Total war

Total war

Total war is a conflict of unlimited scope in which a belligerent engages in a total mobilization of all available resources at his disposal, whether human, industrial, agricultural, military, natural, technological, or otherwise, in order to entirely destroy or render beyond use his rival's capacity to continue resistance. The practice of total war has been in use for centuries, but it was only in the middle to late 19th century that total war was identified by scholars as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, there is less differentiation between combatants and non-combatants (civilians) than in previous conflicts, as nearly every person from a particular country, civilians and soldiers alike, can be considered to be part of this belligerent war effort.

Conceptual development

The concept of total war is usually traced back to Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz was actually concerned with the related philosophical concept of absolute war, a war free from any political constraints, which Clausewitz held was impossible. The two terms, absolute war and total war, are often confused. Christopher Bassford, professor of strategy at the National War College, describes the difference: "Clausewitz's concept of absolute war is quite distinct from the later concept of 'total war.' Total war was a prescription for the actual waging of war typified by the ideas of General Erich Ludendorff, who actually assumed control of the German war effort during World War I. Total war in this sense involved the total subordination of politics to the war effort—an idea Clausewitz emphatically rejected—and the assumption that total victory or total defeat were the only options."

Indeed, it is General Erich Ludendorff during World War I (and in his 1935 book "Total War") who first reversed the formula of Clausewitz, calling for total war - the complete mobilization of all resources, including policy and social systems, to the winning of war.

There are several reasons for the changing concept and for the recognition of total war in the nineteenth century. The main reason is industrialization. As countries' natural and capital resources grew, it became clear that some forms of conflict demanded more resources than others. For example, if the United States were to subdue a Native American tribe in an extended campaign lasting years, it still took much fewer resources than waging a month of war during the American Civil War. Consequently, the greater cost of warfare became evident. An industrialized nation could distinguish and then choose the intensity of warfare that it wished to engage in.

Additionally, this is the time when warfare was becoming more mechanized. A factory in a city would have more to do with warfare than in peace time. The factory itself would become a target, because it contributed to the war effort. It follows as well that the factory's workers would also be targets.

There is no single definition of total war, but there is general agreement among historians that the First World War and Second World War were both examples. A large number of historians consider the American Civil War to be the earliest example, although some consider the wars of German unification the first, and others pick other starting points. Since the concept emerged gradually, however, there is no truly definite answer.

Thus, definitions do vary, but most hold to the spirit offered by Roger Chickering's definition in Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914: "Total war is distinguished by its unprecedented intensity and extent. Theaters of operations span the globe; the scale of battle is practically limitless. Total war is fought heedless of the restraints of morality, custom, or international law, for the combatants are inspired by hatreds born of modern ideologies. Total war requires the mobilization not only of armed forces but also of whole populations. The most crucial determinant of total war is the widespread, indiscriminate, and deliberate inclusion of civilians as legitimate military targets."

By definition, total war also resulted in the mobilization of the home front. Propaganda became a required component of total war in order to boost production and maintain morale. Rationing took place to provide more material for waging war.

Early history

The first documented total war was the Peloponnesian War, as described by the historian Thucydides. This war was fought between Athens and Sparta between 431 and 404 BC. Previously, Greek warfare was a limited and ritualized form of conflict. Armies of hoplites would meet on the battlefield and decide the outcome in a single day. During the Peloponnesian War, however, the fighting lasted for years and consumed the economic resources of the participating city-states. Atrocities were committed on a scale never before seen, with entire populations being executed or sold into slavery, as in the case of the island of Melos (now known as Milos). The aftermath of the war reshaped the Greek world, left much of the region in poverty, and reduced once influential Athens to a weakened state, from which it never completely recovered.

Rome also practiced total war particularly in the 'barbarian' western provinces, an example is the Battle of Mons Graupius where the Roman Army butchered the Caledonian army and the women and children who had also come to watch the battle. This subdued the region but the Emperor of the time became wary of the general Agricola and ordered him to withdraw and return to Rome.

The Thirty Years War may also be considered a total war. This conflict was fought between 1618 and 1648, primarily on the territory of modern Germany. Virtually all of the major European powers were involved, and the economy of each was based around fighting the war. Civilian populations were devastated. Estimates of civilian casualties are approximately 25-30%, with deaths due to a combination of armed conflict, famine, and disease. The size and training of armies also grew dramatically during this period, as did the cost of keeping armies in the field. Plunder was commonly used to pay and feed armies.

18th and 19th Centuries

French Revolution

The French Revolution introduced some of the concepts of total war. The fledgling republic found itself threatened by a powerful coalition of European nations. The only solution, in the eyes of the Jacobin government, was to pour the nation's entire resources into an unprecedented war effort - this was the advent of the levée en masse. The following decree of the National Convention on August 23, 1793 clearly demonstrates the enormity of the French war effort:

Following the August 23 decree French front line forces grew to some 800,000 with a total of 1.5 million in all services — the first time an army in excess of a million had been mobilized in Western history. Over the coming two decades of almost constant warfare it is estimated that somewhere in the vicinity of five million died — probably about half of them civilians — and France alone counted nearly a million (by some sources in excess of a million) deaths — a considerably higher portion of its population than perished in either of the world wars. In the Russian campaign of 1812 Adam Zamoyski estimates almost a million died — this in under 6 months of fighting. In this campaign the Russians resorted to destroying infrastructure and agriculture in their retreat in order to hamper the French and strip them of adequate supplies. In the campaign of 1813 Allied forces in the German theater alone amounted to nearly one million whilst two years later in the Hundred Days a French decree called for the total mobilization of some 2.5 million men (though at most a fifth of this was managed by the time of the French defeat at Waterloo). During the prolonged Peninsular War from 1808–1814 some 300,000 French troops were kept permanently occupied by, in addition to several hundred thousand Spanish, Portuguese and British regulars an enormous and sustained guerrilla insurgency — ultimately French deaths would amount to 300,000 in the Peninsular War alone.

Taiping Rebellion

During the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) that followed the secession of the Tàipíng Tiānguó (太平天國, Wade-Giles T'ai-p'ing t'ien-kuo) (Heavenly Kingdom of Perfect Peace) from the Qing empire the first instance of total war in modern China can be seen. Almost every citizen of the Tàipíng Tiānguó was given military training and conscripted into the army to fight against the imperial forces.

During this conflict both sides tried to deprive each other of the resources to continue the war and it became standard practice to destroy agricultural areas, butcher the population of cities and in general exact a brutal price from captured enemy lands in order to drastically weaken the opposition's war effort. This war truly was total in that civilians on both sides participated to a significant extent in the war effort and in that armies on both sides waged war on the civilian population as well as military forces. In total between 20 and 50 million died in the conflict making it bloodier than the First World War and possibly bloodier than the Second World War as well if the upper end figures are accurate.

American Civil War

General Phillip Sheridan's stripping of the Shenandoah Valley starting from September 21 1864 and continuing for two weeks was considered "total war" in that its purpose was to eliminate foodstuffs and supplies vital to the South's war plans. Sheridan took the opportunity when he realized opposing forces had become too weak to resist his army.

US Army General William Tecumseh Sherman's 'March to the Sea' in November/December 1864 destroyed the resources required for the South to make war. Sherman is considered one of the first military commanders to deliberately and consciously use total war as a military strategy. General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln initially opposed the plan until Sherman convinced them of its necessity. it was just a plan to destroy ever thing that would help the confederacy even stay in the war

20th Century

World War I

Almost the whole of Europe mobilized to wage World War I. Young men were removed from production jobs, and were replaced by women. Rationing occurred on the home fronts.

One of the features of Total War in Britain was the use of propaganda posters to divert all attention to the War on the home front. Posters were used to influence people's decisions about what to eat and what occupations to take (Women were used as nurses and in munitions factories), and to change the attitude of support towards the war effort.

After the failure of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the large British offensive in March 1915, the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French claimed that it failed because of a lack of shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915 which brought down the Liberal British government under the Premiership of H. H. Asquith. He formed a new coalition government dominated by Liberals and appointed Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front.

As young men left the farms for the front, domestic food production in Britain and Germany fell. In Britain the response was to import more food, which was done despite the German introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, and to introduce rationing. The Royal Navy's blockade of German ports prevented Germany from importing food, and the Germans failed to introduce food rationing. German capitulation was hastened in 1918 by the worsening food crises in Germany.

World War II

The Second World War is considered the quintessential total war of modernity. The sheer - indeed, total - level of national mobilization of resources on all sides of the conflict, the immense battlespace being contested, the massive scale of the armies, navies, and air forces raised through conscription, the active targeting of civilians (and civilian property), the general disregard for collateral damage, and the unrestricted aims of the belligerents marked the full and, to the present, final realization of the concept of total war.

Shōwa Japan

During the first part of the Shōwa era, the governments of Imperial Japan launched a string of policies to promote total war effort against China or occidental powers and increase industrial production. Among these were the National Spiritual Mobilization Movement, the League of Diet Members Believing the Objectives of the Holy War and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association .

The National Mobilization Law had fifty clauses, which provided for government controls over civilian organizations (including labor unions), nationalization of strategic industries, price controls and rationing, and nationalized the news media. The laws gave the government the authority to use unlimited budgets to subsidize war production, and to compensate manufacturers for losses caused by war-time mobilization. Eighteen of the fifty articles outlined penalties for violators.

To improve its production, Shōwa Japan used millions of slave labourers and pressed more than 18 million people in Far East Asia.

United Kingdom

Before the onset of the Second World War, the United Kingdom drew on its First World War experience to prepare legislation that would allow immediate mobilization of the economy for war, should future hostilities break out.

Rationing of most goods and services was introduced, not only for consumers but also for manufacturers. This meant that factories manufacturing products that were irrelevant to the war effort had more appropriate tasks imposed. All artificial light was subject to legal blackouts.

Not only were men conscripted into the armed forces from the beginning of the war (something which had not happened until the middle of World War I), but women were also conscripted as Land Girls to aid farmers and the Bevin Boys were conscripted to work down the coal mines.

Huge casualties were expected in bombing raids, so children were evacuated from London and other cities en masse to the countryside for compulsory billeting in households. In the long term this was one of the most profound and longer-lasting social consequences of the whole war for Britain. This is because it mixed up children with the adults of other classes. Not only did the middle and upper classes become familiar with the urban squalor suffered by working class children from the slums, but the children got a chance to see animals and the countryside, often for the first time, and experience rural life.

The use of statistical analysis, by a branch of science which has become known as Operational Research to influence military tactics was a departure from anything previously attempted. It was a very powerful tool but it further dehumanised war particularly when it suggested strategies which were counter intuitive. Examples where statistical analysis directly influenced tactics include the work done by Patrick Blackett's team on the optimum size and speed of convoys and the introduction of bomber streams by the Royal Air Force to counter the night fighter defences of the Kammhuber Line.


In contrast, Germany started the war under the concept of Blitzkrieg. Officially, it did not accept that it was in a total war until Joseph Goebbels' Sportpalast speech of 18 February 1943. For example, women were not conscripted into the armed forces or allowed to work in factories. The Nazi party adhered to the policy that a woman's place was in the home, and did not change this even as its opponents began moving women into important roles in production. The commitment to the doctrine of the short war was a continuing handicap for the Germans; neither plans nor state of mind were adjusted to the idea of a long war until the failure of the operation Barbarossa. A major strategical defeat in the Battle of Moscow forced Albert Speer, who appointed a Germany's armament minister in early 1942, to nationalize German war production and eliminate the worst inefficiencies. Under his direction a threefold increase in armament production occurred and did not reach its peak until late 1944. To do this during the damage caused by the growing strategic Allied bomber offensive, is an indication of the degree of industrial under-mobilization in the earlier years. It was because the German economy through most of the war was substantially under-mobilized that it was resilient under air attack. Civilian consumption was high during the early years of the war and inventories both in industry and in consumers' possession were high. These helped cushion the economy from the effects of bombing. Plant and machinery were plentiful and incompletely used, thus it was comparatively easy to substitute unused or partly used machinery for that which was destroyed. Foreign labour, both slave labour and labour from neighbouring countries who joined the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, was used to augment German industrial labour which was under pressure by conscription into the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces).

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union (USSR) was a command economy which already had an economic and legal system allowing the economy and society to be redirected into fighting a total war. The transportation of factories and whole labour forces east of the Urals as the Germans advanced across the USSR in 1941 was an impressive feat of planning. Only those factories which were useful for war production were moved because of the total war commitment of the Soviet government.

The Eastern Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed the conflict in central and eastern Europe from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945. It was the largest theatre of war in history in terms of numbers of soldiers, equipment and casualties and was notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, and immense loss of life. The fighting involved millions of German and Soviet troops along a broad front hundreds of kilometres long. It was by far the deadliest single theatre of World War II. Scholars now believe that as many as 27 million Soviet citizens died during the war, including some 8.7 million soldiers who fell in battle against Hitler's armies or died in POW camps. Millions of civilians died from starvation, exposure, atrocities, and massacres.

During the battle of Leningrad, newly-built T-34 tanks were driven - unpainted because of a paint shortage - from the factory floor straight to the front. This came to symbolise the USSR's commitment to the Great Patriotic War and demonstrated the government's total war policy.

To encourage the Russian people to work harder, the communist government encouraged the people's love of the Motherland and even allowed the reopening of Russian Orthodox Churches as it was thought this would help the war effort.

United States

The United States underwent total mobilization of all national resources for the Second World War. Conditions on the home front were not nearly as bad as they were in Great Britain and Russia, but, still, the United States pushed itself to the limits of civilian comfort in its prosecution of the Second World War.

The strategists of the U.S. military looked abroad at the storms brewing on the horizon in Europe and Asia, and began quietly making contingency plans as early as the mid-1930s; new weapons and weapons platforms were designed, and made ready. Following the outbreak of war in Europe, and the metastasis of the ongoing aggression in Asia, efforts were stepped up significantly. The collapse of France and the airborne aggression directed at Great Britain scared Americans, who had close relations with both nations, and a peacetime draft was instituted, along with Lend-Lease programs to aid the British, and covert aid was passed to the Chinese as well. American public opinion was still opposed to involvement in the problems of Europe and Asia, however. In 1941, the Soviet Union became the latest nation to be invaded, and the U.S. gave her aid as well. American ships began defending aid convoys to the Allied nations against submarine attacks, as well as placing an oil embargo on the Empire of Japan to force her to choose between her appetite for Chinese blood and treasure, or her need for petroleum to support and carry out her conquest.

Seemingly in response to the American embargo, the Empire of Japan launched a massive sneak attack on U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, in an effort to stem the only naval force (not otherwise committed to war) capable of preventing her from taking the islands of Indonesia, which held rich petroleum deposits. The U.S. declared war on the Empire of Japan the next day. Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, along with their junior partner, Fascist Italy; the U.S. consequently declared war on both.

As the United States began to gear up for a major war, information and propaganda efforts were set in motion. Civilians (including children) were encouraged to take part in fat, grease and scrap metal collection drives. Factories making non-essential goods retooled for war production. Workers commonly worked 60 to 80 hour weeks; as much as double the normal shift load. Strict systems of rationing were introduced, most colleges were closed, and youth were encouraged to put high school on hold until the end of the war. Levels of industrial productivity previously unheard of were attained during the war; multi-thousand-ton convoy ships were routinely built in a few days and tanks poured out of the former automobile factories. Within a few years of the U.S. entry into the Second World War, nearly every man fit for service, between 18 and 30, had been conscripted into the military "for the duration" of the conflict.

Previously untouched sections of the nation mobilized for the war effort. Academics became technocrats; home-makers became bomb-makers (massive numbers of women worked in heavy industry during the war); union leaders and businessmen became commanders in the massive armies of production. The great scientific communities of the United States were mobilized as never before, and mathematicians, doctors, engineers, and chemists turned their minds to the problems ahead of them. By the war's end a multitude of advances had been made in medicine, physics, engineering, and the other sciences. Even the theoretical physicists whose theories were not believed to have military applications were invited to the Western deserts to work there on military projects.

By the war's end, the United States, relatively undamaged in the course of the war, had become one of the world's leading powers.

Unconditional surrender

After the United States entered World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared at Casablanca conference to the other Allies and the press that unconditional surrender was the objective of the war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Prior to this declaration, the individual regimes of the Axis Powers could have negotiated an armistice similar to that at the end of World War I and then a conditional surrender when they perceived that the war was lost.

The unconditional surrender of the major Axis powers caused a legal problem at the post-war Nuremberg Trials, because the trials appeared to be in conflict with Articles 63 and 64 of the Geneva Convention of 1929. Usually if such trials are held, they would be held under the auspices of the defeated power's own legal system as happened with some of the minor Axis powers, for example in the post World War II Romanian People's Tribunals. To circumvent this, the Allies argued that the major war criminals were captured after the end of the war, so they were not prisoners of war and the Geneva Conventions did not cover them. Further the collapse of the Axis regimes created a legal condition of total defeat (debellatio) so the provisions of the 1907 Hague Conventions over military occupation were not applicable.

Postwar Era

Since the end of World War II, no industrial nations have fought such a large, decisive war, due to the availability of weapons that are so destructive that their use would offset the advantages of victory. The fighting of a total war where nuclear weapons are used is something that instead of taking years and the full mobilisation of a country's resources such as in World War II, would instead take tens of minutes. Such weapons are developed and maintained with relatively modest peace time defence budgets.

By the end of the 1950s, the ideological stand-off of the Cold War between the Western World and the Soviet Union involved thousands of nuclear weapons being aimed at each side by the other. Strategically, the equal balance of destructive power possessed by each side situation came to be known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the idea that a nuclear attack by one superpower would result in nuclear counter-strike by the other. This would result in hundreds of millions of deaths in a world where, in words widely attributed to Nikita Khrushchev, "The living will envy the dead".

During the Cold War, the Superpowers sought to avoid open conflict between their respective forces, as both sides recognized that such a clash could very easily escalate, and quickly involve nuclear weapons. Instead, the superpowers fought each other through their involvement in proxy wars, military buildups, and diplomatic standoffs.

In the case of proxy wars, each superpower supported its respective allies in conflicts with forces aligned with the other superpower, such as in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

See also



  • David A. Bell. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, (2007)
  • Eric Markusen and David Kopf; The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century, (1995) online edition
  • Mark E. Neely Jr.; "Was the Civil War a Total War?" Civil War History, Vol. 50, 2004 online edition
  • Daniel E. Sutherland and Grady McWhiney; The Emergence of Total War, (1998) US Civil War online edition

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