The Meaning of Total War

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The Meaning of Total War

'Keep the home Ares burning' sang the British Tommies at the front in the first years of the war. But even at home the war had its effects. Ersatz coffee, coupons and war loans, paper money and censored newspapers were superficial signs of strain. Other changes were more profound. And over everything hung the shadow of the casualty lists, appearing with terrible monotony week after week

On 5th September 1917 Miss Barbara Adam, a twenty-year-old student at Cambridge University, married Captain Jack Wootton, aged twenty-six. According to the conventions of their era and class, neither was yet ready for marriage. It was simply because of the war that their families gave consent. They had a twenty-four-hour honeymoon in the country and then a night at the Rubens Hotel, London, before Captain Wootton set off from Victoria Station to join his regiment at the front. Five weeks later, without his wife ever having seen him again, he died of wounds. The army sent his blood-stained kit to Mrs Wootton and she resumed her studies at Cambridge. She went on to make a considerable public career, ending as one of the first women to become a member of the House of Lords. She married again. Yet, describing her brief first marriage in her autobiography half a century later, she wrote that she still avoided any occasion for entering the Rubens Hotel. In ordinary times, such a story would stand out as being especially tragic. But during the First World War it was routine; something of the kind happened to tens of thousands of couples. The most direct and most devastating result of the war was the wholesale killing of young men. Great Britain lost 680,000, France lost 1,300,000 and Germany lost 1,700,000. The point is not that the total numbers were particularly large —the warfare of the 1939-45 period accounted for many more deaths — but that the casualties were almost all of the same kind. It was as if some Pied Piper had travelled across Europe carrying off the young men. There were so many widows and bereaved parents that, in Great Britain, a movement was started to make white the colour for mourning, lest the streets appear too gloomy. This did not catch on and the old mourning rituals were curtailed to a simple armband or dropped altogether. They never really returned. The Germans were rather more traditional. 'For weeks past the town [Berlin] seems to have been enveloped in an impenetrable veil of sadness, grey in grey, which no golden ray of sunlight seems to pierce, and which forms a fit setting for the white-faced, black-robed women who glide so sadly through the streets,' wrote Countess Evelyn Bliicher, in her diary for 27th December 1915. It would be false, however, to suppose that the mood in the combatant countries was one entirely of gloom. By 1916 the expectation cherished at the beginning by both sides, that the war would be a short one, had faded. But each side, convinced that it was fighting in self-defence against an evil enemy, was confident of ultimate victory. The roistering energies which over the previous period had revolutionized the European way of life were now turned inwards, to destruction. The war was not so much the end of 19th-century Europe as its consequence.

Land of Hope and Glory

The deepest impact was upon Great Britain where the war acted as an accelerator and distorter of social changes which had already begun in the unstable Edwardian period. The key decision, from which every other change derived, was the novel one of creating a mass British army on a scale comparable to the gigantic conscript forces on the mainland of Europe. That army was intended to end the war by overwhelming Germany on the Western Front. (Unfortunately neither its training nor its higher leadership matched the enthusiasm of its recruits.) During the first two years of the war the whole resources of public propaganda were used to recruit the army. The country was saturated with patriotic appeals. 'Land of Hope and Glory' became a second national anthem. 'God Save the King' was introduced as a customary item in theatre and cinema performances, a custom which still survives. Kitchener's poster 'Your King and Country Need YOU', with its pointed finger, can still be counted as the most memorable piece of outdoor advertising ever designed. Every locality had its own recruiting committee. There were private- enterprise recruiters, notably the outrageous Horatio Bottomley. Some clergy¬ men preached sermons urging young men to join the army. Music-hall stars ended performances with patriotic tableaux and appeals for recruits. Military bands paraded the streets and young men fell in behind them to march to the recruiting sergeant. 'We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go' became an important popular song. The basic pay was a shilling a day, and many recruits did their first drills in public parks, with civilian spectators proudly looking on. It became embarrassing to be a male civilian of military age. An admiral in Folkestone started a movement organizing girls to present white feathers to young men they saw in the streets in civilian dress. In one case, it was said, a winner of the VC got one while on leave. Some women went a stage farther. The romantic novelist, Baroness Orczy, founded the "Women of England's Active Service League', every member of which pledged herself to have nothing to do with any man eligible to join up who had not done so. She aimed at 100,000 members; she actually achieved 10,000, and sent the names of all of them to the King. The flaw, which by 1916 had become glaringly apparent, was that an army on such a scale required enormous industrial support to equip and clothe it. At least three civilian workers were required for every fighting soldier. By 1915 the shortage of artillery shells had become a national scandal and even so elementary a thing as soldiers' boots was presenting problems. Thousands of skilled workers had followed the band into the army and they were hard to replace.

The government takes over

So, on a makeshift and temporary basis, began the characteristically 20th-century phenomenon of wholesale government direction of industry, Lloyd George as minister of munitions directing the initial stages. Until the war the condition of the economy had been considered hardly more the responsibility of the government than the weather. Even socialists had thought more about distributing wealth and re¬ sources than about managing them. Al¬ though after the war most of the controls were to be removed, the idea remained that the government was ultimately responsible for the economy. • • . The aim in 1915 and 1916 was to create a tri-partnership of government, trade unions, and employers in which output, wages, and profits would be settled by negotiation instead of by the free play of the market. This had the incidental effect of increasing the size, status, and power of the unions. Instead of being pressure groups in the class war, they tended to become a recognized organ of the com¬ munity, with rights and responsibilities to the whole nation as well as to their own members. Their membership rose dramatically, from 4,100,000 in 1914 to 6,500,000 in 1918; and when the soldiers returned it shot up to over 8,000,000. The effect was permanent (although numbers were to fall later) and it was one factor in the post-war displacement of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party. By 1916 the war had become a way of life. The streets were curiously silent; the German bands and itinerant salesmen who in 1914 had enlivened them were now gone. There were short skirts and widows and multitudes of young men in uniform. For an army officer in uniform to have appeared in a tram or bus would in 1914 have been unknown; by 1916 it was common place for subalterns with their toothbrush moustaches to be handing their fares to girl conductors. Every issue of every news¬ paper carried lists of names of men who had been killed. Soldiers on leave sought to enjoy themselves before they died and nightclubs, previously furtive, almost un¬ mentionable places, had become prominent features of the London scene. There were said to be 150 in Soho alone; in them the customers danced to the new jazz music which had just crossed the Atlantic. The older institution, the public house, had begun to decline; under emergency legislation the government had regulated the hours at which they could serve liquor and the phrase 'Time, gentlemen, please' had entered the language. The daytime thoughts of the nation were of the permanent battle which was being waged from trenches in France; sometimes in southern England the actual sound of the guns could be heard as a distant thunder.

Deadlock and disappointment

France and Germany, unlike Great Britain, had long prepared for the war in the sense that they had for generations run a system of universal military service and could, without improvisation, immediately mobilize a mass army. Neither, however, had reckoned on a long war. The German aim was a quick knock-out of France and then a switch of forces to the east to defeat the armies of archaic Tsarist Russia. The French, equally, had looked forward to dashing victories and the reconquest of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine which they had lost to Germany forty-four years earlier. The outcome, a deadlock in France, was a disappointment to both sides. The fighting on the Western Front was on French (and Belgian) soil, so that the French, unlike the Germans and the British, were on their home ground. Much of the industrial north-east of France was under German occupation. The result was that the French became less idealistic about the war than the British and Germans; they saw it as a plague rather than as an adventure. It was not until late 1917 that they found in Clemenceau an apt war¬ like leader. The French were drearily conscious of having been defeated in the initial battles of 1914, and by 1916 they feared that they were bleeding to death. The following year large segments of the French army were to mutiny in favour of a negotiated peace. German propaganda to the effect that Great Britain was willing to fight to the last Frenchman had its effect; the Germans actually subsidized the leading French left-wing paper, the Bonnet Rouge. There was in France a special wartime drabness, save among the minority of industrial workers and their employers who made more money than ever before. In Paris the politicians quarrelled and at the front the soldiers died in thousands. Unlike the British and Germans, the French felt a widespread distrust of both politicians and generals, a distrust justified by some of the facts. There was no proper attempt at financial or industrial management. Since the richest industrial area was under German occupation, France had to rely upon imports from Great Britain, the United States, and Japan for the sinews of war and these were paid for by contracting debts. The internal debt also grew-in 1915 French revenue from taxes was actually lower than the ordinary peace¬ time level —and more and more paper money was printed. A crudely inefficient method was adopted by the government to finance munitions production. It lent capital, interest-free, to entrepreneurs; this, naturally, gave them enormous profits at the public expense. Few proper accounts were kept and by 1916 there was virtually no reliable information on the state of the public finances. The mass French army consisted largely of peasants conscripted from their small¬ holdings and sent to the front. The women left behind continued to work the holdings, but the total food output, in peacetime sufficient to meet French needs, fell sharply. By 1916 sugar had become a luxury, there were two meatless days a week, and restaurants were restricted to serving three courses. According to historic practice, the government concentrated on controlling the supply and price of bread, and success in this was the civil population's great palliative; no matter what other hardships existed, there was bread for all. Other matters of price control and rationing were left to the departmental prefects, with the result that what supplies were available oscillated around France to the departernents which momentarily allowed the highest prices. The Paris municipality incurred huge losses through trading in food; they were written off as 'insurance against public disorder'. Paris in the early 20th century was at its peak as the international capital for the arts, culture, and the amenities of luxurious living. Every cultivated European and American regarded Paris as in some way his spiritual home. The war, if anything, increased this prestige. Although the street lights were extinguished and the city was on the edge of the war zone, Paris acquired extra glamour as an international city. By an odd compromise, the Opera was allowed to stage performances on condition that the audiences did not wear evening dress. The war struck deeply into French family and social life. The depreciation in money —by 1916 the cost of living had risen by forty per cent —was beginning to wreck the rentier class which, by tradition, had its savings in fixed interest bonds. Secure employment as a public official had, until 1914, been the most respectable thing to which a Frenchman could aspire. By 1916 the officials were losing their social prestige and being overtaken by business¬ men, a process which was to continue. French war-weariness, which was al¬ ready apparent in 1916, seemed to sap the spirit of the nation. In the occupied sector the people were cowed by strict German administration; there was no attempt at a resistance movement. Although eventually France emerged as a nominal victor, and got back her lost provinces, there remained a loss of national confidence and a deep-rooted distrust of war. The seeds of the disaster of 1940 were being sown.
Ersatz coffee and 'means-test' clothes

In Germany in 1916 something still remained of the elation caused by the great victories of 1914. With the United States not yet in the war and the Russian empire obviously crumbling, it was reasonable for Germans to expect victory. The strategy was to be defensive in the west until forces could be brought from the Russian front to overwhelm the French and the British. The main effect of the war on the national life was, apart from the enormous casual¬ ties, the shortages caused by the British blockade. Bread rationing had started as early as January 1915, and there was an agonizing dilemma, whether to use scarce nitrates to fertilize agricultural land or to make explosives. Generally the claims of the explosives got priority and so agricultural production, which in any case was insufficient for the nation's needs, declined. Further difficulty came because of bad weather — the winter ofl916-17was known as the 'turnip winter' because early frosts had spoiled the potato harvest. German ingenuity concentrated on producing substitute -'ersatz'- foods and some, although they sound dreadful, were quite palatable. It was possible to make an eatable cake from clover meal and chest¬ nut flour. 'Ersatz' coffee, made from roasted barley, rye, chicory, and figs, became a national drink. Schoolchildren were lectured on the need for thorough mastication to prevent the substitutes from harming their digestions. The virtual dictator of the German economy was the Jewish industrialist, Walther Rathenau, a brilliant administrator brought in by the war office to organize supplies for the army. Step by step Rathenau brought the principal industries under government control and set up an elaborate bureaucracy to run them. As in Great Britain, this was public control with¬ out public ownership, but Rathenau's methods were more thorough than those of the British; government 'kommissars' participated in the actual management of companies, and the plan allotted everyone his place. In 1916 the Rathenau machine had reached the peak of its efficiency and the whole of Germany was organized for fighting the war. To accompany Rathenau's economic planning there were elaborate rationing schemes, with everyone ticketed and docketed for what he was entitled to receive. Clothes were distributed in part on a 'means-test' system —a customer had to prove to an official that he needed a new suit. The political effect of the war was still, in 1916, to reinforce confidence in the German imperial system. Germany consisted of twenty-five states, each with its ruling dynasty, the whole under the dominance of the largest state, Prussia, of which the Kaiser was King. It was an authoritarian and hierarchical system with a strong infusion of democracy — the imperial parliament was elected on universal man¬ hood suffrage. (In Great Britain only fifty- eight per cent of adult males had the right to vote.) Although a strong Social Democrat opposition existed in parliament, the imperial and hierarchical system worked because the average German worker trusted his social superiors and was willing to vote for them. Even the Social Democrat deputies had voted in favour of war credits. The military victories had engendered further confidence in the system and war weariness had hardly begun. Shortages, hardships, and even casualty lists were tolerable as the price of a certain German victory. Of course the vast self-confidence of 1916 turned out to be a mistake. Within two years the Kaiser and the authorities under him were simply to vanish from German politics. German success and German power proved to have been a delusion. The psychological shock was to be enormous and lasting and it helped to cause the strange and national mood in which so eccentric a figure as Hitler was able to rise to power.
Debts and death

All the combatant countries financed the war by loans rather than by taxation. In Great Britain, for example, the highest wartime rate of income tax reached only 6s. in the pound. The theory was to lay the cost of the war upon the future generations it was being fought to protect. What it really meant was that, instead of being taxed outright, people subscribed to war loans and so received the right to an annual payment of interest. After the war, France was to lessen the burden of debt by allowing the franc to depreciate in value. Germany got rid of it altogether in the great inflation of 1923. In Great Britain, however, where the value of money remained stable or even in¬ creased, the war debt was a continuing burden which contributed towards a sense of national ill-being and inability to afford costly projects, either for military defence or for the promotion of living standards. But the greatest single effect of the war, clearly apparent in 1916, was the killing of young men. Public imaginations exaggerated the effect of the casualties far beyond statistical realities. In Great Britain and Germany, particularly, appeared a cult of youth which has continued ever since. There was impatience and even contempt for the past. Jeremy Bentham's plea that we should look to our ancestors, not for their wisdom, but for their follies became the fashionable mode of thought, and even half a century later it is still continuing.

A.J.P. Taylor, Ed., History of the 20th Century, BPC Publishing Ltd., 1969, pp.619-622

  1. What was the most direct and devastating result of the war?

Why not the number of casualties?

  1. By 1916 what did each side believe about the war?

  2. What was the key decision by the British on how to wage the war?

  3. Explain the significance of the white feather. How effective do think the symbol was?

  4. What were the flaws in the British plan to wage the war?

  5. a. What new role did the government assume in the economy?

b. What was the incidental effect for unions and politics?

  1. How did the war become a way of life? Give specific examples.

  2. What happened to the initial war plans of Germany and France?

  3. Give specific examples to changes in society, industry, war effort, government debt, role of Paris, psychological effects at end of war, ersatz coffee.

  4. Explain how the war debt was handled by Germany, France and Britain.

  5. Explain the term “Cult of Youth”.

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