The Impact of World War One
The impact of war can be measured in many ways, such as the cost in lives, the financial costs and the consequences the war had on future world history.
In terms of statistical casualties, and lives lost, the First World War was the fifth most costly war in World history. All told, 16.5 million people died and 21.2 million were wounded from all combatant nations during World War 1.
The Cost in Lives
From 1914 to 1918, Britain and Commonwealth forces lost nearly 900,000 military personnel and 1.7 million men were wounded.
In Britain that was about 10% of the male population killed, and 70% of these men were aged between 20 - 24 years old.
Scotland which traditionally provided recruits for the British army's elite regiment's, lost 148,000 men. This was 25% of those that volunteered and more than twice the national average rate of fatalities for the whole of Britain. Over 38,000 Irishmen and 20,000 Welshmen also died in the war.
Throughout the United Kingdom, one in six families suffered a direct bereavement, 192,000 wives had lost their husbands, and nearly 400,000 children had lost their fathers. A further 500,000 children had lost one of more of their siblings. Appallingly, one in eight wives died within a year of receiving news of their husband's death. There were also 1.7 million British wounded of which 80,000 were gas victims, 30,000 were made deaf, 80,000 had 'shell shock', and there were 250,000 amputees. This increased over time. At the end of 1928, nearly 2.8 million war veterans received a disability pension of some sort.
After the war women far outnumbered men and many were never to marry or have children. The 1921 United Kingdom Census found 19,803,022 women and 18,082,220 men in England and Wales, a difference of 1.72 million which newspapers called the "Surplus Two Million." In the 1921 census there were 1,209 single women aged 25 to 29 for every 1,000 men. In 1931, 50% were still single, and 35% of them did not marry while still able to bear children.
The losses to the Commonwealth nations that supported Britain were also severe. In all, 250,000 killed and 500,000 wounded. New Zealand lost 18,000 killed and 50,000 wounded out of the 112,000 who served. This was a casualty rate of 66%. Australia's casualties were 80,000 killed and 137,000 wounded, 64% of those who joined. Similarly, Canada and Newfoundland lost 62,000 and 172,000 wounded, a casualty rate of 39%; South Africa lost 7,000 killed and 12,000 wounded, 13% of those who served, and India, 74,000 killed and 67,000 wounded, 7% of those that served. In addition, it is estimated that 100,000 men from the African and Caribbean Colonies who acted as carriers and labourers died of disease and exhaustion, with another 18,000 killed in action.
In France, approximately 11% of the entire population were killed or wounded during the war. Almost 1.4 million Frenchmen died in the service of their country and another 4.2 million men were wounded – a casualty rate of 74% of all those mobilized in the French Empire. They left behind 600,000 widows, 986,000 orphans, and 1.1 million war invalids. 10% of the male population of France had been wiped out, a figure that rises to 20% for the 'under 50' age group. Of the 470,000 males born in France in 1890, and who were 28 years old when the war ended, half were killed or seriously wounded.
The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.
The youth of Europe was decimated. Of the 700,000 British war dead, no fewer than 71% were between the ages of 16 and 29 years. The CWGC, records show that 14,108 British soldiers were aged 18 or younger, when they died. In Belgium more than 40,000 young men were killed.
About two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle. This was unlike any previous conflict during the 19th century, when the majority of deaths were due to disease. Improvements in medicine as well as the increased lethality of military weaponry were both factors in this development. Nevertheless disease, including the 'Spanish flu', still caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents.
Financial Cost of World War One
World War One cost the United Kingdom around £2,5 billion, which is approximately £850 billion in today's money. In the United Kingdom, funding the war had a severe economic cost. From being the world's largest overseas investor, Britain became one of its biggest debtors with interest payments forming around 40% of all government spending.
Inflation more than doubled between 1914 and its peak in 1920, while the value of the Pound Sterling fell by 61.2%. Reparations in the form of free German coal depressed local industry, precipitating the 1926 General Strike. The Versailles Treaty set German repayments for the cost of the war at 132 Billion Marks. This was to be repaid in cash or raw materials, land given up and services provided. These repayments were suspended in 1932, by which point Germany had repaid 20.5 Billion Marks (about $6 billion).
British private investments abroad were sold, raising £550 million. However, £250 million in new investment also took place during the war. The net financial loss was therefore approximately £300 million; less than two years investment compared to the pre-war average rate and more than replaced by 1928. Material loss was "slight": the most significant being 40% of the British merchant fleet In sunk by German U-boats. Most of this was replaced in 1918 and all immediately after the war.
The Commonwealth Nations
Abroad, there was growing assertiveness amongst Commonwealth nations after World War 1. Battles, such as Gallipoli, for Australia and New Zealand, and Vimy Ridge, for Canada, led to increasing national pride and identity. There was a greater reluctance to remain subordinate to Britain, leading to the growth of diplomatic autonomy in the 1920s. Loyal dominions, such as Newfoundland, were deeply disillusioned by Britain's apparent disregard for their soldiers, eventually leading to the unification of Newfoundland with the Confederation of Canada. Colonies, such as India and Nigeria also became increasingly assertive because of their participation in the war. The populations in these countries became increasingly aware of their own power and Britain's fragility.
In Ireland, the delay in finding a resolution to the home rule issue, partly caused by the war, as well as the 1916 Easter Rising and a failed attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, increased support for separatist radicals. This led indirectly to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919. The creation of the Irish Free State that followed this conflict, in effect represented a territorial loss for the United Kingdom, that was all but equal to the loss sustained by Germany, (and furthermore, compared to Germany, a much greater loss in terms of its ratio to the country's prewar territory).
The Cultural Impact of the War
Sir Tony Robinson puts it nicely. Britain spent four and half years fighting World War One and the next 100 years arguing about it. There are so many myths, opinions, politics and propaganda surrounding it, that we no longer know what we feel about it or even if we should celebrate it. Was the 'Great War' a triumph or an unspeakable horror? Do we side with the War Poets or the Politicians? We can not even agree how World War should be taught in schools. It has been a cultural battlefield for every generation that followed it. It is true that British attitudes to the Great War have varied and changed over time and even different countries remember World War 1 in different ways. The following is a brief summary of these changing views of World War One.
Some argue that the greatest damage to Britain was not economic, but psychological. Although most participants survived the First World War, there emerged a myth of the 'Lost Generation', and many felt that the 'best of the nation' had been destroyed in the war. Numbed by this great loss of life and uncertainty about the war, the State in Britain took control of the dead. The Government established a Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ensure that all the dead had a grave or a memorial near the battlefield. Sir Fabien Ware designed the white, commonwealth war grave that we see today; Rudyard Kipling coined the inscription "Known unto God; Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Whitehall Cenotaph; the British Legion was formed and the tradition of wearing poppies to rembember the dead was introduced.
Unlike today, Britain's civilians were unable to watch the war unfold on television, or properly understand it's horrors. Sometimes there was the distant sound of gunfire across the channel, but most opinions were framed by war time propaganda. The silence of the returning war veterans only added to the Great War's mythology. This created mixed views about the war. Some saw the War as futile and an end to stability. Others revelled in the excitment and opportunities that the war brought. Soldiers celebrated war time comradship through regimental reunions and by joining the British Legion established in 1921. For many years, most people were keen to mourn the dead, the missing and disabled. A National Centotaph was built at Whitehall in 1919 to remember Britain's 'Glorious Dead'. The Nation would stop for a two minutes silence at 11am, every Armistice Day - on the 11th November. The Cenotaph provided a blank canvass for the British people to project their mixed feelings about the war. The catastrophic losses and tragedy, ensured that the 1914-18 war became known as 'The Great War', or the 'War to End all Wars'. British Politicians that had sent so many young men to their deaths formed a 'League of Nations'. It was hoped that this would provide the machinery to negotiate future disputes and prevent war happening again.
In 1928, on the 10th anniversary of the ending of the Great War, Britain again reflected on the War experience. West End Plays, like 'Journey's End', and the publication of many memoirs, such as 'All Quiet on the Western Front', 'Cry Havoc' and 'Death of a Hero', revealed the true horrors of the Great War. The terrible sacrifice, and pointless slaughter prompted a revulsion to war. A British pacifist movement established in the 1920's grew during the 1930's. Some campaigned for disarmenant and economic sanctions against military agressors. Others campaigned for appeasement.Many organisations, such as the 'No More War Movement' and the 'Peace Pledge Union' were established to totally denounced war. This was to leave Britain very unprepared when the next World War began in 1939.
In 1948, the British Government renamed the 'Great War', the 'First World War', to distinguish it from the 'Second World War 1939-45'. 'Armistice Day' was also replaced with 'Remembrance Sunday' to remember those lost in all wars. These changes were significant. It highlighted that the the Great War was not the War to End all Wars and made people re-evaluate the purpose of the World War 1.
The 1960's generation shaped our view again of the war. 1964 was the Great War's 50th aniversary. It was a chance for a new generation to discover World War One afresh, but they viewed the war through the tinted nightmare of World War Two and the possibility of a new nuclear war caused by the 'Cuban Crises'. The 1960's was a more egalitarian and less deferential generation. They mocked the attitudes of predecessors, and were more interested in the individual experiences of ordinary soldiers, rather than the posterings of upper class politicians and generals. The release of the 26 part, television documentary, 'The Great War' brought a 'dead' conflict to life. Books such as Alan Clarkes 'Lions led by Donkeys', and plays like 'Oh What a Lovely War' savaged the futility of war and also satirised the class war within it. Academics revised the Great war, as a war with no moral jusitification, or clear cause. It's pointless carnage was only illuminated by the rediscovery of the long fogotten war poets. These poets defined the war for an Anti War 1960's generation. Carefully edited selections of war poetry were repakaged, showing a poetic learning curve from Rupert Brook's innocent patriotism, to Siegfried Sassoon's angry satire and then Wilfred Owens bleak pity and horrors of war. Britain's obsession for the soldier poets shaped how World War One was taught in schools and would be publically remembered. The Great War would be defined by the horrors of trench life on the Western Front. The 'Blackadder Goes Forth' comedy series, which lampoons British Generals, and has been used as a teaching aid in schools, still echoes public perceptions of the First World War. It is largely forgotten that the Great War was a global war fought on the sea, in the sky, in Mesopotamia and Africa etc. That the war was won through trade, logistics and the mobilisation of civilians, munitionettes and land girls who all played a part in the war effort.
The Legacy of the Great War
While the meaning of the Great War has changed over time, it is possible after 100 years to take a more balanced view. It is becoming accepted that the Great War was not a 'bad' or 'unjust' war, at least from an Allied point of view. It was fought against military aggression and to protect the sovereignty of small states, as well as the integrity of British power. What went wrong was the bad peace that followed. We can now remember the scale of sacrifices made at the time, the moving stories of the pals' regiments, the horrors of Gallipoli, the Somme, poison gas, without allowing any doubts about the justice of the war, preventing our respect for the fallen.
The legacy of the Great War still has an enduring resonance. While the War help postpone domestic strife and unite the United Kingdom, the 1914-18 War made Britain very wary about intervening in Europe. Britain is still divided whether it should be part of Europe today. The War also widened the world and made politics international. Many of the current problems in the Middle East can be traced to the boundaries and territories that were drawn up directly after the First World War. The War forced America to emerge from isolation. and become the World Superpower which dominates today. The War replaced old Empires and military autocracies with democratic Nation States. Government's expanded their powers and responsibilities to win the war and we all now accept greater State intervention, in terms of managing our health, welfare and taxation. Women achieved the vote and more political rights through the First World War. The War generated a quantum leap in industry, technology, medicine, culture and international politics. After World War One, Revolution, Republicism and Fascism flourished. Old Empires fell apart and gave rise to mass democarcy. People rose up and three visions emerged to harness 'people power' These were Bolshevism and the one Party State, Liberty and Republicism, with no place for monachs and aristocrats, and Fascism, with the cult of the Great Leader. These ideologies dominated the Twentieth Century and still shape ideas today.