This analysis of Richard Bessel’s argument in ‘The First World War as Totality’ is centred on the concepts of the mythology and reality of the ‘front generation’1 and the social, economic and political implications of World War One as a total war.
The First World War was a conflict whose scale was inflated by the convergence of the industrial revolution, competing imperial and colonial ambitions and growing socio-political instability within continental Europe. The unprecedented size of the conflict meant that ‘in an age of war fought by industrial powers…civil society and the economy had to be harnessed completely’2 in order to meet the demands of the unprecedented size of the armies as well as the range of the battlefields. The totality of the conflict extended past socio-economic implications and also included the harnessing of popular imagination and societal ambition.
Richard Bessel writes of ‘two imaginations’3 which were a result of the First World War. The first of these being the cultural enthusiasm with which the outbreak of war in 1914 was received. Europe saw hundreds of thousands of men enlist voluntarily for the war effort, many guided by romantic, imperial notions of ‘fighting for King and Country’. This perception of a total enthusiasm and commitment to the war effort has, however, been challenged by some historians. Jean-Jacques Becker noted for example, that the French ‘reacted with much less enthusiasm than has often been alleged’4. Similarly the second of these two imaginations, that of the ‘front community’5 also relied on the oft mythologised view of war as a traditionally romantic undertaking. Such perceptions illustrate the totality of war in its effects on the common cultural psyche of nations. It was in this way that the First World War was a ‘mobilization of the population in a spiritual as well as a material sense’6.
The material aspects of total war arose from the integration of civilian economies with that of the war effort. In this case the ‘compression of war and society’7 was necessary to garner the resources…