‘Total War is as much a myth as total victory or total defeat’ 

Total War is believed by some, to be the culmination of all warfare that was to be achieved before and up until the end of the twentieth century. The concept of Total War itself, when victory is believed to be the only option, is achieved through every aspect of a nation being mobilised and covers a wide range of criteria that must be fulfilled before the criteria of Total War can be met. A country’s economy, technological development, organisation of state and manpower must all be committed to aid a war effort – as well as the war itself having wider repercussions such as political and social impact and a wide geographical spread.

Total War, therefore is very difficult to achieve as there are so many components that are expected to be fulfilled, hence why many feel there is strong validity for the argument that Total War is indeed a myth. Trying to define Total War in its entirety can be a challenging task due to the varying interpretations (that are mostly often down to personal opinion) of what defines Total War.

Chickering et al[1] (2005, p. 55) refers to the caution that must be taken when trying to give Total War a label ‘A variety of overly narrow or overly broad definitions are now in competition.’ this can create confusion over the definition within the Historical community and therefore makes it more difficult to know which interpretation of ‘Total war’ is being argued. Although extraordinary war efforts were demanded in some twentieth-century conflicts these often fail to meet all the criteria to substantiate the theory of ‘Total War.

’ The claim is that ‘Total war’ is a myth does seem a far stronger claim and counter arguments often seem to lack enough foundation to present a solid example of ‘Total War,’ making them in comparison unable to sustain their standpoint.

When looking for a first major example to support the argument that Total Warfare is a myth, there is the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars. These wars are a crucial illustration to the fact that ‘Total Warfare’ is too much of a difficult concept to ever truly achieve. The Napoleonic Wars provide probably the strongest example that could substantiate the claim, and yet still fall short. Carnot’s ‘Levee en Masse’ of France in 1973 was the first kind of conscription which resulted in the first instance of direct civilian involvement in war. This raised an army of over 1 million willing volunteers, bringing a new aspect to soldiering as these people were truly fighting for the cause and having a commitment to the war, all helping to create a strong argument towards ‘Total War.’ The Committee of Public Safety (CPS) established new weapons and transport factories as industry was nationalised to help the war effort. Although this may seem like steps towards ‘Total War’ the factories were manufacturing dated products. The CPS would have been better to use these to work on creating newer, more advanced technology to help gain the upper hand.

This makes technological development a key factor in disproving that the Napoleonic Wars can be used to justify the concept of ‘Total War.’ No advances were made in this time period with technology; weapons and transport were very backward and seemed archaic in comparison to some of the developments that had been occurring in the other aspects of warfare. Muskets and Bayonets were still the weapon of choice; however it was more the mass size and brute force of Napoleon’s army that meant these weapons didn’t totally fail. Bell[2] (2007 p.37) highlights the poor quality of the weaponry and how it was the capacity and skill of the army itself that created the success, ‘Muskets appeared and despite atrocious accuracy and cumbersome reloading procedures, gained effectiveness through such techniques as the infantry volley.’ This supports that there are some areas of the Napoleonic Wars that mean the war in general is unable to attain the claim that it is an example of ‘Total Warfare’ thus disproving one of the strongest cases that ‘Total War’ exists and so supporting the above claim that ‘Total War’ is indeed a myth.

Another aspect of Warfare which provides evidence for the view that the concept of Total War is a myth is the counterargument that wars may not begin as ‘total,’ but overtime, as a conflict escalates can become ‘total.’ When reflecting over the duration of a battle, it can sometimes be observed that the commitment to the battle and factors that may begin to affect those back home often present unexpected consequences, this meaning ‘Total War’ has come about via a natural progression. However the example of World War One which evolves from a calm beginning, (with low expectations in August 1914 that it would even last till Christmas) still shows how true ‘Total War’ does not exist. Although there was the involvement of the civilian, it was restricted to the role of a soldier, in a limited geographical area. Strachan[3] (2000, p. 348) states ‘the static fighting on the Western front, however awful, protected the civilian population from direct physical attack.’ This quote supports known factual evidence of where the trenches were situated and disproves any claim that World War One is a sound example of ‘Total War.’ Trench warfare was confined to France apart from a fragment in Messines, Belgium created by the British. In World War One, trenches were where the bulk of the fighting took place, when restricted to small, isolated areas this means geographically World War One had very little impact on those back home for many of the participating countries. Strachan[4] (2000 p. 361) also suggests that ‘the clash of ideas’ are the only true claim World War One has to being a ‘Total War’ and yet the resulting war aims of gaining land were not the original motives for the war beginning in the first place, making this a weak argument at best to support claims of the existence of ‘Total War’ between 1800-2000.

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