The Impact of the Great War

Patton Renault

Patton and a Renault Tank 

I write books on the Great War and have for years, even before it became popular.  My newest one, Never Wars, has a chapter on an almost alternate history – where Germany won the war in Europe in a few months.  I view WWI as one of those unsung conflicts (in American history) because our involvement was so short-lived that it did not leave as much as an indelible imprint on our culture as other conflicts.

I speak at a number of venues on this subject and have been asked from time-to-time about what the impact of the Great War was on the world.  It’s a challenging question because of the scope.  I tend to think of the Great War as merely the “opening act” for decades of conflict and upheaval in the middle of the 20th Century – culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Against that context, the war did alter not only the face of Europe, but the world as a whole.

So, here’s my list of impacts (not listed in any particular order) about the ramifications and impacts of the Great War. I tended to focus on this from an American perspective – but tried to be fair and balanced.

The downfall of many Imperial families in Europe:

Prior to the Great War the ruling imperial families tended to have dramatic influence on what happened in Europe – if not the world.  The Great War changed that political dynamic.  The Kaiser was disposed and exiled.  The Hapsburgs in Austro-Hungary had their powers shattered as new states were formed.  In Russia, the Czar and his family were executed, effectively purging their bloodline.  The old status-quo of political power shifted from ruling families to some form of representative government.

The Great War built the Detroit auto industry:

The story of Henry Ford and the Model T is well known in historical circles.  What made Ford Motor Company – and upped the ante in auto competitiveness was The Rouge Complex.  At the Rouge, raw materials came in via the Detroit River to the Rouge River Basin, emptied, and were turned into cars and trucks at the other end of the facility.  Iron was turned to Steel, sand to Glass…everything.   I worked there in my early career.  What people don’t generally know is that it was all built by the Great War.

The Rouge was just a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye when the war broke out.  He secured a contract with the US Navy to build torpedo boats.  The logical place was his facility to do this was on his Rogue property.  Ford’s problem, the Rogue River basin was too shallow for boat construction.  He convinced the Navy to dredge it out for him.  They did, but by the time they finished, the war was over as was the need for a large number of torpedo boats.

Wiley old Henry had gotten the US Government to dredge the Rouge which allowed the massive cargo ships he wanted to drop off their raw materials in the complex.  The miracle of the Rouge was now a reality – all because of the Great War.

Communism moved from theory to reality:

Karl Marx came up with his theories of communism before the Great War, but no citizens had ever adopted the theories into practice on any scale until the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Ironically, it was the Germans that sent Lenin into Russia to ferment revolution and hopefully take Russia out of the war.  While it worked, it also created the future doom of Germany in the Second World War.

Aircraft as weapons of war:

patrol

Aircraft provided the most vital role of the war – observation of the enemy.  With wireless sets, aircraft observers could direct artillery fire real-time against enemies that in the past could only be found with mounted cavalry reconnaissance.   Observation balloons could monitor troop movements and defenses from miles away.  Mounting weapons on aircraft allowed pilots to target observation aircraft/balloons and destroy them.  This led to the birth of the fighter aircraft.  A new dimension of combat came into being with the skies now part of the battlefield.  Aircraft could, by the end of the war, work in concert with ground forces in a crude combined arms manner that would drive military tactics to this very day.

Bombing- however crude, also came to realization in the Great War.  No longer did seas provide barriers for protection – Zeppelins crossed waters and could bomb cities in England.  Later bomber aircraft were created for carrying the war against distant enemies.   Strategic bombing evolved as a concept for waging war.

Perhaps most remarkable was the rapid evolution of aeronautics in the war.  Every 4-6 months a new generation of aircraft came into existence, with new capabilities and improvements.  In an age before computer simulation and testing, new planes were rapidly prototyped and put into production, more so than any other time in history.  The Great War altered the world’s perception and capabilities in regards to aviation.

The tank was invented:

The stalemate of trench warfare was broken by 1917-18 with the aid of a new technology – the tank.  Armored vehicles had been around since the start of the war but only in 1916 was the concept of a caterpillar tracks employed which would allow armored vehicles to transverse the mud of no-man’s-land and carry the fight directly to the enemy.

The first tanks were semi-mobile death traps; prone to mechanical failure and ponderously slow.  Alone they had impact.  Used with infantry support, the tank altered the tactics of warfare – allowing for the blitzkrieg of WWII.

I maintain that the tank alone did not end trench warfare.  If you look at the Kaiserschlacht offensive by the Germans in 1918, they used few tanks and were able to dramatically shift the front with sheer numbers and improved tactics.  What the tank did is provide a mobile combat platform that allowed smaller numbers of troops to defeat a comparable enemy.

Radio – the wireless — became a part of the battlefield:

Radio existed before the Great War but it underwent a technological leap in terms of application during the war.  Observers in aircraft and balloons used radio to transmit troop movements, adjust artillery barrages real-time, etc..  Radios became somewhat smaller and more durable as a result of the war (though still bulky by modern standards) which allowed their post war boom in the consumer market.

Submarines emerged as viable weapons of war:

While arguments can be made that submarines were used in earlier conflicts, they were never a serious threat until the Great War.  While the Germans are often credited with their employment of the U-Boats in the war, all major nations made great strides with their development of these weapons systems.  Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare was a contributing factor to the United States being drawn into the war – one of the rare times that a weapon system/strategy actually had political implications in a war.

Submarines in WWI were crude and dangerous.  Their torpedoes were not incredibly accurate, but they had stunning effects that we still are coping with today.  In 1914 the U-9 sunk three armored cruisers in a single combat action – sending ripples of fear into the Royal Navy that forced changes in fleet protection, an upturn in British submarine production, and the start of creating anti-submarine tactics.  The results were other pieces of new technology – hydrophones and depth charges.

Grenades became an integral infantry weapon:

Arguments can be made that grenades had been used in some form by the Greeks and Romans, but WWI created the fragmentation grenade (The British Mills Bomb) which spurred a wide range of spinoff designs by other nations.  Up until this time, grenades tended to be unstable and as much a threat to the thrower as the target.  The Great War changed that and by the end of the war, the hand grenade became a standard issued item in most armies.

Flamethrowers were invented and utilized:

While pundits will point to weapons like Greek Fire as the forefather of the flamethrower – the weapon itself did not become effective until it appeared on the Western Front outside of Verdun in 1915.  While an insidious weapon, it was effective against entrenched foes.

While the US and most nations do not use these weapons currently given the type of damage they inflict – they proved critical in WWII against entrenched and deeply tunneled Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Helmets became standard defense gear:

Metal helmets have existed from the era of knights, but were always deemed too impractical for large scale warfare.  By the time of the outbreak of the Great War, most armies offered cloth head protection or in the case of the Germans, leather.  By 1915 head protection made a huge leap forward with both sides issuing metallic helmets.  While not entirely proof against rifle fire, they offered some protection from shrapnel from artillery barrages.

Naval aviation is born:

I know that the Confederacy used a balloon from a floating platform, but that can hardly be considered as true naval aviation.  There were floatplanes prior to the Great War, but the vast majority of these were privately owned.  WWI changed that.  The Germans utilized Zeppelins to provide observation for their naval forces.  Naval aviation extended the view of the fleets beyond the horizon – altering the shape of naval warfare.

The largest hand-made construction project since the pyramids:

The trench lines of the western front literally were a ditch dug across the continent – by manual labor.  This engineering project had no overall plan or design, it was done out of desperation, yet the magnitude of this piece of manual labor has not been matched by human beings since.  Yes, we’ve built marvelous things, but nothing on the scale or scope of the trench system.  Just the amount of barbed wire (also pioneered in the Great War in large scale) laid was staggering in scale.  Yet after the war, it was merely abandoned and turned into farmland.  Today evidence of this project can only be seen in a handful of locations or from the air.

It proved to Britain that they could go to war as an Empire:

In previous conflicts, Britain had made use of some of its vast imperial troops in battles – but not the sheer numbers involved in the Great War.  Canada, Australia, India and other countries sent massive numbers of infantry to wage war for Mother Britain.  It proved that such efforts were possible and laid the foundation for WWII.

Naval mining becomes a strategy:

While naval mines were used in conflicts prior to WWI, it was in this war where they were used in massive numbers and used successfully.  Naval mines were much more effective in this war and consistent in their functioning.

Evolution of modern amphibious operations:

Amphibious landings have been part of warfare for centuries.  In the Great War the powers learned valuable lessons in how this type of warfare was to be conducted, and the types of equipment needed for successful landings against artillery and machineguns.  Gallipoli, while a botched invasion, became a classroom for leaders who went on to plan landings in WWII and Korea.

Camouflage plays a large-scale role on the battlefield:

The first six months of WWI were frightening when you consider the lack of camouflage.  Images of French troops in their blue uniforms, red pantalooms, bright blue piping – marching off against the enemy is tragic.  This image was not far off from reality though.  Camouflage was a concept that was born out of the necessity of battle.  By 1916 the armies had all begun to adopt new uniforms that allowed soldiers to blend in better with their surroundings.

And it wasn’t just on land – navies also adopted and experimented with camouflage patterns to make ship identification more difficult.

Machineguns and rapid-fire artillery emerge as dominant forces:

I put these on the list together deliberately.  Machineguns had been used in battle prior to the Great War, even in the Spanish American War.  On their own, they were deadly – but when you combined these with rapid-fire artillery, you are creating a battlefield environment where infantry advances are measured in yard not miles.  This combination forced the advances in tanks and aircraft as a means to circumvent the carnage that could be rained down on the common foot soldier.

The roles of Japan and Italy on the world stage were established:

Prior to the Great War Japan and Italy were seen as obscure observers in world affairs, cast to the edges of the world stage.  The war changed that.  By the end of the conflict, both nations had assumed more power and recognition globally than ever before.  While pundits might argue that they did not get much out of the Versailles Treaty, the fact that they were there was significant — especially in light of their roles in WWII decades later.

Gas warfare is deployed:

The use of toxic gases as weapons of war became the norm in World War One.  They proved so horrific that no one was even willing to use them in WWII (on a large scale).  The Germans, when faced with losing to the Soviets did not employ their gas stockpiles.  Gas warfare was indiscriminant in its victims and inflicted horrific injuries – to the point now that we consider it a “weapon of mass destruction.”

GAS

The end of the Ottoman Empire – the roots of the modern Middle East problems:

While the Ottoman Empire was waning before the war, the Great War served as the death-blow to this government.  The Ottoman holdings became a number of nation states, some merely puppets of the European powers.  The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire left the Arab nations barely in control of themselves and their resources.  The lines of division driven by the peace at the end of the war carved up the empire into many of the nation states that exist today. In the post-war era, Palestine became a British protectorate and the British established the rights of the Jewish people there.  The implementation of the Balfour Declaration led for the first modern drive for a true Jewish state.  It created the foundation for many of the issues and conflicts that were to follow up to modern day.

Great Authors were inspired:

War tends to generate moving literature and that was certainly the case with World War One.  Veterans were often inspired by the carnage and chaos of war, or wrote about the conflict.  Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (an aviator of the famed Lafayette Escadrille) wrote a trilogy of novels about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty which fictionalized the events of this famous mutiny.  Earnest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in the war and his experiences led to the book , A Farewell to Arms.  More recently, historians believe that young JRR Tolkien’s exposure to the horrors of war helped inspire some of the darker aspects of The Lord of the Rings.

Last naval war of battleships:

Many people attribute the end of the Battleship era to World War II.  That may be true, though Billy Mitchell’s and other’s work demonstrating air power in the post-war era make a case that the doom of the battlewagons came earlier.

What no one can deny is that the Great War was the last of the era where large fleets of battleships engaged each other Trafalgar-style.  There were smaller battles, like Dogger Bank, but both sides of the conflict believed that a massive fleet-to-fleet engagement would happen to determine the course of the war.  In the Great War, Battleships, battle cruisers, etc., were the nuclear weapons of their era — strategic weapons that allowed nations to press their influence around the globe.

The Great War at sea was anticipated to be a massive fleet-on-fleet slugfest which would determine the winner of the war.  It was disappointing in that.  Yes, Jutland was a massive engagement which historians still struggle to frame in terms of victory (don’t get me started here), but for the most part it was inconclusive.  While battleships would sail again in WWII, they would never engage in massive engagements on the scale of Jutland.

Combat photography plays a key role:

While photographs were taken in wars prior to the Great War, it was in this conflict that they were an integral part of military planning.  Observation aircraft equipped with cameras and observation balloons took photographs of the enemy positions which were used for planning operations, targeting artillery, etc..  World War One ushering in the age of aerial reconnaissance photography which continues today with satellites and drones.

The war established military command structures for managing alliances:

Managing allies in a campaign or on a battlefield is always complicated and tricky.  The Great War experimented with command structures which would be critical in later wars.  There were issues on both sides in coordinating with allies.  In some cases, such as Germany and Austro-Hungary, the coordination barely existed at all.  In the case of the Americans, there was a defiant stand to have the American Army not roll-up under a French command.  While command structures were far from perfected in WWI, it gave the participants the experience needed for the next phase of war – WWII.

The peace created a civil war in Germany:

The post-war era in Germany was one were factions used the left-over weapons of war to wage battles against competing political ideologies.   Germany and parts of Poland became embroiled in civil war(s) which drew in veterans to fight to protect their local communities rather than their nations.  While often ignored by historians, several years worth of fighting took place which served to further destabilize a fragmented Germany.

A fragmented Germany which would be an impetus for its reformation in the 1930’s:

The Treaty of Versailles split up Germany as a means of punishment and formed new states such as Poland.  It was a series of actions that were destined to be undone and provided Hitler with a rallying point to unify Germany under his Reich.

Balloons were a force in warfare:

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While countries dabbled in the use of balloons for observation prior to the Great War, WWI became the only war where balloons played a strategic role in warfare.  Balloons provided real-time information on troop positions and movements.  Balloon pilots could telegraph artillery bombardment adjustments immediately.  By the post-war period observation balloons had become antiquated as the role of aircraft increased.  But the first and only “balloon war” was WWI.

The Armenian genocide laid the foundation for the genocide in WWII:

Turkey began the slaughter of the Armenian people in 1915 in a fit of ethnic cleansing.  Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians in seven years of genocide.  The world stood by and did nothing.

As part of his formulation for the Final Solution in WWII, Hitler reportedly has said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The war created the personalities that were to lead the world:

The Great War was a breeding ground for the leaders, political and military, that would guide the outcome of the next war. The list that could go into this spot runs the gambit from Churchill to Hitler and Rommel to Patton.   The experiences of WWI became the fertilizer for an upcoming generation of leaders that would guide events into the later part of the 20th century – and beyond.

What ones have I missed?

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2 thoughts on “The Impact of the Great War

  1. microraptor

    Here’s one you missed: France met its end as one of the great military powers. France had more than 1.3 million casualties during the war. That’s more than the casualties that the US accumulated during the American Revolution, War of 1812, American Civil War, Mexican American War, Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the War on Terror combined.

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