Themes of the First World War

French soldiers near the Marne 1918
French soldiers near the Marne 1918. US War Office via Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was fought across Europe, European colonies and the surrounding seas between August 1st 1914 and November 11th 1918. Contemporaries called it The Great War because it was literally greater than any waged before: over 59 million troops were mobilised, over 8 million died and over 29 million were injured in a struggle which sharply altered the political, economic, social and cultural nature of Europe.

'Ripples' were felt across the world as nations from every (non-polar) continent entered the war. For our introduction to World War One, see here; below we introduce some key themes.

Effects of the First World War

The economic and political effects were so great that World War One marks the start of the modern era. Book after book will basically make the same point: that the European economies wrecked each other while passing their capital to an emerging America, a process continued during the World War Two. The centuries old Russian Empire was torn down and replaced with a socialist, then Stalinist, system which led to the death of millions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the surviving relic of the millennia old Holy Roman Empire, ceased to exist, as did the relatively new German Empire and the maps of Eastern Europe and the Middle East were redrawn in a manner which still causes conflict.

Socialism erupted as a major political force thanks to the Russian revolutions, while Imperialism began to fall out of vogue. Perhaps even more remarkably a strong desire to avoid more conflict and loss – to make it 'The War To End All Wars' – arose, prompting many nations to try and solve international disputes via the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations.

But as part of Europe determined to avoid war, the disenfranchised veterans of the war could be mobilised for right wing movements which soon drew in many others, and the Great War produced the conditions for the black and brown shirts, and movements in many other countries besides.

The society of every warring European nation changed: in Britain the class system altered as the lower class consciousness evolved; in France, a generation of men was lost; in Eastern Europe people found themselves in new young nations and Germany coped with forging a non-imperial identity. War changed too as the lessons of the industrial age were applied to weapons but not, initially, to tactics. Machine guns, tanks, aircraft and chemical weapons were all refined and used with deadly effect.

Cultural Impact
The cultural impact of the war is the aspect most obviously still with us. Poets, writers and other people capable of expressing their experiences have left a body of passionate, dark and stirring work which has dominated our popular memory. For most in the West, The First War One conjures up images of muddy trenches, thousands of young men walking into machine gun fire and the sense of wasted youth. Despite the efforts of a small group of historians to argue otherwise, World War One is seen as a waste.

The physical injuries suffered by soldiers from gas and shell fed the imaginations of the 1920's and 30's cinematic horror boom; there are relatively few films about The Great War, but plenty fed by its consequences.

The First World War can be an immensely depressing subject, especially when explained by writers who argue it ended in a manner which made World War Two inevitable, and so it should be. Historians generally counterpoint with a view available in the letters and documents of the men who fought, proud men who believed strongly in the cause and did not regard their efforts as a waste. Such views make the tragedy of looking back all the more terrible. This is not to say readers should seek out a history which comforts them, rather than convincing them, but they should strive for an accurate picture: the sum total of all World War One casualties was less than those suffered by Russia alone during the Second World War, yet it is the First war we in the West always remember as most horrific, perhaps because it is easier to create sides of 'good' and 'bad' in the Second war.

Many modern historians are trying to do just this with the Great War.

Key Themes

- The Trenches
People had fought using trenches before, but the vast system erected in the West dwarfed anything from the past. They weren't all flooded, muddy and under constant attack, but they are the iconic image of the Western Front. Historians rightly point out soldiers didn't spent much time in front line trenches, but were rotated around, they are not right to use this to justify the war. More on the Trenches.

- Gas and Weapons of Destruction
The First World War's military legacy involves tanks, air forces and, most notoriously, poisoned gas, used by all sides in the Western and Eastern Front. What we now consider, in the west, to be terrible weapons which should never be used were fired by the nations people prefer to think of as the 'good' side, and the episode makes an interesting point in the debate on nuclear weapons and looking back. More on Gas.

- The Russian Revolution
Admittedly, the 1917 Revolutions which transformed Russia are a topic of study in themselves, but no account of either them or the Great War is complete without a study of the other. More on the Russian Revolutions.

- Imperialism and Democracy
Britain and France had overseas empires, Germany wanted one: a 'place in the sun'. But how much was imperial rivalry to blame for the conflict? Was Britain really a liberal democracy fighting against German militarism, or was it an imperial power with a huge, racist empire engaged in a conflict modern commentators wish to reshape as a worthwhile event?

Key Debates

- Who Started It?
This is the big one, perhaps the biggest debate in all of history. The 'series of peace treaties dragged everyone in after the Archduke was shot' explanation is still going strong, but there is growing recognition that many allied nations wanted war too. (The Causes and War Aims of World War One)

- Were the Commanders Incompetent?
The British and French high command have been accused of wasting the lives of millions and of being the 'Donkeys' leading Lions; Douglas Haig has come in for the most criticism. A challenge to this view has mostly changed the general view entirely, but competent commanders do not make a war any more worthy.

- The Nature of Peace
Did the peace treaties that officially ended the war contribute, whether slightly or entirely, to the Second World War? No study of the twentieth century is complete without a look at the Treaty of Versailles, the most important Great War treaty of all. More on Hitler and Versailles.

- Was it Worth it?
It might surprise you, but there are some commentators who believe Britain was wrong to fight during the Second World War, the conflict in which one belligerent intended numerous genocides. Bearing this in mind, it is any surprise some historians argue the entire Great War was a waste?

- Who Won it and how?
National self-interest rears its head in these debates about which of the allied nations contributed what in achieving victory, perhaps the most snide being whether the 1914 allies could have won without US help.