‘Total War’ means that all resources of a nation (social, political, economic and cultural) are harnessed to the war effort

“Nowadays, there is no such animal as a non-combatant,” said Peter Strasse the commander of a Zeppelin bomber on the first bombing raid on London in 1915. The Germans saw that in Britain, there was not a single person who was not involved in the war effort, making them all legitimate targets. This would mean that the First World War was a Total War, but this is a very broad reaching statement. It is literally not possible for absolutely everything to be involved, but things certainly started to change to be that way.

These changes affected different people by varying amounts, some things for good and some for bad. It can be stated that these changes fall into distinct categories of social, economic, political, and cultural, but in actuality these all had great effects on each other. The social and cultural change of women going to work had large impacts on the political scene where they could now vote, for example. The role of the government within the war cannot be under emphasised, and it is to these that many of the items of change can be attributed, with the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) playing a crucial role in the entire war, particularly that on the home front.

DORA was introduced on 8th August 1914, giving the government far reaching powers over the country, adding significantly to the ways in which normal people were affected by the war and increasing their role in the war effort. One of the things that this enabled the government to do was to enact censorship and to use propaganda to show British forces in a better light. For example, C. F. G. Masterman was appointed the head of the British War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), in August 1914, and was responsible for publishing many articles particularly showing the frightfulness of the German Hun. In this respect, the war began to affect everyone, as it was now practically impossible to avoid the war, as the propaganda began to incite hatred of the Germans and create a desire to work for the country encouraged by government control of the media.

Propaganda was particularly successful in encouraging recruitment. As soon as Lord Kitchener was appointed war minister on 7th August 1914, one of the first things that he did was to begin a large recruiting campaign, which resulted in an average of 33,000 men joining the armed forces every day, into what became known as Kitchener’s Army. Unfortunately, this was unable to sustain a high enough level of enrolment, and so on January 25th, 1916 the first Military Service Act was introduced, which brought in conscription for single men, aged between 18 and 40. This was further extended on May 16th, 1916 to include married men of the same age.

Conscription and national service extended so far that by the end of the war, nearly every family in Britain had lost someone, adding to the idea that this was a total war. This even included those working in reserved occupations, such as merchant seamen, who experienced a terribly difficult time working in the convoys to bring across vital supplies to the British people. There job was so tough, that voluntary, and then enforced rationing had to be introduced as the importation of food into the country fell so low. It should of course be remembered that whilst this great recruitment of men, was a major change, a number of people still signed up voluntarily. For example, great patriotism was experienced, which continued throughout the war, strengthened by propaganda building upon air raids upon London, and the famous “Remember Scarborough” posters after the sea assault on the coastal town in December 1914.

It was not however only the armed forces that adapted to the new war, but the government as well. One important change that affected everybody was that a coalition government was formed in May 1915. This effectively removed a lot of democracy from Britain, and allowed the government to function better, with far less bureaucracy. Yet, the country was still lead by a prime minister, first Henry Asquith and then David Lloyd George. The coalition government gave the politicians much greater power, which allowed them to utilise DORA fully, to bring industry in line with the new total war.

In 1915, Britain experienced a major munitions crisis, which meant that the government had to introduce the Munitions of War Act in May. This gave them control over Munitions factories, and like in 1914 with coalmines, they prevented privately owned factories from being run for profit. This was achieved by placing heavy taxes of up to 80% on profits. By doing this, they were able to both increase the amount of money in the budget, and by setting up of their own factories, more munitions were made. The new factories employed mainly women, which had a crucial bearing on other social and cultural aspects of the war.

In order to be able to afford the war, the government doubled income tax and super tax in 1915, and increased the duty of beer to 17s 3d per barrel. This affected everyone, as everybody now was paying for the war effort, which added to the amount that the Chancellor of the Exchequer rose through an initial war loan of �350,000,000. Due to the sinking of food convoys in the Atlantic by German U-Boats, food shortages became even more severe. Eventually, in November 1917, voluntary rationing was introduced in London and the South East, which only led to longer queues and higher food prices. This rationing became compulsory on 25th February 1918, and it was then extended across the remainder of country in April. This affected everyone, as not even the upper classes could get more food than they were allowed, adding to the concept of total war.


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