Development of the concept of total war

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Development of the concept of total war

There are several reasons for changing concept and recognition of total war in the nineteenth century. The main reason is industrialization. As countries natural and capital resources grew, it became clear that some forms of conflict demanded more resources than others. For example, if the United States was to subdue a Native American tribe in an extended campaign lasting years, it still took much fewer resources than waging a month of war during the American Civil War. Consequently, the greater cost of warfare became evident. An industrialized nation could distinguish and then choose the intensity of warfare that it wished to engage in.

This is also the same time when nations were fighting colonial wars. A country such as Britain would have no need to mobilize troops, or begin rationing at home when fighting a native enemy in Africa. But when Britain was fighting in the First World War (note that this was not necessarily a fight for her life), a different form of warfare was needed. As such, strategies (in the generic sense) needed to adapt to this new grand strategy.

Additionally, this is the time when warfare was becoming more mechanized. A factory in a city would have more to do with warfare than it did before. The factory itself would become a target, because it contributed to the war effort. It follows as well that the factory's workers would also be targets.

Consequences of Total War

The most identifiable consequence of total war in modern times has been the inclusion of civilians as targets in destroying a country's ability to engage in war. The targeting of civilians developed from two distinct theories. The first theory was that if enough civilians were killed, factories could not function. The second theory was that if civilians were killed, the country would be so demoralized that it would have no ability to wage further war.

Total war also resulted in the mobilization of the so called home front. Propaganda became a required component of total war in order to boost production and maintain morale. Rationing took place to provide more material for waging war.

Another consequence was the expansion of the military. Because wars were no longer local affairs, soldiers had to be deployed globally. Additionally, a navy could not be built overnight, and it had to be prepared for warfare. Standing armies and strong navies were the only way to ensure victories or prevent defeats before the economy could be mobilized.

The final consequence of total war eventually became, ironically, an end to war between industrialized nations. After World War II, industrialized nations' ability to wage war between each other became terribly destructive, and at the end of the 1950s, resulting in the development of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). With nuclear weapons, the conclusion of total war became something that instead of taking years, such as in World War I, would instead take hours. Essentially, the consequences of total war became so terrible for both sides in the conflict that no clear economic winner could emerge. The economic impetus for open war directly between industrialized nations had ended.

Instead of wars fought directly between world powers, wars between industrialized nations were fought by proxy over national prestige, tactical strategic advantage or colonial and neocolonial resources. Examples include the US war in Vietnam, the Six Day War, and the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

Examples of Total Warfare Strategies

Punic Wars

Punic Wars. During the Punic Wars, Rome and Carthage fought with navies and armies across several theatres. In the end, Rome destroyed the city-state of Carthage, and destroying the empire's ability to wage war by enslaving or committing genocide on the Carthaginian populace.

American Civil War

US Army General William Tecumseh Sherman's 'March to the Sea' during the American Civil War destroyed the resources required for the South to make war. He is considered one of the first military commanders to use total war as a military tactic.

World War I

World War I. Almost the whole of Europe mobilized to conduct the war. Young men were removed from production jobs, and were replaced by women. Rationing occurred on the home fronts.

World War II

The United Kingdom

In the Second World War, Drawing on its experiences in World War I, the United Kingdom had prepared legislation before the war started, which allowed it to mobilized its whole economy for war as soon as hostilities broke out.

Rationing of most goods and services was introduced. Not only for consumers but also for manufactures. This meant that factories not producing products useful in war time were re-allocated tasks which were. All artificial light was subject to legal Blackouts.

Not only were men and women conscripted into the armed forces from the beginning of the war, (something which had not happened until the middle of World War I), but women were also conscripted as Land Girls to aid farmers and the Bevin Boys were conscripted to work down the coal mines.

Huge casualties were expected in bombing raids so children were evacuated from London and other cities en-mass to the country side and were compulsory billeted on households. In the long term this was one of the most profound and longer lasting social consequence of the whole world war for Britain. This is because it mixed up children with the adults of other classes. Not only did the middle and upper classes get first hand knowledge in a way they could empathise with of the consequences of the squalor, that many of the working class children from the slums live in, but the children got a chance to see cows for the first time and how the other half lived. Many went back to the cities with their social horizons broadened.


In contrast Germany started the war under the concept of Blitzkreig. It did not accept that it was in a total war until Joseph Goebbels' Sportpalast speech of 18 February 1943. For example Women were not conscripted into the armed forces.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was a command economy which already had an economic and legal system which allowed the economy and society to be redirected to fight a total war. The transportation of factories and whole labour forces east of the Urals as the Germans advanced across the USSR in 1941 was an impressive feat of planning. As only those factories which were useful for war production were moved it was a part of the total war commitment of the Soviet government.

The production of T-34 tanks during the siege of Leningrad which were driven, unpainted due a paint shortage, from the factory floor strait to the front, came to symbolise the USSR's commitment to the Great Patriotic War and displayed the government's total war policy.

To encourage the Russian people to work harder the communist government, encouraged the peoples love of the Motherland Rodina and even allowed the reopening of Russian Orthodox Churches as it was thought this would help the war effort.

The ruthless movement of national groupings, like the Volga German and later the Crimean Tartars, who Stalin thought might be sympathetic to the Germans was a development of the conventional scorched earth policys. It was a more extreme form of internment which was implemented by both the UK government, for Axis alians and British Nazi sympathisers, and the USA governement for Japanese internment in the United States.

Descent into Barbarism

The suspension of many of the rules of war on the Eastern Front during World War II coupled with an escalation in criminal actions caused human misery on a scale never seen before. Many actions which ignored the rules of war were initiated or at least condoned by the authorities on both sides . They argued that in such a clash of ideology (and for the Nazis coupled to a race war) that any method in a total war which achieved victory over the enemy were justified.


  • ""This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq... this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war... our children will sing great songs about us years from now." (Richard Perle in an interview on the War on Terror) [1] (

  • "I ask you: Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?" (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in his famous Sportpalast speech, 18 February 1943)

  • "The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a dozen other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind." Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris officer commanding RAF Bomber Command.

  • "Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things." Written by Air Marshal Harris in a memo to the Air Ministry on 29 March 1945.

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