Total war

This article is about total warfare. For the computer game series see Total War.
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Total war describes an international war in which countries or nations use all of their resources to destroy another organized country's or nation's ability to engage in war. The practice of total war has been in use for centuries, but it was only in the middle to late nineteenth century that total war was recognized as a separate class of warfare. Total war is most easily distinguished from other forms of warfare through a blurring and combining of strategy and grand strategy.


Development of the concept of total war

There are several reasons for changing concept and 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 less 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.

This is also the same time when nations were fighting colonial wars. A country such as Britain would have no need to mobilize troops, or begin rationing at home when fighting a native enemy in Africa. But when Britain was fighting in the First World War (note that this was not necessarily a fight for her life), a different form of warfare was needed. As such, strategies (in the generic sense) were needed to adapt to this new grand strategy.

Additionally, this is the time when warfare was becoming more mechanized. A factory in a city would have more to do with warfare than it did before. 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.

Consequences of Total War

The most identifiable consequence of total war in modern times has been the inclusion of civilians and civilian infrastructure as targets in destroying a country's ability to engage in war. The targeting of civilians developed from two distinct theories. The first theory was that if enough civilians were killed, factories could not function. The second theory was that if civilians were killed, the country would be so demoralized that it would have no ability to wage further war.

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.

Another consequence was the expansion of the peace time military. A navy could not be built overnight, and it had to be large enough to fight any potential enemy. This led to the dreadnought arms race before World War I. To justify the huge expenditure, populations had to become accustomed to thinking of the most likely potential enemy, as an enemy, which helped to foster war hysteria and jingoism. Large standing armies for countries with land borders close to a potential enemy and strong navies for maritime powers were the only way to prevent defeat before the economy could be mobilized.

Post Total War

There has been a cessation of large decisive wars between industrialized nations since the end of World War II, because their ability to wage war on each other had become so destructive that the advantages to be won in such a war were more than offset by the losses which could be suffered. With nuclear weapons, the fighting of a war became something that instead of taking years, and the full mobilisation of a country's resources such as in World War II, would instead take hours and was developed and maintained with relatively modest peace time defence budgets. By the end of the 1950s, the super-power rivalry resulted in the development of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) in which a war could destroy civilisation and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths in a world where, in the words of Edward Heath, "The dying will envy the dead".

As the tensions between industrialized nations have diminished, European continental powers have for the first time in 200 years started to question if conscription is still necessary. Many are moving back to the pre-Napoleonic ideas of having small professional armies. This is something which despite the experiences of the first and second world wars is a model which the English speaking nations had never abandoned during peace time, probably because they have never had a common border with a potential enemy with a large standing army. In Admiral Jervis's famous phrase, "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea".

The cessation of total war has not led to the end of war involving industrial nations, but a shift back to the limited wars of the type fought between the competing European powers for much of the 19th century that could be summed up by the phrase The Great Game. During the Cold War, wars between industrialized nations were fought by proxy over national prestige, tactical strategic advantage or colonial and neocolonial resources. Examples include the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since the end of the Cold War, some industrialised countries have been involved in a number of small wars with strictly limited strategic objectives which have motives closer to those of the colonial wars of the 19th century than those of total war; examples include the Australian-led UN intervention in East Timor, the NATO intervention in Kosovo, the internal Russian conflict with Chechnya, and the American-led coalitions which invaded Afghanistan and twice fought the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

Examples of Total Warfare Strategies

Punic Wars

Punic Wars. During the Punic Wars, Rome and Carthage fought with navies and armies across several theaters. In the end, Rome destroyed the city-state of Carthage, and destroyed the empire's ability to wage war by enslaving or committing genocide on the Carthaginian populace.

Warring States China

During China's Warring States period, especially in the final nine years, the best example of total war prior to the French Revolution is to be found. The state of Qin used a Legalist system to effectively transform the entire nation into a vast machine of war with the sole aim of conquering its neighbours. Following the Battle of Changping in 260 BCE the Qin general ordered that 400,000 prisoners from the state of Zhao be executed. This became common practice for victorious Qin armies. The combination of ruthless offensives and a vast, well-supplied army made Qin almost invincible and this reveals the effectiveness of the total war method.

French Revolution

Following the French Revolution the fledgling republic found itself threatened by the most powerful coalition of European nations to have been formed at that point in history. 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 first advent of the levée en masse and the enormity of the French war effort is clearly demonstrated in the following decree of the National Convention on August 23, 1794:

"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."

American Civil War

US Army General William Tecumseh Sherman's 'March to the Sea' during the American Civil War destroyed the resources required for the South to make war. He is considered one of the first military commanders to deliberately, consciously and knowingly use total war as a military tactic.

Taiping Civil War

During the civil war (1850-1864) that followed the seccession of the Taiping Tianguo (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 Taiping Tianguo 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.

World War I

Almost the whole of Europe mobilized to conduct 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 decision on what to eat, 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 due to a lack of shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915 which brought down the Liberal British government under the Premiership of Henry 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 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 and women 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 for the first time and experience how the other half lived. Many went back to the cities with their social horizons broadened.


In contrast Germany started the war under the concept of Blitzkrieg. 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.

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 it was too late to help win the war. Germany's armament minister Albert Speer, who assumed office in early 1942, rationalized German war production and eliminated 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 undermobilized 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 (some of it slave labour) was used to augmented German industrial labour which was under pressure by conscription into the Wehrmacht (Armed Forces).

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union 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. As only those factories which were useful for war production were moved as it was a part of the total war commitment of the Soviet government.

During the siege of Leningrad, newly-built T-34 tanks were driven - unpainted due to 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 Rodina and even allowed the reopening of Russian Orthodox Churches as it was thought this would help the war effort.

The ruthless movement of national groupings like the Volga German and later the Crimean Tatars (who Stalin thought might be sympathetic to the Germans) was a development of the conventional scorched earth policy. This was a more extreme form of internment, implemented by both the UK government (for Axis aliens and British Nazi sympathisers), and the US government (for Japanese internment in the United States).

Descent into barbarism

The suspension of many of the rules of war on the Eastern Front during World War II coupled with an escalation in criminal actions caused human misery on a scale never seen before. Many actions which ignored the rules of war were initiated or at least condoned by the authorities on both sides . They argued that in such a clash of ideology (and for the Nazis coupled to a race war) that any methods in a total war which achieved victory over the enemy were justified.

The suspension of many of the rules of war in the Pacific and Asian Theatres [1] ( [2] ( [3] ( [4] ( of World War II particularly in the Sino-Japanese conflict, caused wide scale human misery. Many actions which ignored the rules of war were initiated or at least condoned by the Japanese authorities. [5] ( [6] (

Strategic bombing

Britain and Germany made a distinct attempt to destroy the other's ability to produce war materials. They did this by the use of strategic bombing campaigns upon each others' cities. When the United States entered the war, it executed similar campaigns against both Germany and Japan.

Unconditional surrender

After the United States entered World War II, President 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 allied war aim of unconditional surrender inevitably increased the determination and the ferocity of the defence of the Axis powers when they knew the war was lost.



  • "...There is another more obvious difference from 1914. The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women and children. The fronts are everywhere. The trenches are dug in the towns and streets. Every village is fortified. Every road is barred. The front line runs through the factories. the workmen are soldiers with different weapons but the same courage...". Winston Churchill on the Radio, June 18 ; and House of Commons 20 August, 1940.[7] (
  • "Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things." Written by Air Marshal Harris in a memo to the Air Ministry on 29 March 1945.
  • Chorus from a popular WWII British song:
It's a ticklish sort of job making a thing for a thing-ummy-bob
Especially when you don't know what it's for
But it's the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole
that holds the spring that works the thing-ummy-bob
that makes the engines roar.
And it's the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil
that oils the ring that works the thing-ummy-bob
that's going to win the war.
  • "Second thing is—and this concerns me a lot—no stages. This is a total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. And all this talk about, well, first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq, then we will take a look around and see how thing stand, that is entirely the wrong way to go about it. Because these guys all talk to each other and are all working with one another." – Michael Ledden 29 October, 2001, at a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute: The Battle for Ideas in the U.S. War on Terrorism (,eventID.364/transcript.asp) repeated by Richard Perle [8] (

See also

Conscription, Nation in armsde:Totaler Krieg hr:Totalni rat nl:Totale oorlog


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