The Industrialisation of War

Industrialisation of War

Industry and warfare have always been connected; since the earliest battles it took specialised craftsmen to make weapons, and populations to feed armies. But it wasn’t until World War One that a belligerent power engaged in ‘Total War’ – the complete mobilisation of its population and industrial bases.

So how did this change come about? The answer is not as simple as you might think…

Throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history, the industrial basis of war remained relatively minor – steel and armour did not ordinarily need to be replaced, and could be picked up from the fallen on the battlefield.

Even in the 7 Years War of the 18th century, which involved Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines, the Prussians, for example, spent just 1% of their budget on munitions.

It wasn’t until World War One – the first true ‘Total War’ – that a belligerent power engaged in the complete mobilisation of its population, resources and industrial bases. Here are three key factors leading up to the change.

1. Patriotism and the French Revolution

The roots of industrialised total war can be found in the 1789 French Revolution where conscripted citizen armies were backed by the population who suffered similar privations to the men on the front line.  This idea grew throughout the 19th century, culminating in the middle of the First World War.

So while there were some anti-war debates and protests (out of a population of 46 million, there were just 16,000 British conscientious objectors), the belief that the war was ‘worth winning for their country’ prevailed and the vast majority of citizens supported it, either on the front lines or at home. This concept may be difficult to understand now, but Europe in the late 19th century was widely characterised by high levels of patriotism and a general support of the social hierarchies; the class system and general patriotic attitude kept the war in continuation.

2. Massive industrial development

The massive developments in industry during the 19th century led to changes in military practice as well, developments in metallurgy, railways and chemicals all fed into the new European armies. The Prussian army’s policy of using conscripts was continued in the newly unified Germany after 1871 and this in turn was copied by the other European powers. Britain, however, relied on naval supremacy and retained a small professional army of volunteers (including the largest volunteer army in history; the Indian army!).

Yet, Britain was the exception to the rule and all the major powers were able to field large bodies of men in a short space of time in the event of war. The balance of power in Europe was controlled by the two major alliances between France and Russia (and Britain in the ‘entente cordiale’) on the one hand, and German, Austria-Hungary and Italy on the other. Italy’s role became neutral in 1914, but the pre-war allegiances were still an important matter in the build up to war by increasing the amount of men each side could field.

3. Failures in communication

Despite the advances in firepower and armament technology, communications had failed to keep up; wireless transmitters were too bulky to be of practical use in the field, motor vehicles were still in their infancy and unreliable off road and the roads beyond railheads were in bad condition.

These factors all added to what became the stalemate of the Western Front, coupled with the fact that in 1914 the tactics had not yet been devised for fully industrialised armies to break the stalemate as happened in 1918. Yet it was the century of industrialisation coupled with a sense of purpose and duty that meant millions of men were kept under arms on the Western Front until those problems were solved.

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Written by Alex Sotheran

Alex Sotheran completed an MA at the University of Birmingham in British First World War Studies and has spent over ten years working on First World War sites in Britain, France and Belgium as a Battlefield Archaeologist for, No-Man’s-Land (the European Group for Great War Archaeology) and the Somme Association of Northern Ireland.

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