to Bombardment by Aircraft, 1921 (Townshend, 1986, p.161)
(Sarajevo, 1946.) Here as in Belgrade, I see in the streets a considerable number of young women whose hair is greying, or completely grey. Their faces are tormented, but still young, while the form of their bodies betrays their youth even more clearly. It seems to me that I see how the hand of this last war has passed over the heads of these frail beings. . .

This sight cannot be preserved for the future; these heads will soon become even greyer and disappear. That is a pity. Nothing could speak more clearly to future generations about our times than these youthful grey heads, from which the nonchalance of youth has been stolen.

Let them at least have a memorial in this little note.
- Signs by the Roadside (Andrić, 1992, p. 50)


‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ said Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, as he watched the lights of Whitehall on the night when Britain and Germany went to war in 1914. ‘We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ In Vienna the great satirist Karl Kraus prepared to document and denounce that war in an extraordinary reportage-drama of 792 pages to which he gave the title The Last Days of Humanity. Both saw the world war as the end of a world, and they were not alone. It was not the end of humanity, although there were moments, in the course of the thirty-one years of world conflict between the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 and the unconditional surrender of Japan on 14 August 1945 – four days after the explosion of the first nuclear bomb when the end of a considerable proportion of the human race did not look far off. There were surely times when the god or gods, whom pious humans believed to have created the world and all in it, might have been expected to regret having done so.

Mankind survived. Nevertheless, the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization crumpled in the flames of world war, as its pillars collapsed. There is no understanding the Short Twentieth Century without it. It was marked by war. It lived and thought in terms of world war, even when the guns were silent and the bombs were not exploding. Its history and, more specifically, the history of its initial age of break-down and catastrophe, must begin with that of the thirty-one years’ world war.

For those who had grown up before 1914 the contrast was so dramatic that many of them – including the generation of this historian’s parents, or, at any rate, its central European members, refused to see any continuity with the past. ‘Peace’ meant ‘before 1914’: after that came something that no longer deserved the name. This was understandable. In 1914 there had been no major war for a century, that is to say, a war in which all, or even a majority of, major powers had been involved, the major players in the international game at that time being the six European ‘great powers’ (Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Prussia – after 1871 enlarged into Germany – and, after it was unified, Italy), the USA and Japan. There had been only one brief war in which more than two of the major powers had been in battle, the Crimean War (1854--56) between Russian on one side, Britain and France on the other. Moreover, most wars involving major powers at all had been comparatively quick. Much the longest of them was not an international conflict but a civil war within the USA (1861-65). The length of war was measured in months or even (like the 1866 war between Prussia and Austria) in weeks. Between 1871 and 1914 there had been no wars in Europe at all in which the armies of major powers crossed any hostile frontier, although in the Far East Japan fought, and beat, Russia in 1904-5, thus hastening the Russian revolution.

There had been no world wars at all. In the eighteenth century France and Britain had contended in a series of wars whose battlefields ranged from India through Europe to North America, and across the world’s oceans. Between 1815 and 1914 no major power fought another outside its immediate region, although aggressive expeditions of imperial or would-be imperial powers against weaker overseas enemies were, of course, common. Most of these were spectacularly one-sided fights, such as the US wars against Mexico (1846-48) and Spain (1898) and the various campaigns to extend the British and French colonial empires, although the worm turned once or twice, as when the French had to withdraw from Mexico in the 1860s, the Italians from Ethiopia in 1896. Even the most formidable opponents of modern states, their arsenals increasingly filled with an overwhelmingly superior technology of death, could only hope, at best, to postpone the inevitable retreat. Such exotic conflicts were the stuff of adventure literature or the reports of that mid-nineteenth-century innovation the war correspondent, rather than matters of direct relevance to most inhabitants of the states which waged and won them.

All this changed in 1914. The First World War involved all major powers and indeed all European states except Spain, the Netherlands, the three Scandinavian countries and Switzerland. What is more, troops from the world overseas were, often for the first time, sent to fight and work outside their own regions. Canadians fought in France, Australians and New Zealanders forged their national consciousness on a peninsula in the Aegean – ‘Gallipoli’ became their national myth – and, more significantly, the United States rejected George Washington’s warning against ‘European entanglements’ and sent its men to fight there, thus determining the shape of twentieth-century history. Indians were sent to Europe and the Middle East, Chinese labour battalions came to the West, Africans fought in the French army. Though military action outside Europe was not very significant, except in the Middle East, the naval war was once again global: its first battle was fought in 1914 off the Falkland Islands, its decisive campaigns, by German submarines and Allied convoys, on and under the seas of the North and mid-Atlantic.

That the Second World War was literally global hardly needs to be demonstrated. Virtually all independent states of the world were involved, willingly or unwillingly, although the republics of Latin America participated only in the most nominal manner. The colonies of imperial powers had no choice in the matter. Except for the future Irish Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Turkey and Spain in Europe, and possibly Afghanistan outside Europe, virtually the whole globe was belligerent or occupied or both. As for the battlefields, the names of Melanesian islands and of settlements in the North African deserts, in Burma and the Philippines became as familiar to newspaper readers and radio listeners – and this was quintessentially the war of the radio news bulletins – as the names of Arctic and Caucasian battles, of Normandy, Stalingrad and Kursk. The Second World War was a lesson in world geography.

Local, regional or global, the wars of the twentieth century were to be on an altogether vaster scale than anything previously experienced. Among seventy-four international wars between 1816 and 1965, which American specialists, who like to do that kind of thing, have ranked by the number of people they killed, the top four occurred in the twentieth century: the two world wars, the Japanese war against China in 1937-39, and the Korean war. They killed upwards of one million persons in battle. The largest documented international war of the post-Napoleonic nineteenth century, that between Prussia/Germany and France in 1870-71, killed perhaps 150,000, an order of magnitude roughly comparable to the deaths in the Chaco war of 1932-35 between Bolivia (pop. c. 3 million) and Paraguay (pop. c. 1.4 million). In short, 1914 opens the age of massacre (Singer, 1972, pp. 66,131).

There is not space in this book to discuss the origins of the First World War, which the present author has tried to sketch in The Age of Empire. It began as an essentially European war between the triple alliance of France, Britain and Russia on one side, the so-called ‘central powers’ of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other, Serbia and Belgium being immediately drawn in by the Austrian attack on one (which actually set off the war) and the German attack on the other (which was part of the German strategic war plan). Turkey and Bulgaria soon joined the central powers, while on the other side the Triple Alliance gradually built up into a very large coalition. Italy was bribed in; Greece, Rumania and (much more nominally) Portugal were also involved. More to the point, Japan joined in almost immediately in order to take over German positions in the Far East and Western Pacific, but took no interest in anything outside its own region, and – more significantly – the USA entered in 1917. In fact, its intervention was to be decisive.

The Germans, then as in the Second World War, were faced with a possible war on two fronts, quite apart from the Balkans into which they were drawn by their alliance with Austria-Hungary. (However, since three of the four Central Powers were in that region – Turkey and Bulgaria as well as Austria – the strategic problem there was not so urgent.) The German plan was to knock out France quickly in the West and then move with equal rapidity to knock out Russia in the East, before the Tsar’s empire could bring the full weight of its enormous military manpower into effective action. Then, as later, Germany planned for a lightning campaign (what would in the Second World War be called a blitzkrieg) because it had to. The plan almost succeeded, but not quite. The German army advanced into France, among other places through neutral Belgium, and was only halted a few dozen miles east of Paris on the river Marne five to six weeks after war had been declared. (In 1940 the plan was to succeed.) They then withdraw a little, and both sides – the French now supplemented by what remained of the Belgians and by a British land force which was soon to grow enormously ­improvised parallel lines of defensive trenches and fortifications which soon stretched without a break from the Channel coast in Flanders to the Swiss frontier, leaving a good deal of eastern France and Belgium in German occupation. They did not shift significantly for the next three-and-a-half years.

This was the ‘Western Front’, which became a machine for massacre such as had probably never before been seen in the history of warfare. Millions of men faced each other across the sandbagged parapets of the trenches under which they lived like, and with, rats and lice. From time to time their generals would seek to break out of the deadlock. Days, even weeks of unceasing artillery bombardment – what a German writer later called ‘hurricanes of steel’ (Ernst Jünger, 1921) – were to ‘soften up’ the enemy and drive him underground, until at the right moment waves of men climbed over the parapet, usually protected by coils and webs of barbed wire, into ‘no-man’s land’, a chaos of waterlogged shell-craters, ruined tree-stumps, mud and abandoned corpses, to advance into the machine-guns that mowed them down. As they knew they would. The attempt of the Germans to break through at Verdun in 1916 (February-July) was a battle of two millions, with one million casualties. It failed. The British offensive on the Somme, designed to force the Germans to break off the Verdun offensive cost Britain 420,000 dead – 60,000 casualties on the first day of the attack. It is not surprising that in the memory of the British and the French, who fought most of the First World War on the western front, it remained the ‘Great War’, more terrible and traumatic in memory than the Second World War. The French lost almost 20 per cent of their men of military age, and if we include the prisoners of war, the wounded and the permanently disabled and disfigured – those ‘gueules cassés’ (‘smashed faces’) which became so vivid a part of the after-image of the war – not much more than one in three French soldiers came through the war without harm. The chances of the five million or so British soldiers surviving the war unharmed were just about evens. The British lost a generation – half a million men under the age of thirty (Winter, 1986 p. 83) – notably among their upper classes, whose young men, destined as gentlemen to be officers who set an example, marched into battle at the head of their men and were consequently mown down first. One quarter of the Oxford and Cambridge students under the age of twenty-five who served in the British army in 1914 were killed (Winter, 1986, p. 98). The Germans, though the number of their dead was even greater than the French, lost only a smaller proportion of their much larger military age-groups – 13 per cent. Even the apparently modest losses of the USA (116,000, against the 1.6 millions of French, the almost 800,000 of British, the 1.8 millions of Germans) actually demonstrate the murderous nature of the Western front, the only one where they fought. For while the USA lost between 2.5 and 3 times as many in the Second World War as in the First, the American forces in 1917-18 were in action for barely a year-and-a-half, compared to the three-and-a-half years of the Second World War, and on only a single narrow sector and not world-wide.

The horrors of warfare on the Western Front were to have even darker consequences. The experience itself naturally helped to brutalize both warfare and politics: if one could be conducted without counting the human or any other costs, why not the other? Most men who served in the First World War – overwhelmingly as conscripts – came out of it as convinced haters of war. However, those ex-soldiers who had passed through this kind of war without being turned against it sometimes drew from the shared experience of living with death and courage a sense of incommunicable and savage superiority, not least to women and those who had not fought, which was to fill the early ranks of the post-war ultra-right. Adolf Hitler was only one of such men for whom having been a frontsoldat was the formative experience of their lives. However, the opposite reaction had equally negative consequences. After the war it became quite evident to politicians, at least in democratic countries, that bloodbaths like 1914-18 would no longer be tolerated by the voters. The post-1918 strategy of Britain and France, like the post-Vietnam strategy of the USA, was based on this assumption. In the short run this helped the Germans to win the Second World War in the West in 1940 against a France committed to crouch behind its incomplete fortifications and, once these had been breached, simply unwilling to fight on; and a Britain desperate to avoid committing itself to the sort of massive land war that had decimated its people in 1914-18. In the longer run democratic governments failed to resist the temptation of saving their own citizens’ lives by treating those of enemy countries as totally expendable. The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was not justified as indispensable for victory, which was by then absolutely certain, but as a means of saving American soldiers’ lives. But perhaps the thought that it would prevent America’s ally the USSR from establishing a claim to a major part in Japan’s defeat was not absent from the minds of the U S government either.

While the Western Front settled into bloody stalemate, the Eastern Front remained in movement. The Germans pulverised a clumsy Russian invasion force at the battle of Tannenberg in the first month of war and thereafter, with the intermittently effective help of the Austrians, pushed Russia out of Poland. In spite of occasional Russian counter-offensives, it was clear that the Central Powers had the upper hand, and Russia was fightingting a defensive rearguard action against the German advance. In the Balkans the Central powers were in control, in spite of an uneven military performance by the rocky Habsburg empire. The local belligerents, Serbia and Rumania, incidentally, suffered by far the greatest proportional military losses. The Allies, in spite of occupying Greece, made no headway until the collapse of the Central Powers after the summer of 1918. The plan by Italy to open another front against Austria-Hungary in the Alps failed, mainly because many Italian soldiers saw no reason to fight for the government of a state they did not consider theirs, and whose language few of them could speak. After a major military debacle at Caporetto in 1917, which left a literary memory in Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, the Italians had even to be stiffened by transfers from other Allied armies. Meanwhile France, Britain and Germany bled each other to death on the Western Front, Russia was increasingly destabilized by the war she was patently losing, and the Austro-Hungarian empire increasingly tottered towards its break-up, which its local nationalist movements longed for, and to which the Allied foreign ministries resigned themselves without enthusiasm, rightly foreseeing an unstable Europe.

How to break the stalemate on the Western Front was the crucial problem for both sides, for without victory in the West neither could win the war, all the more so since the naval war was also deadlocked. Except for some isolated raiders, the Allies controlled the oceans, but the British and German battle-fleets faced and immobilized each other on the North Sea. Their only attempt to engage in battle (1916) ended indecisively, but since it confined the German fleet to its bases, on balance it was to the Allies’ advantage.

Both sides tried to do it by technology. The Germans – always strong in chemistry – brought poison gas onto the battlefield, where it proved both barbarous and ineffective, leaving behind the only genuine case of government humanitarian revulsion against a means of conducting warfare, the Geneva Convention of 1925, by which the world pledged itself not to use chemical warfare. And indeed, though all governments continued to prepare for it and expected the enemy to use it, it was not used by either side in the Second World War though humanitarian feelings did not prevent the Italians from gassing colonial people. (The steep decline in the values of civilization after the Second World War eventually brought poison gas back. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s Iraq, then enthusiastically supported by the Western states, used it freely against both soldiers and civilians.) The British pioneered the caterpinared armoured vehicle, still known by its then code-name of tank, but their far from impressive generals had not yet discovered how to use it. Both sides used the new and still frail airplanes, as well as (by Germany) the curious cigar-shaped hydrogen-fined airships, experimenting with aerial bombardment. fortunately not to much effect. Air warfare also came into its own, notably as a means of terrorizing civilians, in the Second World War.

The only technological weapon which had a major effect on warfare in 1914-18 was the submarine, for both sides, unable to defeat each other’s soldiers. resorted to starving the other’s civilians. Since all Britain’s supplies were seaborne, it seemed feasible to strangle the British Isles by increasingly ruthless submarine warfare against shipping. The campaign came close to success in 1917 before effective ways to counter it were found, but it did more than anything else to draw the USA into the war. The British, in turn, did their best to blockade supplies to Germany, i.e. to starve both the German war economy and the German population. They were more effective than they ought to have been, since, as we shall see, the German war economy was not run with the efficiency and rationality on which the Germans prided themselves. Unlike the German military machine, which, in the First as in the Second World War, was strikingly superior to any other. This sheer superiority of the German army as a military force might just have proved decisive, had the Allies not been able to call on the practically unlimited resources of the USA from 1917. As it was, Germany, even hobbled by the alliance with Austria, secured total victory in the East, driving Russia out of the war, into revolution and out of a large part of her European territories in 1917-18. Shortly after imposing the penal peace of Brest-Litowsk (March 1918) the German army, now free to concentrate in the West, actually broke through the Western Front and advanced on Paris again. Thanks to the flood of American reinforcements and equipment, the Allies recovered, but for a while it looked a close thing. However, it was the last throw of an exhausted Germany, which knew itself to be close to defeat. Once the Allies began to advance in the summer of 1918, the end was only a few weeks away. The Central Powers not only admitted defeat but collapsed. Revolution swept across central and south-eastern Europe in the autumn of 1918, as it had swept across Russia in 1917 (see next chapter). No old government was left standing between the borders of France and the Sea of Japan. Even the belligerents on the victorious side were shaken, although it is difficult to believe that Britain and France would not have survived even defeat as stable political entities; but not Italy. Certainly none of the defeated countries escaped revolution.

If one of the great ministers or diplomats of the past – the ones on whom aspiring members of their countries’ foreign services were still told to model themselves, a Talleyrand or a Bismarck – had risen from their graves to observe the First World War, they would certainly have wondered why sensible statemen had not decided to settle the war by some compromise before it destroyed the world of 1914. We must also wonder. Most non-revolutionary and non-ideological wars of the past had not between waged as struggles to death or total exhaustion. In 1914 ideology was certainly not what divided the belligerents, except insofar as the war had to be fought on both sides by mobilizing public opinion, i.e. by claiming some profound challenge to accepted national values, such as Russian barbarism against German culture, French and British democracy against German absolutism, or the like. Moreover there were statesmen who recommended some kind of compromise settlement even outside Russia and Austria-Hungary which lobbied their Allies in this sense with increasing desperation as defeat drew near. Why, then, was the First World War waged by the leading powers on both sides as a zero­ Sum game, i.e. as a war which could only be totally won or totally lost?

The reason was that this war, unlike earlier wars, which were typically waged for limited and specifiable objects, was waged for unlimited ends. In the Age of Empire, politics and economics had fused. International In the rivalry was modelled on economic growth and competition, but the characteristic feature of this was precisely that it had no limit. ‘The “natural frontiers” of Standard Oil, the Deutsche Bank or the De Beers Diamond Corporation were at the end of the universe, or rather at the limits of their capacity to expand.’ (Hobsbawm, 1987, p. 318.) More concretely, for the two main contestants, Germany and Britain, the sky had to be the limit, since Germany wanted a global political and maritime position like that now occupied by Britain, and which therefore would automatically relegate an already declining Britain to inferior status. It was either/or. For France, then as later, the stakes were less global but equally urgent: to compensate for its increasing, and apparently inevitable, demographic and economic inferiority to Germany. Here also the issue was the future of France as a great power. In both cases compromise would merely have meant postponement. Germany itself, one might have supposed, could wait until its growing size and superiority established the position German governments felt to be their country’s due, which would happen sooner or later. Indeed, the dominant position of a twice defeated Germany with no claims to independent military power in Europe was more unchallenged in the early 1990s than the claims of militarist Germany ever were before 1945. Yet that is because Britain and France, as we shall see, were forced after the Second World War, however reluctantly, to accept their relegation to second-rank status, just as Federal Germany, with all its economic strength, recognized that in the post-1945 world supremacy as a single state was, and would have to remain, beyond its power. In the 1900s, at the peak of the imperial and imperialist era, both the German claim to unique global status (‘The German spirit will regenerate the world’, as the phrase went) and the resistance of Britain and France, still undeniable ‘great powers’ in a Euro-centred world, were as yet intact. On paper no doubt compromise was possible on this or that point of the almost megalomaniac ‘war aims’ which both sides formulated as soon as war had broken out, but in practice the only war aim that counted was total victory: what in the Second World War came to be called ‘unconditional surrender’.

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