World War I: The Paradox of Semi-Modern War

British Machine Gun Team in World War I

British Machine Gun Team, 1916

Dennis Showalter.  Introduction by William Astore.

Over the next four years, historians around the world will grapple with the meaning and legacies of the “Great War” fought one hundred years ago (1914-1918).  An epochal event in world history, World War I has as many meanings as it has had historians.  Among those historians, Dennis Showalter is one of the very best.  In this article, Showalter argues that the war was, in many ways, not “modern” at all.  The enormity of the war, to include its enormous wastage, generated primitivism as much as it stimulated innovation.  On the Western Front, site of industrialized mass destruction, troops fought with modern machine guns and chemical weapons even as they revived maces and mail armor of medieval vintage.

Most remarkable, as Showalter notes, was the resilience of home front support.  As dreams of quick, decisive battles turned into long, murderous slogs of nightmarish proportions, control of events was ceded to military men who saw only one way to victory — exhaustion through attrition and economic warfare.  When Germany finally collapsed near the end of 1918, few people were as surprised as the victors or as shocked as the losers.  As the victors exulted, the losers licked wounds — and vowed vengeance.

So it was that the “war to end all wars” became just one major act in a never-ending tragedy in a century dominated by war.  Even today, warfare in places like the Middle East reflects the poor choices and conflicting promises made during the Great War by the major powers.  In fact, what was perhaps most “modern” about World War I was the blowback that plagued its putative victors.  Consider, for example, France’s decision to ignore requests in 1919 by a young Ho Chi Minh for greater autonomy to be granted to Vietnamese in French Indochina.  France had leaned on Vietnamese labor during the Great War (with as many as 140,000 Vietnamese doing grunt work such as digging trenches), and the Vietnamese expected something in return.  They got nothing, a decision that set the stage for Vietnam’s revolt and France’s eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  W.J. Astore

Dennis Showalter on the Paradox of World War I: A Semi-Modern War

The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional) that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship's deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card ("AZO") stock. Public Domain
Homeward bound troops pose on the ship’s deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card (“AZO”) stock. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.

Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”

Western Battle Front 1916. From J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill, Francis Trevelyan Miller (eds.): The Story of the Great War, Volume V. New York. Specified year 1916, actual year more likely 1917 or 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.

Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.

Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).

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4 thoughts on “World War I: The Paradox of Semi-Modern War

  1. “The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.”

    The turning point for my generation’s war — the War on Mythical Monolithic Communism personified in the American “mind” by Southeast Asian peasants seeking national independence — came in 1965 as I neared graduation from high school and had to face the prospect of conscription into the U.S. Army. I got into an argument with my Depression-Era / WWII-generation mother who demanded to know of me: “Who will protect us from our enemies if you won’t?.” To which I replied, since I couldn’t vote but she could: “Who will protect me from my own government if you won’t?” The U.S. Government had become my enemy, but I never realized until many years later that this had first occurred two generations previously in the Great War of 1914-1918. As Chris Hedges explains in his review of Bumf, a graphic comic by Joe Sacco:

    “Sacco asks in “Bumf” how we got here. And he presciently sets the beginning of our demise at World War I. That war saw the birth of industrial warfare and the militarization of our society, unleashed the psychosis of permanent war and internal security organs, and led to the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which were used to shut down radical and populist movements. And the war was accompanied by the rise of the sophisticated systems of mass propaganda that today inundate the population with lies.

    Today, President Barack Obama wages wars of whim wherever he pleases against Mythical Monolithic Terrorism personified in the American “mind” by Middle Eastern peasants seeking national independence. And he does this while persecuting American whistle-blowers using the Espionage Act of 1917. So, we can see now that no real “turning point” has occurred in the United States relative to the generations-long Permanent War Against Mythological Conceptions Personified in the American “mind” by Foreign Peasants Seeking National Independence. That “war” continues to wax and wane. It recycles and renews itself at periodic intervals. But it never ends, as George Orwell explained in 1984 and in other writings, because Permanent War Against Nebulous “Enemies” constitutes the chief vehicle through which the ruling Oligarchical Collective wages war against its own working and middle classes.

    The U.S. Hyper-militarized Corporate Government became the enemy of the American people a century ago in the Great War of 1914-1918 and shows no sign of changing or dispensing with its Permanent War Paradigm. In fact, the Corporate Oligarchical Collective has dispensed with the very notion of a “clock” and simply declares — when it even bothers to acknowledge its many secret and dirty wars — that the latest chapter in the Endless Permanent War will go on “for a long time,” with no attempt made to define what the word “long” actually means. Translation: It means “Forever.” As I like to say: “You can always tell when the U.S. Military has lost another war the minute it begins to call it “Long.” And since the U.S. Military fights nothing but long wars now — or, rather, meaningless and debilitating tactical skirmishes in one Great Long War — I suggest the addition of a Fourth Oxymoronic Slogan in addition to Orwell’s famous “War is Peace,” “Ignorance is Strength,” and “Freedom is Slavery,” namely:

    Defeat is Victory.

    Here we have the true meaning of The Great Permanent War begun in 1914 and showing no signs of ever ending a century later.

  2. Mike.. I never looked at it that way but your logic makes a lot of sense. I often look at a picture of my father who was a combat infantry officer ( ober lieutenant) in WW I at the age of about 20, in the “war to end all wars”. Then fast forward about 20 years and I am in the U.S. Army Air Corps at about the same age in WW II, Another war that was supposed to end all wars.
    And here we are today, in 2014, after virtually all of the presidents who followed FDR have had to have “their wars”. to “save our freedoms”.
    So what do we have now? Virtually no freedoms under our Constitution left and a perpetual war against the world that is beggaring our economy and both political parties seem committed to continue.
    And what is so absurd is that we have left nothing but death,destruction, and military failure behind.

    • Along with George Orwell’s “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” (the book-within-a-book in 1984), I recommend War is the Health of the State, by Randolph Bourne (1918) for an in-depth analysis of the Permanent War Psychosis that first gripped the United States in the so-called Great War of the early 20th century.

      Focused at first on the barbarian “Hun” in Europe, the Permanent War Psychosis then seized almost instantaneously on the Bolshevik, then Nazism (although not Fascism, per se), then back to the Bolsheviks again for the so-called “Cold War,” until Islamic “Terrorism” became the current Unspeakable Evil justifying War Without End as the only conceivable rationale for even having a government in the United States.

      As I like to say of the World War II phase of the current “Hundred Years War”: Our fascists beat two of their fascists, but then switched back to allying ourselves with fascists all over the globe against the dreaded “Communists,” which meant, in practice, peasant proxies in Southeast Asia or American workers in labor unions or the Democratic Party. Actually, in her classic study of misgovernment throughout the ages, The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman succinctly laid out the principle political force that has motivated American policy for the course of my entire 67 years of life on this planet:

      “The American government reacted not to the Chinese upheaval or to Vietnamese nationalism per se, but to intimidation by the rabid right at home and to the public dread of Communism that this played on and reflected. [In the] social and psychological sources of this dread … lie the roots of American policy in Vietnam.”

      The American government [reacts] to intimidation by the rabid right at home.” There you have it. True at the beginning of the 20th century and equally true at the beginning of the 21st. Orwell and Bourne explain the mass psychology, or “herd instinct” behind the enduring psychosis, but, as a practical matter in the United States, it all boils down to bullying by the billions of dollars that own and operate the U.S. Government, its mammoth military, and mass media. Our fascists have always either fought or subsidized their fascists, not because our fascists hate fascism, per se, but because our fascists can’t brook any competition for “Global Fascist Leadership.” Permanent War provides precisely the tool for population control that the Global Fascist Leadership demands. A century on the road to nowhere.

  3. Pingback: The Tower of London poppies are glorious but let’s learn their lesson | Stop Making Sense

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