Why the Great War of 1914-1918 really was a world war

I recently attended an evening seminar at the London School of Economics addressed by three LSE academics in international history: Dr Anthony Best who spoke about East Asia, Dr Paul Mulvey who addressed the British Empire, and Professor David Stevenson who considered the rest of the world.

Stevenson referred to an opinion poll which made it clear that most British people think of the First World War in narrow terms as between few nations (Britain, France and Germany) and in few locations (primarily the trenches of France and Belgium). The international; poll showed that, in the UK, fewer than half of the 1,081 people questioned were aware that North America and the Middle East played a part in the First World War, while less than a quarter realised that Africa and Asia were involved. 

At the time of the conflict, the British called it the Great War, but the Germans called in a world war from the beginning and after 1917 the Americans used the same terminology.

The number of belligerents was considerable. From the beginning, there was Germany. Austria, Russia, France, and Britain plus the colonies of these nations which, in the case of the British, included Canada, India, Australia & New Zealand. Later many other countries joined the fray: the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. In 1917, the USA, then China and finally Brazil  entered the war.

So, geographically there was a series of parallel wars. Besides the Western Front that dominates British recollections, there was the bloody Eastern Front with Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. There was a southern front between Italy and Austria. There was the allied fiasco in Gallipoli which resulted in as many casualties as the Battle of the Somme. There were engagements in Mesopotamia. The Middle East was a major area of conflict which included the Arab Revolt involving Lawrence of Arabua and the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. There were lots of deaths in Africa especially of Africans. The Japanese made ’21 demands’ on China.

Just how many countries were involved in the First World War is well brought out by the map on this Wikipedia page.

It was not just a land war either. Both the British and the Germans used large fleets to attempt a sea blockade of the other. Meanwhile air warfare increasingly developed.

This understanding of the global nature of the First World War is not just a matter of history. As Stevenson pointed out, the Versailles Peace Conference after the war created a series of unexploded bombs around the world: the issues that encouraged the rise of Nazism in Germany, as well as Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Rwanda, Burundi …


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