Prior to the commencement of the Great War in 1914, Europe had endured many conflicts over the previous two hundred years. In fact, many major military powers in Europe had been borne out of political and social conflicts such as the unification of Germany and the French Revolution. However, the world had never seen anything quite like this war. Violence on the front lines was so atrocious and brutal that historians refer to the Great War as a “total war” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 59) What differentiated the Great War from other bloody conflicts during the 19th century, and why is it known as a “total war?”
Over the course of the next four years, the Great War would claim the lives of nine million soldiers. This means that during the war, an average of “almost 900 Frenchmen and 1,300 Germans died every day” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 22). This astronomical number reflects the utter devastation that swept across Europe during those four years. Trench warfare on the front lines was more barbaric than any other conflict that modern Europe had seen before. The ridiculously high death toll was mainly due to major breakthroughs in military technology, such as chemical weapons and machine guns. Despite the numerous technological breakthroughs, field commanders continued to use old, outdated military tactics against deadly modern weapons. This is why so many lives were lost on the front lines and why injuries inflicted by modern weaponry were so horrible. While in the trenches, soldiers were susceptible to grenades, mortars, poisonous gasses, and gunfire. “Direct hits from large-caliber shells [could] literally pulverize the body, leaving no identifiable remains. Very large pieces of shrapnel [could] actually slice a man in half” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 24). Many soldiers who were wounded in the heat of battle would succumb to their injures before they could be rescued and operated on. In the French army alone, “3,594,000 injuries were counted” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 23).
Along with physical injuries, another terrible kind of wound affected many of the soldiers on both sides of the war. Prior to the Great War, the psychological effects of warfare and violence had not been studied extensively, if at all. In fact, when soldiers showed signs of struggling with mental health issues, many doctors assumed that they were “simulating insanity, or at least of engaging in an unconscious psychological and bodily ruse in order to escape duty” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 25). Because of the disregard for the soldiers’ mental health, many veterans had great difficulty speaking about their war experiences many years down the road.
Military personnel were not the only people who were deeply affected by this total war. Civilians on both sides of the war were tortured, raped, and killed. One of the most shocking examples of civilian massacre during the Great War was the mass murder of an entire people, the Armenians. In 1915, over one million Armenians were forcefully deported from their homeland of Turkey, and then ruthlessly murdered by the Turks in the Syrian Desert. This abominable genocide is just another reason that the Great War is considered to be a “total war.”
Interestingly enough, Adolf Hitler fought as a German soldier in the Great War. Only twenty years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler would lead Germany into war yet again. When speaking on genocide, Hitler referred to the mass murder of the Armenian people during the Great War. “By 1939, the Führer could legitimately mock the Europeans’ failing memory of the massacre of 1915: “After all, who still talks about the annihilation of the Armenians today?’” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 69). In conclusion, although The Great War claimed millions of lives, it also shaped many events during the remainder of the twentieth century.
Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane; Becker, Annette. 14-18: Understanding the Great War.